Westside District’s Oscar Gutierrez Talks Parking Wars, Fly-by-Night Street Vendors, and State Street’s ‘Bad Bicyclists’

Santa Barbara City Councilmember Shares What He’s Doing to Address His Constituents’ Concerns

Westside District’s
Oscar Gutierrez Talks
Parking Wars, Fly-by-Night Street Vendors, and
State Street’s ‘Bad Bicyclists’

Santa Barbara City Councilmember
Shares What He’s Doing to Address
His Constituents’ Concerns

by Nick Welsh | June 14, 2023

Oscar Gutierrez | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, district elections changed the DNA of political representation in the City of Santa Barbara, and nowhere is that more evident than on the Westside. Although the Westside was previously represented by two councilmembers who later went on to become mayors — Helene Schneider and Cathy Murillo — they both moved there as politically active adults and before district elections. Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez, by contrast, has always been for, of, by, and all about the Westside, which is where he grew up and never really left.

On the council dais, Gutierrez is not one to bogart the mic and wax rhapsodic, but outside the council chambers, few councilmembers take such obvious relish in meeting and greeting people, which is how, he says, he learns what people really care about. Independent writer Nick Welsh had a quick sit-down with Gutierrez at the Bella Rosa Bakery to talk about the concerns in his district.

With rents sky-high and vacancies nonexistent, more tenants are competing for limited street parking spaces, resulting in short tempers. A recent proliferation of street vendors, many of whom Gutierrez says come from out of town, has added to the friction. He also talked the future of bicycles on State Street. Hint: If Gutierrez could help address the so-called problem of wheelie-poppers, then maybe something can be done about the young e-bike riders zooming down State Street.

The interview was edited for length and clarity and is one of an occasional series of interviews with elected officials.

You recently had a community meeting in your district. I heard it was pretty hot. What were some of the issues raised there?  It was a well-attended meeting. We had to pull out every chair we had, and there were still people standing in the back. Most were pretty upset about the parking situation. My district on the Westside is the most densely populated. I believe we have 15,000 residents in just a little over a mile. And it’s really expensive to live here. So we have some apartments with multiple people living in them. There could be eight people living in a two-bedroom apartment and each one has a car. And, that’s just that one apartment.

So, people are double parking, and putting out trash cans to save parking spots, and parking in the red zone and in front of fire hydrants, and no one was getting ticketed. It’s because our law enforcement’s short-staffed as it is. We only have four parking enforcers for the entire city right now.

Wow!  When staff suggested options like implementing a parking permit plan, people at the meeting said, “What’s the point if it’s not going to be enforced?” The staff said that if a car is marked for more than 72 hours, technically they could report it to be ticketed or towed.

But that just gets nasty, too, if you’re the one who has your neighbor’s car towed.  Yeah, it gets bad.

Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

So, have there been fights because of this?  Yeah. One resident came up to me during the meeting and said that he’s tried to express his frustrations about the parking situation with his neighbor, and the neighbor threatened his life. And, he wasn’t the only one. When another person said that he had gotten threatened, somebody in the audience asked, “What street do you live on?” But the guy said, “I’m not going to answer that question.” That’s how upset everyone was about it.

Wow. And the same night, there was a meeting over on the Eastside about vendors, but there are street vendors on the Westside too. Is this a “Hey you, get off my lawn” sort of issue, or is it a public health issue, or…? I would say it is a public health issue, above all else. Well, just personally, they don’t have much refrigeration for the food. So, that’s kind of a red flag.

I’ve talked to every vendor that I’ve seen that isn’t permitted, and I’ve personally told them that I would help them through the permitting process. But, as of now, not one has followed up with me. And, from what I understand, the police have also spoken to them; the fire department’s already spoken to them. And it’s tough, because the state decriminalized street vending. So, now that it’s not a criminal offense, we’re getting a lot of vendors from all the way down from L.A.

Really? Every vendor I’ve spoken to is not from Santa Barbara, not a single one. The permitted vendors showed up to that meeting on the Eastside complaining about how unfair it is. And these permitted vendors, they’re also undocumented people. We’re trying to protect the undocumented people that are doing it legally. It’s not fair to them. So, don’t take advantage of our hospitality. Don’t take our kindness as a weakness, and that’s what I feel like is happening right now.

You’ve been talking about trying to get the schools reopened for public use after the school day. What is the likelihood of reopening them and playgrounds in the community?  Growing up, all the school campuses were open to us children. We used to be able to go there at any hour of the day, or night even. Some of my friends grew up in some pretty rough households and they actually used the school campuses as an escape, a literal escape to get away from it. 

When my kids were little, we’d use the Harding [Elementary School] playground on the weekends. My daughter learned to ride her bike there. But when it shut down, we were told it was because there were needles and condoms in the playground. It was a gross safety concern.  Yeah. But to me, the dangers don’t outweigh the cost of it, because we have such little open space for the public. We only have one park on the Westside. Now, when I go by these school campuses on the weekends or during the summer, they’re just like ghost towns, and it’s kind of sad.

What about Parks and Rec? Can they help? I’m having issues because they’re proposing new designs for some of our parks, like Ortega Park, with walls and fences to preserve the new fields and to protect the public when they’re using the park. But those parks have never had walls or fences on them. As far as I know, it’s never been a major issue.

Legal food truck vendors like this Don Paco taco truck contend that their livelihoods are in jeopardy because of unfair competition from illegal street food vendors. | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

And they’re asking us to make up a $3 million deficit. And those walls and fences are probably going to cost a few hundred thousand dollars just to construct, let alone the maintenance from here on out. So yeah, I don’t think it’s a good idea. I don’t think it’s necessary.

Now, we hear a lot about the high cost of housing. Are you seeing gentrification and rent evictions in your district?  Yeah, there there’s been quite a bit of that.  A lot of mom-and-pop landlords, since the pandemic, have sold to big investment firms. And they are the ones raising rents and evicting their tenants. It’s just sad because this used to be a part of town where somebody could come and start their life, to start their family. But now, we see the effects on our local schools, with low enrollment. And, you see the effect on our businesses, struggling to hire people to work . The character of the neighborhood is changing.

I don’t want to get too deep into the weeds of State Street, but the rules allowing the promenade will expire at the end of the year. What’s going to happen then? From what I overwhelmingly hear from the public, that they like it being closed off to cars. And they also like the ability to be able to ride their bicycles down State Street. Obviously, I do hear others also saying that they don’t like the bad bicyclists, the ones that are being reckless and irresponsible. So, I don’t want to ban bikes; I just want to ban the bad bicyclists.

So, before we had the electric-bike kids, the “Mesa Rats,” we had the “Wheelie-Poppers.” How did that problem get resolved? Initially, when the pandemic hit, everyone had to stay indoors and started feeling really cooped up. Then, when we opened up State Street, everyone felt this breath of relief. That’s when the youth in our community started riding their bikes up and down State Street, showing off their skills. I feel like it was just a moment in time when they were — you know the phrase “wild ’n’ out”? They’re just kind of wild ’n’ out a little bit.

But we did outreach, and education, and talked with the parents. And over time, the kids all kind of mellowed out. But, at the same time, the e-bikes became more readily available. Then, a lot of the kids that could afford them started racing down the street.

So we talked with the school district, but we find out that a lot of kids aren’t in the public school system, they’re in either the private schools or homeschooled, so it was harder for us to get in contact with their parents to educate them about proper bicycling etiquette.

“The character of the neighborhood is changing.”

Right now, I like to think, the new State Street — it’s in its infancy. So there’s just a lot of growing pains that are happening. And it just takes time for everyone to get used to this new thing that’s evolving in front of them. 

When I went to UCSB, the culture there was hard for me at first, because I saw tens of thousands of people navigating the campus on bicycles, skateboards, rollerblader, scooters, pogo sticks, whatever. But, after that week or so, I mean, I could navigate it with my eyes closed. And we’re talking about tens of thousands of people who are not paying attention all the time either, because they’ve either got their face in a book or in their phones while they’re walking between classes, but yet they’re still able to navigate this high-traffic area that’s pretty much human-powered.

What do you think about the recent meeting of the committee that was supposed to come up with a proposal for a new State Street master plan? That meeting was concerning for me. Those people were selected because they were supposed to be trendsetters and visionaries. But the tone was not that. I had to have a talk with them and say, “Listen, imagine we were back a hundred years ago after the great earthquake and you were part of the team that had to rebuild Santa Barbara. Are you going to be the one saying, ‘No, let’s keep it the way it was’? Or are you going to be the one saying, ‘We got to change this for the better, not for us, but for future generations’?”

I think, right now, people are thinking, “No, this is going to affect me now.” The master plan is supposed to last over a hundred years, so that’s well after I’m gone and everyone I know is gone. So, why are they thinking so much in the present? They keep saying things like, “Well, show me where else this is happening,” or, “Show me who else has done this.” The point is that nobody else is doing this. Santa Barbara is supposed to be a trendsetter. So, if they don’t understand that, then they need to reevaluate why they’re there and what they’re doing.

What are the reasons people are so against bikes? 

Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

I find that, more often than not, those against bikes haven’t been on one in years, if not decades. So, I encourage them just to give it a try. Maybe the city should host public bike rides down State Street. State Street was one of the safest bicycling streets prior to the pandemic. So, to change that now, because there’s a few people that don’t like the bicycles, it just doesn’t make sense. 

I have noticed that many people that don’t like the way State Street is are people that would be considered elderly, so we do need to find out why they feel that way and address it, because we have to make sure that it’s all-inclusive. 

How tough should fines be for dangerous bicyclists? I would say, increase it as much as possible. Increase it to $1,500 just to make an example of these people. Because I myself am tired of them making us all look bad.

Right. Last question: Of the councilmembers, you seem like you actually enjoy the job the most. What do you like about it?  I like having people come up to me and say that they finally feel like they’re being heard and they’re actually being served. And the one thing I told myself when I got elected was that, at the very minimum, I’m going to respond to everyone who contacts me. So, I feel fairly confident to make this claim right now, that I’m the most responsive, accessible councilmember in the history of Santa Barbara. 

Quite a claim.  And I say that because I have the data to back it up. If you look at how many emails I’ve responded to, and that’s not counting all the social media sites I’m on and all the messages I’ve responded to on that, it’s a lot. That’s something that makes it fun for me, that I’m able to communicate with my constituents, and get their issues addressed and hopefully resolved. 

So, it’s reassuring to me when people come up to me and they say, “You’re the only one that responded to me.” And it is funny because when I first got elected, we got invited to so many events, right? And, I thought it was one of the perks of the job, but by the second week, I got the sobering realization: “No, I get invited to these events so people can confront me in person.” And it dawned on me: “Oh wait, no, they want me here because they don’t want to go to City Hall to confront me about things. They want to confront me out in the open, in a casual environment.”

So, that’s another reason why I go to a lot of the events, because I realize, “Oh, this is a chance for the people to express their concerns or their ideas, or what have you, with me.” And, that wouldn’t happen if I didn’t show up to these events.

Okay. All right, man. Thank you so much.  Yeah. No, thank you. I appreciate it.

Credit: Ingrid Bostrom


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