Poodle Revisits Santa Barbara’s Future: Past Is Prologue

The Battle of State Street Ain’t No Walk in the Parklet

Former mayors Sheila Lodge and Hal Conklin. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

THE FUTURE WAS THEN:  I stumbled onto some hilariously old notes a few months back as the Independent shut down its Figueroa Street digs in response to COVID. They dated back to 1992 and were all about an insane proposal to close down State Street to automobile traffic and open it up to pedestrians. Leading the charge for at least thinking about this were former mayors Sheila Lodge and Hal Conklin. 

Where Sheila could get ornery — and still does — Hal, who died of brain cancer about six weeks ago, was the perpetually grinning glad-hander, always equally amused and inspired. 

Based on the reaction from the business community — sputtering with incredulity and outrage — one would have thought Lodge and Conklin had embraced an extreme brand of self-abnegating communism practiced only by Albanian monks. Steve Cushman, then head of the Chamber of Commerce — back when Santa Barbara still had its own — urged all merchants to arm themselves with pitchforks and march on City Hall. 

Only a few Unitarian peaceniks, futuristic car haters, and sun-staring Sufi dancers backed the idea. Conklin, known for being a deft parliamentarian, couldn’t get a second. Lodge, never one to retreat from a good idea, had to drop it. 

I mention my historic document in light of this week’s showdown at City Hall, in which every wannabe restaurant owner showed up en masse — at least via Zoom — to defend the new status quo of the car-free State Street, a happy demilitarized zone now home to pedestrians, cyclists, skateboarders, dog walkers, and a host of other modes of transportation including my favorite, the motorized lawn chairs.

Inside City Hall, the vehemence of their response was dismissed as out of proportion to any actual threat to our new car-fluid identities. But anyone reading the staff recommendations would have reacted the same. Besides, one can never be too vigilant against architects who know best; in Santa Barbara, a gang of architects has inveighed against the adhocracy of State Street’s hodge-podgery; order, they insisted, must be imposed. 

The council did what it does best, which is nothing, which in this case was the sensible thing. (For actual facts and reporting on this, see Tyler Hayden’s opus).

I dredge up the past not merely to fill space but to highlight that once upon a time, Santa Barbara mayors were willing to stick their necks out for something that seemed outlandishly futuristic, perhaps even self-destructively so. And we also had an engaged business community, however ass-backward their leaders most decidedly were. 

Nothing illustrates this better than last week’s State of the City event gathering — an annual early-morning rubber-chicken event at which governmental hobs mingle with business knobs. The highlight of these events — sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce — is the State of the City address always delivered by the sitting mayor. This year, Mayor Cathy Murillo famously chose not to speak. 

Among the events sponsors were ExxonMobil, Plains All American Pipeline, and SoCal Edison Gas — all deemed eco-villains for plenty of good reasons by 17 organizations that make up the South Coast environmental constabulary. Exxon, as everyone knows, has spent billions denying the existence of climate change long after its own scientists secretly confirmed just how dangerous it was. SoCal Edison is illegally spending millions of ratepayer dollars on a false-flag AstroTurf lobbying campaign waged by the euphonious front group Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions to fight local ordinances — such as the one the council is considering — to ban natural gas, known to be bad for climate change, in new construction. And of course, Plains All American Pipeline was found criminally negligent — that’s correct, criminally negligent — for the late, great pipeline oil spill of 2015 that infamously befouled our coast. 

Two points: What the hell was the Chamber thinking having sponsors such as these? And, more to the point, what was Cathy thinking — engaging in purity politics? 

For all its flaws, the Chamber is the symbolic and ceremonial manifestation of the business community. Now is not the time — as we all hoist ourselves from the pandemic’s edge — for any mayor to flip the business community so symbolic and ceremonial a middle finger. It’s the mayor’s job, after all, to dance with even the devil. Duh!

Murillo should have shown up, smiled, and cheerfully pointed out how climate change and sea-level rise are bad for business. Maybe she could have asked the Plains All American representatives present how they liked wearing ankle bracelets. And she could have highlighted just how City Hall was promoting eco-friendly new businesses. More duh!

The Chamber, it should be noted, is not the Santa Barbara Chamber for, of, and by Santa Barbarans. That chamber died a slow, agonizing, and no doubt self-inflicted death a few years ago. The new ’n’ improved Chamber is a brand-new regional creature, conjured forth by Kristen Miller — said to be tough, smart, and competent — the former czar of the Goleta Chamber. 

For much of the time the Santa Barbara Chamber had been withering on the vine, so too was the city’s Downtown Organization, which suffered — until recently, with the arrival of Robin Elander — under the reign of two directors who couldn’t get out of their own way. The point is that for many moons, there was absolutely no leadership from Santa Barbara’s business community. Now that there is — even if it might appear to be a Goleta stalking horse — it needs to be engaged, however pointedly, not shunned. 

Miller didn’t take Murillo’s snub lying down. Instead, she invited the three candidates running against Murillo to speak in her stead. Message delivered; Miller knows how to use her middle finger too. 

Last word?

Thank you, Hal. Thank you, Sheila. You were ahead of your time. And there is no crime more unforgivable than that.


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