STATING THE OBVIOUS: This is an inconvenient time to want simple things. Vin Scully dies. His silence will be deafening. Before that, it was Celtics great Bill Russell. The feet don’t exist that can fill Russell’s size-14 shoes. In the same week, the United Nations Secretary-General announces, “Humanity is just one misunderstanding — one miscalculation — away from nuclear annihilation.” Scientists have just upgraded the “mega”-drought that’s seized the western United States for so long to “giga”-drought. And people who worry about such things are now talking openly about something they call “climate endgame.” That’s a euphemistic way of saying “human extinction.”
I get it.
If this were a chess game, I’d resign.
Fortunately, I never learned to play chess.
In the meantime, I just want a pair of pants. Is that asking too much?
Santa Barbara’s City Council, it turns out, heard my plaintive wail. Two weeks ago, the council voted unanimously to spend about $750,000 on a team of high-powered consultants — big-brain, future-forward-thinking visionaries — to figure out over the next 18 months a credible plan to Make State Street Great Again. For those inclined to reduce all of life into irritating acronyms, that spells “MSSGA.” Thankfully, that defies human pronunciation, meaning there will be one less red-hatted variant we have to worry about.
Naturally, members of Santa Barbara’s “Gott im Himmel!” crowd — their bald hair forever on fire — have worked themselves into a hyperventilating lather of indignant harrumphing. In a prior, more innocent time, I might have said that when I hear someone “harrumph,” I reach for my gun. But these days, somebody might be inspired to act.
Having been a precocious zygote during John Kennedy’s salad days, I am forever asking not what I can do for my country, but what my country can do for me. And $800,000 for a consultants’ contract so that I can buy a pair of trousers in my hometown downtown seems virtuous enough to excuse any excess of extremism.
One might think that in the vast one-mile State Street chasm yawning out between Haley and Sola streets, there would be a multitude of places where an over-the-hill Dagwood could buy a simple pair of pants. To be fair, Old Navy does, in fact, sell pants. But every single pair comes so pre-starched they can all but walk out of the store. And the cuffs are engineered to slide up one’s calf upon the crossing of one’s legs, thus exposing an alarming sea of chalky white skin. That leaves Men’s Wearhouse, which is fine but maybe a little too “Dad at a Father’s Day All-You-Can-Eat brunch.”
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Clearly State Street is not all it can be. Previous consultants have determined State Street is roughly 33 percent too long to be economically sustainable as a retail corridor. Worse, most storefront building spaces are too long and too deep for functional retail purposes. As a result, business owners wind up paying top dollar to rent square footage they can’t profitably use.
COVID might be the best thing that ever happened to State Street. Thanks to COVID, State Street was declared a promenade. Cars off; everything else on. Yes, it’s a big sloppy wet kiss. But it’s a lively sloppy wet kiss. Before that, it was a dry peck from a corpse who would not die.
Now, families are downtown. Kids are downtown. Tourists are downtown. Yes, even obnoxious couples short-leashing their twin his-and-hers labradoodles are downtown. And, of course, every electric or human-powered vehicle known to humanity is careening up and down the street. Yes, there are problems.
Mayor Randy Rowse is forever worried — with good reason — that the withered remains of Jimmy Hoffa might turn up buried underneath one of State Street’s many parklets. Would that project the requisite image of public safety the world has come to expect from Santa Barbara?
For the past three years, we’ve been operating by the seat of our pants — no wonder I need to buy a new pair — collectively making it up as we go along. Now it’s time to figure out the long-term vision. How many parking lots do we need? Can some be converted into housing? What will become of Paseo Nuevo? Can we put a homeless shelter where the police station will soon no longer be?
One thing’s for certain: The toothpaste ain’t going back in the tube. State Street’s pedestrian promenade may well get shortened; it is twice as long as the one they have in Ventura. But cars are not coming back. That train left the station, and the horses are out of the barn.
Former Mayor Sheila Lodge — now a planning commissioner — deserves a plaque for sticking her neck out about 30 years ago when she suggested a promenade would be an idea to consider. For the crime of simply saying so, Lodge was all but drawn and quartered by the “Gott im Himmel” crowd then animating the Chamber of Commerce.
If I were the consultants, I’d steal a page from Carpinteria’s playbook and ban chain stores from State Street. I’d steal a page from Ventura and encourage the return of thrift stores to State Street. Have you visited Ventura lately? It’s humming. As for chronically vacant storefronts, I’d charge the owners a fee large enough to hire the best street musicians we could find — Music Academy of the West, anybody? — and make the alcoves come alive with the sound of music.
Then I’d take whatever’s left over from the consultants’ contract and buy myself a pair of trousers.