By Alex Pujo
Longtime residents often wonder why our region, once lauded as the cradle of the environmental movement and a leader in planning circles, now lags behind when it comes to getting anything done.
Call it ‘the accomplishment gap’: During the 30 years that we spent debating a ‘people mover’ on State Street, a trolley from Carpinteria to Isla Vista and a commuter train from Oxnard to Goleta -and we ended up instead with a wider freeway- Los Angeles, a city of freeways, built hundreds of miles of commuter rail, light rail lines of every color, subways under dense corridors and metro bus stretching out to the valleys.
And how about housing –the other side of the transportation equation? Along with rebuilding a transit network, Los Angeles more than tripled its downtown population and is no longer deserted after 5 pm. And Santa Barbara? Well… we debated endlessly about adding small rentals with less parking closer to town, but built precious little -and we are still talking about that.
While basic fixes move at a glacial pace, the conversation at City Hall gets bogged down by parking, fear of change and “we need another study”. There is nothing wrong with big projects, like the proposal to fix the lower State Street underpass but, why do the small fixes take so long, or never get done?
This article is written in the midst of a big municipal election and by press time Santa Barbara may have elected as Mayor the one candidate who has consistently denied climate change and advocated against active transportation and smart growth policies. The reason for this political morass is not that sustainability and the environment are no longer important to a majority of voters, but rather because there is not a clear, shared vision for a sustainable future –something tangible that goes beyond protecting what we already have.
The irony is that much of what Santa Barbara desperately needs can be accomplished rather easily. To begin with, we need lots of paint. To paint green bikeways is nowhere as complex as building the class I networks of the 1970s but, to hear the bureaucrats, this is asking for the sky. There is also no excuse for the treacherous gaps on Upper State over 101, access to City College, Hollister at Old Town and other glaring system deficiencies. And no excuse either for delaying the prompt implementation of ‘buffered’ lanes.
Another ‘low hanging fruit’ is the implementation of traffic calming area-wide with improved intersections, road diets and re-striping. These are not big or expensive projects, but they require a clear vision and sharp focus.
The same is true with housing, as small scale solutions are perfectly fine for communities like ours. Sacramento has recently enacted a series of laws aimed at removing local barriers to the construction of accessory dwelling units (ADUs). Since SB 1069 went into effect on January 1st of this year, the City of Santa Barbara received 230 applications; most of them are still sitting there, in spite of the state’s directive to approve them within 120 days. And a good number of these ADU applications are for legalizing units already built or converted without permits, many of them decades ago.
There is never a shortage of calls for caution, to measure twice and ‘what ifs?’, but the status quo is not the answer for everyone who lives and works in Paradise -not for those forced to commute, to hide in substandard housing or to risk life and limb on foot, or on two wheels.
A larger vision is something that takes into consideration architectural design, human scale, historic preservation, public views and community character, but never at the expense of environmental justice.