Natural Cafe owner steps up criticism of State Street Promenade
The owner of The Natural Cafe on Sunday stepped up his criticism of conditions on lower State Street – citing vagrants, rats, speeding skateboarders and bike riders, the overall “dirtiness” and the “cheap-looking” outdoor dining parklets lining the downtown promenade – even while reaffirming his decision to leave by the end of March.
Natural Cafe owner Kelly Brown told the News-Press that it’s time for city leaders to show some courage and turn things around before it’s too late.
“What it requires is strong leadership, not kicking the can down the road and avoiding the issues,” Mr. Brown said. “It requires out-of-the-box thinking on how you get people downtown. It requires a vision of greatness and how to get there.
“If you can’t honestly identify the issues downtown, if you want to sweep things under the rug, they’ll never get fixed. It’s going to get worse.”
He said he met with other business owners Thursday at a Downtown Santa Barbara food and beverage committee meeting, and they said nothing to get him to change his mind about closing his restaurant at 508 State St., a 30-year downtown fixture.
“It was hilarious,” he said. “I would have preferred to not even go there. All they wanted to talk about was rats. They were laughing that they don’t exist” because the city has a rodent abatement program.
“The reason they have that (program) is because of the rats downtown,” he said.
Because the city is not allowed to poison the rats and uses rat bait instead, only one rat can be trapped at time, he noted. “Once one is stuck in there, no one else is going in there. And they only clean it once a week.”
Besides, he said, “there’s so much food out there” already from scraps dropped from parklet tables that the rats “don’t need the bait anymore.”
He said the rats are nocturnal creatures that don’t come out until the early morning – from around 2-6 a.m. – after the vagrants “all have their money” from panhandling during the day and disappear for the night.
Mr. Brown said downtown State Street “looks great” at night because “it’s dark and all lit up” by open bar signs, and people can’t see how dirty it really is. “It’s a bar zone,” he said. “Instead of the Funk Zone down by the beach, we’re in the drunk zone.”
He also blasted the “cheap look” of the outside dining parklets. “It’s still a wood box on State Street, in front of beautiful buildings. It’s so third world cheesy I can’t believe it.
“I’m not anti-parklet. I’m anti s****y parklet. If you want to do this, do it first class, Santa Barbara style, not something hokey-jokey and trashy looking” with their extension cords and cheap lighting.
He said that downtown restaurants are struggling just to stay in business.
Lunch-hour dining has pretty much evaporated, he said. People seen eating outside give the impression that all is well, he said, but few people can be seen dining inside those very restaurants – and that’s mostly for dinner, and that’s mostly on Friday and Saturday nights.
“No one looks like they’re knocking it out of the park right now,” he said. “That’s why they’re hanging onto the parklets.”
And that could prove to be a big mistake for downtown this winter if Santa Barbara is hit by a major rainstorm, he said.
State Street does not really have an underground storm drain system, he noted, saying the street itself was purposely designed to be the storm drain itself, so that stormwater would naturally flow downhill toward the ocean.
No longer. Not since the parklets.
He noted that downtown storefronts suffered during the recent, relatively light rainstorm despite owners using sandbags to protect them, he said.
“We got less than an inch of rain and storefronts were flooded because the parklets block the flow,” he said.
He said the city requires the parklets to be moved 18 inches away from the curbs to allow the free flow of rainwater, but insisted that won’t make a difference in the event of a major storm.
Further, he said, businesses are having a hard time getting insurance to cover any losses.
“It’s a flood zone waiting to happen,” he warned. “The parklets will impede the water which will back up and push into the storefronts and there won’t be insurance.
“One big storm and it’s going to be a s**t show.”
The reason he was so disappointed Thursday after meeting with other business owners was because they refused to talk about all the issues plaguing State Street, preferring instead to focus only on rats.
“I’m not a big committee guy,” he said. “Nothing happens there. These guys have been in charge for years and here we are. Nothing gets done. All they do is talk.
“Everybody wanted to have their shot at me. I thought ‘let them talk to me and me talk to them.’ They kept interrupting and I just kind of sat there and left early. Nothing came out of it. Zero.”
The rat issue they did discuss was “just one of a number of things I was talking about.
“There’s no easy answer to homelessness. Criminal vagrancy is a complicated issue. No one is downtown anymore because of COVID and people working remotely. Kids on bikes and skateboards are not our clientele. They have a place to race, but they’re not buying clothing.”
And yes, people may be walking around the downtown promenade but not enough of them are actually patronizing the stores and restaurants lining the street, he said.
“State Street used to be happening,” he said. “There were bumper-to-bumper cars and people on the sidewalks. It’s not like that anymore.”
“If you’re going to do parklets, then make it look like the Third Street Promenade (in Santa Monica). Make it look A-Plus,” he said. The way it looks now is “so wrong, it’s just embarrassing. It’s not Santa Barbara.
“I love Santa Barbara. I love State Street. It’s a bummer that this has happened. But sometimes you have to take a step back to go two steps forward. It’s going to take giant creativity.”