The Santa Barbara City Council voted Tuesday to advance plans for De la Guerra Plaza infrastructure improvements and an alternative giving program.

When the plaza improvement plans were initially brought up in 2004, the Redevelopment Agency staff was directed to “keep it the same but make it better,” said Brian Bosse, housing and redevelopment manager.

After community outreach and design discussions, current plans under consideration include raising the U-road flush with the lawn, changing parking designations and moving electrical boards and other utilities off the lawn.

More than $2 million has been allocated from RDA funds — which come from property taxes — for the project.

“This street really is an embarrassment,” Mayor Marty Blum said.

Council members Dale Francisco and Iya Falcone voted against the project continuing as-is and disagreed with raising the street level. The possibility of loop and De la Guerra Street closures, and new events in the plaza, also were causes of concern for the council.

The issue of parking spaces vs. park space was the focus of Tuesday’s public comment period on the project. Residents worried that removing spaces would decrease access to City Hall and the downtown area. In the current concept design, five parking spaces would be lost, and 75-minute spaces would be converted to 15-minute spots.

The council’s approval is merely the starting point to get the project moving again. It still has to go through more design and environmental reviews.

Another Redevelopment Agency project that got the go-ahead Tuesday was the panhandling education and alternative giving campaign.

Funding of up to $75,000 will be allocated to the two-phase program that includes educating visitors and residents against giving cash to the homeless and helping people find other ways to give.

Phase one, which will launch in March, involves placing countertop donation boxes in local stores and launching a publicity campaign. The second phase will increase giving opportunities to streetside boxes that can bring in more revenue through sponsorships.

Staff members who presented the project said most cash given to homeless on the street is not used for food, clothes or shelter, but is often spent on alcohol or drugs. The program is based on similar ones in other states.

Representatives from the Downtown Organization and the Santa Barbara Conference and Visitors Bureau spoke in favor of the program, part of the City Council’s 12-point plan to address issues related to homelessness.

The money will be used for street outreach in the areas targeted by the program, including downtown State Street, lower Milpas Street and the waterfront.

Casa Esperanza will help manage the program, and many local agencies are involved in the effort, which has taken months to come to fruition.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at gmagnoli@noozhawk.com.

Giana Magnoli, Noozhawk Managing Editor

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at gmagnoli@noozhawk.com.