Few deny that Santa Barbara City Council’s unanimous vote on Tuesday approving plans for a new crosstown bicycle boulevard along Sola Street will make cycling safer for inexperienced riders. Touted as “transformational” by proponents, it should have been cause for celebration. But instead, the Historic Landmarks Commission (HLC) and its supporters dominated the council meeting, accusing high-ranking transportation city planners of strong-arm tactics. They, in turn, were accused of “historical elitism” and promoting “colonialist aesthetics” by at least one councilmember and several bicycle advocates.
Sparking this intense debate were two traffic-engineering devices known as diverters. According to traffic planner Rob Dayton and engineer Derrick Bailey, diverters are key to reducing traffic along Sola so that novice riders will feel safe. The new bike lane will start on the Westside, cross the Micheltorena Street Bridge, dogleg down Castillo Street one block, turn left on Sola, and ultimately spill out — after a crosstown ramble — by Santa Barbara High School.
Two diverters, one where Sola crosses De la Vina, another at Santa Barbara Street, will “force” motorists to turn right because of street alterations, trees planted in a new median, curb extensions, concrete planter boxes, and two tall concrete tongues that will divert motorists out of the left-hand lane. And yes, these intersections will be slathered in the bright-green paint that one member of the HLC warned would make Sola look like a miniature golf course.
Members of the HLC, the best known of the city’s many design review boards and perhaps its most confrontational, objected that the plan was ugly and just plain goofy. The trees would block mountain views and would “visually and functionally disrupt the historic Santa Barbara grid and the traffic.”
From the first hearing, held January 20, city lawyers and planners accused the HLC of exceeding its legal “purview” as defined in the city charter. The commissioners could discuss the color and pattern of the proposed brick pavers — not to mention trees, shrubs, and landscaping — but not the “functionality” of the diverters. Rather than prolong the misery of conversation that was clearly leading nowhere, they requested at the end of the meeting that he HLC deny the project so they could appeal directly to the City Council. (To delay, they argued, put in peril the $4.4 million state grant that will fund the project’s construction, which, according to Dayton, had to be signed by June.)
HLC members accused Dayton of playing “the nuclear option,” and Councilmember Kristen Sneddon agreed. “This seems to me really not in good faith,” she charged, noting that Dayton waited until right before the grant deadline to go before the HLC — and that this was the third time in five months that Dayton had gone around the HLC. (Dayton insisted he has nothing but respect for the HLC.)
And why, Councilmember Eric Friedman asked, was the project named the Westside Community Paseos Project? Why not something that the general public could understand, such as the Sola Street Bike Lane? The answer, it turned out, was a name suggested by a public relations consultant hired by the city for an undisclosed fee.
Councilmember Michael Jordan, however, dismissed HLC’s issues as “lacking in merit” and tantamount to “historical elitism.” One alt-transit advocate dismissed the HLC’s aesthetics as being “rooted in a history of inequity and injustice.” Another accused the commissioners of upholding “a colonialist aesthetic” and questioned why they were not equally offended by essential workers being forced to ride their bikes to work on unsafe roads.
Councilmember Meagan Harmon — who represents the district through which much of the bike lane traverses — was caught in what she termed two laudable agendas. “This should not be an either-or. This should be a win-win.”
The final vote was 7-0 in favor of city traffic planners, but another 7-0 vote assigned two HLC members to provide aesthetic input on the design plans.
Some may complain that the Historic Landmarks Commission is where good ideas go to die, Friedman said, but it’s played an essential role protecting Santa Barbara’s iconic architectural style. “Piece by piece, it will be gone before we know it,” he warned.
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