Another business owner is complaining about problems on lower State Street, including homeless people stealing and using drugs, the increased presence of rats and speeding electric bike riders presenting safety risks to pedestrians in the downtown promenade.
Aron Ashland, owner of The Cruisery brewery at 501 State St., told the News-Press that he has encountered similar problems to the ones voiced earlier by Kelly Brown, owner of The Natural Cafe at 508 State St., across the street, who has vowed to close his 30-year downtown eatery.
“He is right about most of the facts but had made a choice to let some challenges win the day,” Mr. Ashland said. “We’ve had the same experiences but we decided to make the best of it in hopes that it’s worth the expense, once the promenade is permanent.
“We adjusted to combat the problems we’ve run into, but it’s become challenging as the city has chipped away at our patio, made us spend money to alter temporary patios and there seem to be more obstacles than when they first closed the street,” he said.
Pointedly, while Mr. Ashland noted the presence of homeless people on the 500 block, he said he has not experienced problems like the ones cited by Mr. Brown – aggressive panhandling , public urination in planters, locking themselves in his restaurant’s bathroom and bathing, and drinking alcohol and using illegal drugs near his brewery.
“I don’t have any issue with people being able to panhandle,” he said. “I thought we brought Mr. Wei into the City Attorney’s office to help us combat all our issues on State Street, before COVID, but it doesn’t seem to me like we’ve made it more difficult for people to do drugs, steal or otherwise break the law. Much of this happens on or near State because that’s where they can flip it for drugs/money.”
Mr. Ashland said he made the decision to never let their bathrooms be taken over by the homeless “so we have a host or manager at our door – but this costs money.
“I think this could have worked for Natural Cafe but their concept is more casual so it might have been more difficult to pivot and protect the bathrooms.
“I would also like to say there is a terrible lack of public restrooms. It puts the stress of being short public bathrooms on the businesses.”
The presence of speeding electric bikes “are a huge issue,” he said.
“It’s pushed the pedestrians back to the sidewalks as the electric bikes race by all the businesses going 30 mph on their way to the beach or home,” he said. “State street has become a shortcut instead of a walking promenade as everyone intended.”
While Mr. Ashland agreed with Mr. Brown that some outdoor dining parklets were poorly constructed, he didn’t share his assessment that they were no longer necessary.
“I completely disagree with one thing Kelly said. He said it favors the few at the expense of the many and also said the old outdoor dining program was adequate,” Mr. Ashland said. “That’s kind of the issue, which also happened to me, but I’m not complaining.
“Kelly had one of about six patios before COVID and now he has two of 80. Competition got tougher but 80 businesses now get to try and also use our great weather to try to survive instead of the six before COVID.
“We learned that people want to sit outside so let’s give them what they want. The Nextdoor poll said like 84 percent of residents want the promenade. I think one of the main reasons is all the additional outdoor dining options they now have.
“One of the reasons I left 732 State was because I didn’t think the back patio would have as much value as it did before the promenade and parklets but I’m not complaining, it sucks and I’m broke, BUT many businesses have a better chance to be successful, like 70+ more businesses. That’s more important than any one business, even mine.
“The reason it’s more important is because it’s better for the city, its residents (who want it), our future financial stability, hotels and visitors. The more things that are fun and interesting, the more likely they are to visit Santa Barbara – period.”
Unlike Mr. Brown, Mr. Ashland took pains to blame the city – in particular, Mayor Randy Rowse – for failing to address the problems cited by he and Mr. Brown, starting with Mayor Rowse’ statement to the News-Press that some things have gotten better on State Street and some haven’t.
“That statement is easy to agree with but I disagree with much of Rowse’s other statements – here is how i see it:
“Rowse came in at the beginning of the year and, I hope, intended to clean up some parts of the promenade. The issue is that I think he thought he knew what he was doing because he used to own a restaurant (however, it was off State and had an elevated patio – so very different than what is happening on State Street.)
“In March, when they made the patios smaller – it also made them less safe-feeling. There is a feeling of safety when you have tables on either side of you. The narrower patios allowed for many less tables because many of them had to fit an ADA ramp into a much smaller space.
“Unfortunately, it left most of the 500 block, which was the most lively block, much less lively.
“The mayor speaking for businesses because he once owned a restaurant – that doesn’t cut it. Things are very different now and State Street has very different issues than Santa Barbara Street. Sidewalks are wider because there are more people walking which creates good and bad situations.”
He also reacted to the mayor’s statement that he recently visited State Street at night and hardly saw any homeless people.
“He’s right,” Mr. Ashland said. “Once it’s dark, they are off doing drugs and stealing the property of our residents and businesses.
“I’d also like to thank the mayor for doing his due diligence and spending half an hour on State street to figure out how bad our homeless problem is. Wow. His arrogance is sickening while he points the finger at the small businesses that used to be the thing that was so special about SB. If he’d asked – it’s the construction of a hotel a few doors down that has exacerbated the rat problem – not parklets. He must think parklets are part of the life cycle of rats?
But he could have asked anyone else on our block and he might have had differing opinions instead of forming his own opinion about something he doesn’t seem to know anything about. I thought he ran on common sense or something
“I wish the Mayor would focus on the things the city wants like safe streets, more police, vibrant downtown and more housing – and less on killing the promenade.
“Retail needs everyone’s help and he is pointing the finger at everyone instead of trying to come up with solutions.”
Mayor Rowse said the city had no choice but to narrow the space available to parklets because state law requires a 20-foot fire lane for firetrucks to get through safely.
Other than that, he had no comment on Mr. Ashland’s allegations.
“Mr. Ashland has the right to express his opinion. Let’s leave it at that,” he said.