Dave Davis (middle) delivered a back-of-the-hand salute to Mayor Randy Rowse (right) for missing his Pearl Chase moment. | Credit: Courtesy; Paul Wellman (file); Erick Madrid (file)

REV YOUR ENGINES:  It used to be “a gentleman” was defined as someone who could play the accordion but didn’t. As someone with wannabe aspiration of accordionhood — an instrument central to so many of the world’s greatest musics — I never got the joke. But based on the emotions expressed at this week’s kick-off session of 17 big-brain thought-leaders assembling under the rubric of State Street Advisory Committee, the punchline has clearly changed. 

Today, it’s all about people who ride e-bikes. The shift was striking. For the first time in my life, there was way more vexation and vituperation expressed at e-bike riders, especially the swarms of barely pubescent Mesa bRats who regularly dive-bomb their way down State Street — baby strollers and dogs be damned — than about homeless people. 

I didn’t know that was possible.

The Mesa bRats, who ride something that’s a cross between a mini-bike and a lawn mower, were so reviled that even the Teenage Wheelie Poppers — last year’s alleged assault on Santa Barbara’s domestic tranquility — got more love. In fact, the chair of the committee, Dave Davis, praised them: “I even like kids doing wheelies on State Street,” Davis exclaimed, saying they are a sign of life, and then launched into how State Street can thrum again with a sense of “place, history, and celebration.” But the e-bikers barreling down State Street at 30 miles an hour, he said, absolutely had to go. 

When Davis talks, people listen. For those tuning in late, for about 25 years, he functioned as chief planner, community development director, and urban visionary for the City of Santa Barbara. Since then, he’s evolved into part Wizard of Oz, part Yoda, wearing more hats during his ridiculously busy retirement than any haberdashery could hope to supply. 

Davis and the committee crew are hoping to lead the entire community on a collective vision quest — please, bring your own psilocybin — about the future of State Street. They want people to dream the Impossible Dream when it comes to what we want downtown to look like. 

Beginning October, consultants hired by City Hall will attempt to draw you into this conversation. You will know them by the 10 multicolored magic markers and the industrial-sized reams of butcher paper they carry everywhere. This is not about rearranging the street furniture on Street Street — which most people on the committee say has gotten “shabby” — so much as reengineering the DNA of downtown. 

It is time to stretch our brains. 

In his introductory remarks, Davis exhumed the ghost of Pearl Chase, Santa Barbara’s civic equivalent of George Washington with a little J. Edgar Hoover and LBJ thrown in should arms need to be twisted and ears bent. Chase is widely over-credited with singlehandedly transforming our downtown into the red-tiled-roof wonder it became after the 1925 earthquake. “This is our community’s Pearl Chase moment,” Davis preached. The Paseo Nuevo mall — which Davis had a big hand in — ain’t working anymore. The whole idea of downtown as the central business district, he said, had grown obsolete. Downtown needed to be radically reimagined to meet new economic realities that are still sorting themselves out. 

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How this committee gels has yet to be seen. When asked what it wanted to see, members said, “Housing, housing, housing,” “Art, art, art,” and “People, people, people.” More specifically: festivals, murals, art, outdoor wine tasting, outdoor tequila tasting, outdoor cooking classes, anything that could be called outdoor anything, and anything that could be called “experiential.” More practically and prosaically, it involved a new and improved collection of stormwater runoff and luring more schools — like Cal State Northridge and UCSB — downtown. 

Marge Cafarelli, who developed downtown’s Public Market and Alma Del Pueblo condos, made it clear she will not be tinkering around the edges. Just knock down the Paseo Nuevo mall, she said. It’s grown obsolete. Time to start over. It was interesting she’d say that. Cafarelli has a tendency to say what more careful people are thinking. 

The owners of Paseo Nuevo, by the way, just defaulted on the $121 million they took out in February 2019, leaving their lenders holding a huge bag of crap. Whether this is an impediment or opportunity for the new committee has yet to be seen. Either way, it’s a very big wrinkle.  

Coincidentally, major plans are now underway to transform much of La Cumbre Plaza into housing. The number “1,900 units” gets thrown around. All that sounds like a pipe dream, but when you have developers like John Price and Jim Taylor involved, their smoke looks a lot like fire.

Mayor Randy Rowse — who attended the meeting as an observer — has displayed a conspicuous lack of enthusiasm for the process, and especially for the $720,000 City Hall is spending on the consultants. Rowse wants to bring cars back to State Street and is much more focused on short-term fixes than grand plans that he not-so-privately suspects will go nowhere. Davis delivered a back-of-the-hand salute to the mayor for missing his Pearl Chase moment. Short-term fixes should not be confused with long-term dreams, Davis said, and the mayor was sowing such confusion. 

A small point: Back in 1925 when the earthquake hit, Pearl Chase and her crew already had concocted their red-tiled visions for Santa Barbara. Here, it’s the reverse. Downtown has already experienced its economic earthquakes — Amazon, the Funk Zone, La Cumbre, Goleta, and the pandemic. But we still have no clear mission. We need to conjure one. Now’s the time. 

Me, I’d bring Pearl Chase back from the dead. I’d strap an accordion around her neck, too. What we don’t need now are gentlemen. No one ever accused Pearl of being one of those.

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