Credit: Erick Madrid

Starting May 1, business owners in downtown Santa Barbara will have to pay $2 per square foot for outdoor parklets, though the back-and-forth decision for the lower rate caused some frustration between city councilmembers and Mayor Randy Rowse after the issue was originally fully settled — or so he thought — when it came across the council a few weeks ago.

Back on January 12, after hours of tense deliberation and three rounds of voting, the council came to a 4-2 majority directing city staff to come back with a pay-rate system charging businesses between $3 and $10 for parklet space. With that rate, most restaurants would pay around $5 per square foot and the city would recoup most of the money it costs to maintain the State Street promenade.

Then on April 11, when staff returned with the resolution to be approved on the council’s consent agenda — where items are often a formality, passed without discussion or second thought — Councilmember Alejandra Gutierrez pulled the item, suggesting it needed another look, much to the frustration of Mayor Rowse.

“It’s highly, highly unusual to litigate approved items once they’ve gone to the consent calendar,” Rowse said when the issue came back across the City Council’s meeting on Tuesday. “I’m pretty disappointed that we’ve danced this dance for as long as we have.”

In the two weeks leading up to Tuesday’s council meeting, business owners flooded the city with hundreds of messages about the parklets, which have become a central point of focus in the city’s greater vision for the future of State Street and its currently temporary promenade.

“It’s the power of public comment and the nearly 400 emails that we’ve received that just have reiterated again how much people want the promenade,” said Councilmember Kristen Sneddon, who voted in favor of the lower rate. 

Sneddon said that the parklets and promenade revitalized the downtown area, which she said was a “dead zone before the pandemic,” though she offered her apologies to city staff for the change of heart after council originally directed them to come up with a payment structure that would fully account for the more than $500,000 in maintenance costs for State Street.

City Council of Santa Barbara | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

Mayor Rowse expressed concern over the council’s display of indecisiveness, and he was adamant that the discussion at Tuesday’s meeting be specifically over the parklet pay rate: “Not the the pros or cons of parklets, not the status of State Street’s closure,” he said.

“What I don’t understand is how we’ve had this sudden reversal,” Rowse said. “I really think we’ve backpedaled for anecdotal reasons — not for factual reasons.”

Councilmember Gutierrez responded to some of the criticism she received for pulling the item from the consent agenda and said that she felt like the city’s response to the business owners’ concerns showed the council’s ability to work with the community.

“This is not the only item that the city has gone back and forth over,” Gutierrez said, “and that back and forth also reflects the fact that we listen to the community.”

Councilmember Meagan Harmon suggested the $2 figure as a balance between “benefit” and “burden,” and as a compromise that would help the city recoup some of the costs without charging a rate so high that it might force some businesses to abandon their outdoor patios altogether. 

Harmon voted against the parklet rate structure every step of the way and said the higher rate was essentially a “backhanded way” of the city saying it did not want parklets on State Street.

Councilmember Mike Jordan also said he thought forcing businesses to pay for parklets would be “knocking down” something that had revitalized the downtown core and that he feared the city was losing sight of the “bigger picture” regarding the future of State Street. He originally supported the idea of allowing parklets to continue without any charge at all, with the costs being absorbed into other parts of the city’s budget, but after Harmon’s suggestion for a lower $2 fee received support from others in City Hall, he agreed that it would be the best option for now.

The council approved the $2 rate by a 5-1-1 vote, with Mayor Rowse opposed and Councilmember Eric Friedman abstaining.

Friedman expressed disappointment in the council’s reversal of its previous decision and worried that the new lower rate was being approved without the council knowing its full impacts on the city budget.

“Honestly, I feel like we have wasted a lot of time,” Friedman said.

The $2 per square foot rate will go into effect for all businesses with outdoor parklets on the State Street promenade starting May 1.


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