The Saga of the Historic Landmarks Commission and Bike Share

It's Not the Color, It's the Locations

Credit: Courtesy the Santa Barbara Conservancy

As the vice-chair of the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission (HLC), I feel as if Cameron Gray, author of a Voice shaming the HLC, and I attended different HLC meetings. It’s hard to know, since our meetings are virtual — he can see my face on the screen, but I can’t see his. The minutes of the meetings clearly reflect that we did not find “the entire bikeshare project incompatible with El Pueblo Viejo,” nor did we mandate that the docks had to be a specific color, and we were amenable to accepting the black color as presented.

It’s really disappointing that more effort wasn’t put into understanding the purview of the HLC and reflecting the discussion at the two prior reviews at HLC prior to the ultimate motion for a denial. I can only go on the information given to us at the meetings, and what I learn through others. But in brief, it goes like this:

Long before the pandemic, the City Council approved the bike-share program and the contract with BCycle. In February of this year, the Downtown Parking Committee was advised by senior staff that “locations for the docks will need to be identified, studied, and approved by the Historic Landmarks Commission … ” This is consistent with the responsibilities of the HLC as laid out in the City of Santa Barbara Municipal Code, and each commissioner is individually appointed by the City Council to uphold these responsibilities.

If, as the op-ed suggests, council authorized staff to determine the locations without HLC approval, this is the first I’m hearing of this. From staff making the presentation, from HLC staff, or from anyone. Over three hearings. We hold the city staff to the same standards of presentation as we would hold any other applicant.

Image used by permission of Santa Barbara Conservancy

Our purview is solely the aesthetics of El Pueblo Viejo, the historic core of Santa Barbara. When the State Street Plaza was redone years ago with new brick paving and landscaping, we reviewed and approved the location and design of every bench, newspaper rack, fountain, planter, and recycling container. The article laments that the HLC gave no consideration of climate action goals and clean transportation and that we failed to acknowledge the pandemic, the fire season, and racial inequality. While indeed some of that was acknowledged in discussion, the point is that those issues are outside of our purview and an inappropriate basis for findings we are required to make to approve an application. Our meetings are long enough already!

Speaking on my own behalf, and not presuming to speak for the whole of the Commission, I was fine with the black color. There were suggestions made for modifications to bring the bike docks more into compliance with El Pueblo Viejo’s Design Guidelines, but we were advised that any modifications, including changing the color, would be an additional expense that would have to be borne by the city. As one commissioner deadpanned, it reminded one of Henry Ford’s famous quote about the Model T, “You can have any color you want, as long as it’s black.”

My biggest issue is that the BikeShare program was conceived and agreed to before the pandemic, back when State Street served both cars and bikes, and pedestrians stayed on the sidewalks. Hundreds of these bike docks are proposed on State Street sidewalks, and it seems only prudent in light of the pandemic and the closure of State Street to cars, that we back up and rethink whether this is the best location for bike docks. We have never objected to the program, per se, and made numerous suggestions as to alternate solutions. Yet staff returned three times, with no change whatsoever to their proposal. And when we learned that there was documented acknowledgement in the minutes of a city committee that HLC would need to review and approve the locations, but staff was unwilling to present a set of plans showing proposed locations, resentment grew that we were being forced to rubber-stamp their plan. Absent any concessions on the part of staff, denial seemed the only option.

We remain open and receptive to further discussion with staff and are also disappointed and saddened that we felt we had no alternative to deny. We agree with the author of the article about the importance of a livable climate and clean transportation, but to “reflect on our role and obligation to facilitate climate action” is not part of the description of our purview. So please, let’s sit down and discuss, rather than assail us for abdicating our responsibility to our community.

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