Santa Barbara City Councilmembers Kristen Sneddon (L) and Meagan Harmon | Credit: Courtesy

Intoxicated by an urgent sense of transformational possibility — or perhaps delusions of grandeur — the Santa Barbara City Council voted unanimously to create a new 17-member advisory committee charged with nothing less than charting the future of State Street and downtown Santa Barbara over the next 100 years. In so doing, the council rebuffed entreaties by city staff to limit the commission size to a manageable number, something less than 10. Instead, the councilmembers opted for a size far more expansive and inclusive — 17 — acknowledging that so doing might make its job considerably harder.

Leading the charge for this bigger, broader, more expansive approach were councilmembers Kristen Sneddon, Meagan Harmon, and Oscar Gutierrez, all of whom served on the short-lived State Street Subcommittee which gave rise to this more ambitious push for a major master planning effort.

Sneddon has been particularly concerned about the onslaught of new downtown projects emerging in the absence of any cohesive master plan, particularly one that would dramatically reconfigure De la Guerra Plaza and another the downtown library plaza. Then there has been the improvisational manner with which the State Street Promenade has evolved during the pandemic, and the number of developers interested in building multi-use housing downtown. And, of course, the unanswered question: what to do with the empty old Macy’s and Nordstrom buildings?

“This is our moment for high-level visioning,” Sneddon declared. Harmon stated, “The point is to be truly transformational,” adding, “Let’s open it up to high level community thinkers.” Councilmember Gutierrez argued that the process “should be the most inclusive, the most dramatic, and should have as many people at the table.”

Fueling all this fervor is a long-festering concern that tourists and residents no longer find State Street particularly relevant. Speaking with an evangelical fire, city planner Rob Dayton said State Street should be the place “where memories are made, the spine of downtown, and the defining place of Santa Barbara’s identity.”

Councilmembers quickly agreed that they wanted as many stakeholders sitting at the table as practically — and even impractically — feasible. Where Dayton wanted two councilmembers, the council opted for three. Where Dayton wanted two members of the Planning Commission and two from the Historic Landmarks Commission, the council opted for just one each. The council — pushed by Councilmember Michael Jordan — opted to set aside three seats for representatives of the downtown business- and property-owning community. The other seven seats would be selected by the council from the community at large, though with a keen eye for representatives of the performing arts community, the nonprofit world, and the alternative transportation universe. Another two would be selected to serve as alternates.

“This will take a little more time and will be a lot more work,” commented Harmon. “But is it worth it? Absolutely.” The task promises to be grueling, with no clear end in sight. It’s not even clear what the exact parameters of the new commission’s focus will be. On paper, it appears the boundaries are from the freeway to Sola Street and from Chapala to Anacapa.

But when Jordan questioned why it didn’t extend to the Funk Zone or to the waterfront itself, Dayton acknowledged there were serious “connectivity” issues to be studied. Harmon was not daunted. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she declared. “We’re talking about change to our downtown that will define the next 100 years.”

After selecting which members of the council, the Planning Commission, and the Historic Landmarks Commission will serve, the recruiting and selection process for qualified applicants will begin. Based on similar solicitations, most councilmembers said they expect to confront an overabundance of qualified, compelling candidates. Then, the fun begins in earnest. 


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