Hardscape? That would be a hard no.
The Santa Barbara Historic Landmarks Commission and members of the public thumped a proposal to remove the grass in De la Guerra Plaza and replace it with hardscape, a water feature, an architectural arcade, a stage area and other contemporary features.
The plan has been in the works for a couple of years, and the HLC so far has not liked any proposal brought forward. The contemporary features would sit across the street from the historic Casa de la Guerra.
Leading the public charge against the proposal on Wednesday was Lanny Ebenstein, an economist and community historian and activist. He did not mince words about the RRM Design Group renderings.
“The people don’t want to lose the lawn in De la Guerra Plaza,” Ebenstein said. “Period. Take that to the bank; 100 years from now there will be lawn in De la Guerra Plaza as there’s been lawn in De la Guerra Plaza for almost the past century.”
If the City Council approves the plan, Ebenstein said, there would be another option — the ballot box.
“If you think you can win the vote of the people, continue on the path that you are on,” Ebenstein said.
The proposal also calls for eliminating the horseshoe roadway and flattening the plaza to the same level. The parking in the plaza would be removed, but angled spaces would be added on De la Guerra Street, next to City Hall.
The most controversial part of the proposal calls for removing the grass and installing a water feature that would spout water about 2 feet high for children to play in and to serve as a decorative element.
Members of the HLC rejected the idea.
“I don’t think that the proposal we are seeing is reasonable and appropriate for the city of Santa Barbara,” Commissioner Ed Lenvik said. “It is not what the historic center of our town is or should be or wants to be or was. I could never support a water feature. This thing has to be simpler.”
Commissioner Michael Drury said he doesn’t like plan.
“I don’t support the water feature at all,” Drury said. “I think the idea of the plaza is someplace where people can go and not have to worry about kids running through the water.”
He said he wants trees around the border to bring shade to the area and the plaza to be a resting area away from the activity on State Street.
“I would like to see a turned-down intensity of what is being proposed,” he said.
The plaza once was a vibrant city center that was home to events, festivals, demonstrations and people hanging out on the lawn. However, the city has neglected the spot, which sits between City Hall and the backs of several State Street restaurants and businesses, and now it sits mostly vacant, with the exception of unhoused people who frequent the area.
Anna Marie Gott, a neighborhood activist, also spoke at the meeting and said the water feature has to go.
“The splash pad is going to beckon homeless people,” she said.
She added that she has seen people washing clothes and brushing their teeth in the dolphin fountain on Cabrillo Boulevard.
“There are not enough places for the homeless to take showers and baths,” Gott said. “They will use the splash pad. You will not be able to keep people out of it unless you have the police there.”
City project planner Bradley Hess said he recognized the concerns and that he didn’t have solutions.
He said design features can be incorporated that discourage the homeless, including benches with bars in the middle that make it uncomfortable for people to sleep. In the architectural arcades, bright lights would shine down, making it tough to sleep, he said.
“I say this with some trepidation,” Hess said. “We need to decide where the priority is — if we are going to accommodate the homeless in this space or if we are going to prioritize the city and its personnel. We want to show compassion and empathy, and at the same time we need to design the space for the city constituents. There’s a balance there, and we need to figure it out.”
He also defended the removal of the grass, suggesting that after the Old Spanish Days Fiestas, it takes up to three months for the grass to return because the area is “completely destroyed.”
The commission voted 5-0 to continue the item to give the architect and the city more time to consider the project’s design.