Friday, February 22, 2008

Plans for plaza met with disapproval


Plans by the City of Santa Barbara to redesign De la Guerra Plaza got a less than positive grade by members of the public yesterday, who voiced their disapproval of the changes before the city’s Planning Commission.
While the plans remain in their infancy, business owners, attorneys and public speakers pleaded with the commission to leave the plaza as is. And at the end of the three-hour meeting, the majority of the commission seemed to agree.

“It’s not obvious to me where the motive came from to initiate this project in the first place,” said Commissioner Addison Thompson. “I don’t see how the city can move this thing forward.”
The commission heard a presentation about the proposed changes from its own staff and from the city’s Department of Housing & Redevelopment Division, both of which emphasized that the purpose of the meeting was to get feedback from the commission and public about the project.
Since September of last year, members of the Redevelopment Division have presented the proposed changes to city commissions and committees, all for the purpose of gathering feedback that will eventually be presented to the city council.
Marck Aguilar, a redevelopment specialist with the city, said the project is at “stage zero,” and will now go before a city council subcommittee, which he said would take a look at the proposed plan and all of the comments that have been received so far.
“We have a lot of great information and that’s what the process was designed to collect,” Aguilar said, adding that he did not know when the city council would take up the discussion.
During his presentation, Aguilar said the goal of the proposed changes is to essentially finish the original 1924 vision for the plaza, which was to be the heart of downtown.
Douglas and Regula Campbell of the local design and architecture firm Campbell & Campbell, which was retained by the city to draft conceptual drawings for the revamped plaza, also made a presentation before the commission.
Douglas Campbell called the plaza “The civic heart of Santa Barbara.”
With that in mind, the duo said they believed the plaza has been turned into a “de facto parking lot.”
Some of the biggest and most controversial proposed changes to the plaza are to raise the roadway around the plaza’s horse shoe shaped road, restrict vehicle access, eliminate all permanent parking in the plaza, turn De la Guerra Street into a one-way street between Anacapa and State Streets and allow outdoor dining on Storke Placita.
The goal of such changes, according to the Campbell’s, is to revitalize the plaza and make it more appealing to pedestrians.
But nearby business owners said they are vehemently opposed to eliminating cars from the plaza, which would also displace about 35 parking spaces.
“We need people to come to our business,” said Barry Cappello, an attorney representing the Santa Barbara News-Press. “This is not fair. It’s time that this Planning Commission stops this.”
The newspaper’s main office lines the west end of the plaza.
Cappello said he believes eliminating cars from the plaza will make city hall less accessible to the public and that this change is being pushed forward by those that want to benefit from reduced access. Cappello did not say who he believed this was.
While most opposed the widespread changes that are currently on the table, many people agreed that the plaza is in need of several minor fixes.
Aguilar said that the current proposed changes grew from an effort by the city in 2004 to identify a number of “fix it’s” that the plaza was in need of.
The council opted to forgo the minor fixes, which included improving lighting, relocating an electrical transformer and fixing the sidewalks, to explore more major changes, Aguilar said.
Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum said last night that she’s interested to sit down with the subcommittee and see what the consensus is from the public and the various groups that have viewed the plan.
“I know we don’t have enough money to do everything that was proposed so it will be interesting to see what the core consensus is,” she said.
Blum acknowledged that when its all said and done, the council may have come full circle, from wanting to implement some fixes, to a major overhaul and back to making some fixes.
Terry Tyler, who spoke during public comment, said he is opposed to the current proposed changes but was in favor of the minor fixes.
Tyler described the current situation as, “What starts out as a fix turns out to be an extreme makeover.”
City Councilman Dale Francisco said he also is opposed to the proposed changes.
“If we limit car access we’re reducing vitality not increasing it,” he said, adding that the volume of traffic around the plaza does not present a navigation problem for pedestrians.
Partrick O’Dowd, a former chief curator with the Santa Barbara Trust for Historical Preservation, who put together the book “Plaza de la Guerra Reconsidered,” said he believes the proposed changes would complete the original 1924 vision for the plaza and make it an all around better place.
“I think it’s a big improvement,” O’Dowd said of the changes. “It could be a great spot.”
While the majority of the Planning Commissioners said they are more in favor of minor fixes, Commissioner Charmaine Curtis Jacobs said she hopes to see the plaza undergo a larger facelift.
“I hope the people of Santa Barbara have the will to turn it back into a civic center gathering place as it was originally intended,” she said.

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