Monday, November 12, 2007

Redeveloping City Hall

Working in the world of non-profits, you learn that it isn’t always a good idea to create new projects just because there is grant money available. All too often the requirements to meet the grant stipulations, such as additional staff, veering off focus from the original mission of the agency, or creating ‘one-time’ projects end up costing more in time and dollars than the grant actually provides.
I often wonder why government can’t seem to learn the same lesson. No sooner is redevelopment money available, than there is a flurry of new projects and ‘incredible opportunities’ thrust upon the city or county, regardless of long-term costs or actual utility.

The Redevelopment Agency was created in 1968 to “alleviate conditions of blight in Santa Barbara’s downtown, industrial, and waterfront areas.” Fascinating…I thought that’s what Ty Warner was doing to our city!
Anyway, the Central City Redevelopment Project Area encompasses 850 acres of our community, and has had some noble and some questionable projects, beginning with whether you believe Santa Barbara actually contains ‘blight.’
One example is the current de la Guerra Plaza smack-down renovation wrestling match. In its zeal to ‘preserve’ the plaza, the Council is allowing every ‘hysterical’ preservationist to weigh in on what it should look like, from mirroring the crushed rock, dead courtyard look across the street, reflective of a time of horses and carriages, to the diagonal parking, limited access amphitheater image of tomorrowland.
On a Das Willimas blog page from 2005, de la Guerra Plaza is described as “a questionable use of public dollars for a pet project of a few people.” I’m afraid that statement might still be true, even though Mr. Williams voted at that time with Councilmen Horton, Barnwell and Mayor Blum in favor of the de la Guerra Plaza renovation project.
Could it be that $1million dollars of taxpayer money might have more practical applications, especially with our city’s current six month downturn in transient occupancy tax income looming on the horizon. Perhaps low-income senior housing might put more of a smile on the faces of our residents than trying to turn a small ‘football field’ of grass with some convenient short-term parking, into a “contemporary Los Angeles-style mall,” as described recently by Dennis Richard.
The philosophy of, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” seems in frequent opposition to the creative project conceptions of the Redevelopment Agency members.
Let’s first flash back to 1999, when the finishing touches were put on the Storke Placita, connecting the same de la Guerra Plaza with State Street. With its “beautifully designed sandstone compass, inlaid with Santa Barbara’s six sister cities…and impressive specimen plants and flowering shrubs,” this upgraded alleyway was supposed to lure pedestrians to stroll through the Placita.
Anyone who has ‘strolled’ through that area recently, has encountered either transients or young ruffians lounging with their dogs and backpacks on the cigarette butt-strewn sandstone, while my nose tells me the plants are being used for ‘specimens’ of a different, more human type than flowering shrubs.
The RDA is supposed to: 1. Encourage harmonious environmentally compatible and economically efficient land uses, 2. Coordinate such land uses …with existing City controls and review processes, and 3. Create an economically viable central core…”
Examples of RDA projects include public infrastructure, parking facilities, public housing and cultural attractions. The Agency (made up of Council members and staff) authorizes “use of public funds (that’s your tax dollars) to stimulate millions of dollars in private development (that’s the result of your tax dollars) and continues to add vitality to the Project Area (basically, that’s the growth and change most voters recently wanted to curtail).
Not all RDA projects have been without merit; on the positive side, costs have been offset, allowing significant upgrades to housing and parks. There have been enhancements to our city, but there are sometimes ‘projects in search of a purpose.’
Your recent election of a non-incumbent councilmember with an actual business background, may signify a chance for our Redevelopment Agency members to show intention and long-range planning, rather than simply accepting as ‘gospel’ the recommendations of the staff in their creative zeal to match questionably necessary projects to simply ‘available’ funds. Maybe we could just upgrade the electrical systems at the de la Guerra Plaza rather than trying to create a Michael Jackson Wonderland park.
If you’d like to learn more, or watch the process of expending your money in action, the RDA meetings are held at 2:00 on the first three Tuesdays of the month in City Council Chambers. A word of advice, bring a pillow to sit on.
The Council Chambers are upstairs at City Hall in de la Guerra Plaza- a perfect opportunity to consider how that million dollars in redevelopment might be better used.

Loretta Redd’s column appears every Tuesday in the Daily Sound. E-mail her at

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