Santa Barbara City Council members voted unanimously Tuesday to move the Westside Community Paseos Project forward, determining that bike-friendly street diverters are required for functional safety.
This decision came after a lengthy discussion where the council heard why the Historic Landmarks Commission denied the project and why public works wanted it to move forward anyway. The project is intended to connect the Westside to downtown and the Eastside.
The HLC denied the project — which includes traffic diverters and high-visibility bike lanes at the Sola and Santa Barbara Street intersection, along with curb extensions and landscaping — on concerns of diverting or disrupting traffic, aesthetics, blocking the views of the mountains, functionally disrupting the street grid in the area and more.
However, the council, which already decided on putting the bike lane on Sola Street as part of the previously approved Bicycle Master Plan, voted to move it forward, and called to improve the design review process for city-sponsored projects.
“If we don’t have this project today going forward, we lose the ability to connect these neighborhoods, that are underserved neighborhoods, to downtown,” Council member Eric Friedman said. “We will have the ability for pretty much everyone in town, or close to it, to safely bike all the way to the beach, and that’s a project that’s taken over 40 years.”
Council member Mike Jordan referred to the HLC’s denial of the project as “historical elitism,” saying that he didn’t find any of the concerns the commission did with the project. He added that denying it was almost like saying, “We want to do something safely for bicyclists and pedestrians, but not through this neighborhood, not through an old neighborhood.”
“A diverter’s function is to disrupt traffic and to disrupt it in a manner that makes it safe for you and me to either ride our bicycles on that street and use a crosswalk,” he said. “If HLC can somehow get to what’s on the street and the direction it’s going as part of some ‘historical function of the fabric and the movement of the city,’ then certainly, we can get to the safety of our children … and us old people … as being part of the beauty of the city also.”
Council member Kristen Sneddon said that she felt like she had no choice but to uphold the appeal, but that she is “really bothered by how often in the last four to five months, we have circumvented HLC and passed them over entirely.”
“There’s just a sense of inclination of really putting HLC in a diminished capacity, and not just that, but almost vilifying their role. There’s terminology about how they feel or their negativity (that’s) really personalizing the role of HLC and I’m not appreciating that,” she said. “We have to change the process when it comes to projects that are for community benefit.
“We can’t keep doing this, where we force the HLC into a last-minute denial and then (it comes) to the council. We’re not experts in design, landscape and materials … I don’t feel we should be the ones making this decision … I’m pretty upset the process has led us here.”
However, for what council members referred to as a compromise, city staff will retain a landscape architect and as many as two HLC members to work with staff to provide recommendations on landscape and materials. In addition, the council directed staff to develop a process in which city-sponsored projects are connected to the design review board earlier in the application process.
“I think there’s a difference between, ‘We want to comply with what HLC is telling us to do,’ versus, ‘We want to invite HLC to share their vision with us to make this the most beautiful project it can be,’” Ms. Sneddon said. “When we skip over HLC, we don’t have as good of a project as we could have.”
In other business, the council members unanimously approved city staff’s recommendations for the distribution of Community Development Block Grant funds for 48 proposals. Out of more than $1.7 million, more than $860,000 will go toward public and human services, more than $645,000 will go to capital and nearly $240,000 will go toward grant administration and fair housing.
“This is always such a feel-good presentation,” Ms. Sneddon said. “The only difficulty that I see is that there’s never enough funding for all of the worthy applicants, and in this particularly difficult year, it’s hard to make these decisions, so I really honor the work of the committee.”
The council also held a public hearing to hear any protests to the 2021 downtown and Old Town business improvement districts assessments, but there “weren’t enough to negate the assessments going forward,” Mayor Murillo said, so the council unanimously voted to renew them. The revenues from the assessments are projected to generate approximately $170,000 to fund marketing and promotional activities for downtown businesses.
“The efforts of the downtown organizations this year have been really incredible,” Ms. Sneddon said. “I think everyone might have different opinions of what works well and what doesn’t, but the fact of being responsive and nimble and really brave in trying new things and adapting I’ve been really appreciating.”