With a conspicuous lack of controversy or fanfare, the Santa Barbara City Council unanimously approved two new design contracts for a major makeover of De la Guerra Plaza totaling $920,000. As project manager Brad Hess noted, the four years spent on the redesign effort so far had been long and arduous.
“We have more work ahead of us,” he cautioned, “than behind us.”
For eons, De la Guerra Plaza has functioned as Santa Barbara’s civic living room, its protest central, an outdoor concert arena, a gathering spot for homeless people, and the hot spot for the city’s annual Fiesta festivities. The latest designs show a car-free plaza area — except for a handful of short-term parking spaces directly in front of City Hall for people paying bills — and a small performance stage located near the arcade between the front of City Hall and the News-Press building. Low-rise water bubblers will occupy about half of the newly configured plaza, allowing kids a place to splash. Trash cans will be kept out of sight thanks to subterranean hydraulic lifts that will take them below street surface, and magically self-cleaning restrooms will open and shut automatically to discourage long-term squatting.
The most glaring difference, however, will be the lack of any green grass, replaced instead by earth-toned impermeable planters. For historic preservationists, this grass-free proposal has proved objectionable. No one from the public took the opportunity to speak for or against the proposal.
Councilmember Kristen Sneddon praised the public outreach efforts engineered by City Hall and waxed enthusiastic about the Chumash mosaic art element that’s on the drawing board. All the community’s various histories, Sneddon said, need to be celebrated.
Mayor Randy Rowse expressed the only second thoughts about the new design, opining that the newly designed plaza will no longer function as the community gathering place it traditionally has. An architect hired by the city to work on the designs took issue with Rowse, saying that if anything, the new design will make the plaza even more open and flexible.
Rowse also expressed doubts about the water elements, suggesting that if the past is any guide, they will be utilized by people living on the streets to bathe and hang out. “I don’t hate children,” Rowse clarified, “because I don’t want bubble pools.”
Given that the project remains in its conceptual stage, it’s little wonder more councilmembers didn’t weigh in. The vote for the additional funding for the two design contracts was unanimously in favor, though councilmember Michael Jordan was not present.