On Jan. 1, 2024, the outdoor dining parklets on State Street in downtown Santa Barbara go away.

But then what happens?

The Santa Barbara Historic Landmarks Commission met last week to discuss what State Street should look like during the time when the Economic Recovery Extension and
Transition Ordinance expires Dec. 31, 2023, and whenever the results of the State Street Master Plan get put into play.

The answer? It’s unclear.

HLC chair Anthony Grumbine was blunt in his assessment of the situation.

“The biggest offenses visually in my mind when we walk down State Street are these vertical surfaces that are not El Pueblo Viejo surfaces,” Grumbine said. “They don’t feel like Santa Barbara at all. They feel like leftovers at Home Depot.”

Grumbine set the tone of the meeting early, remarking that the HLC never had the option to review the outdoor dining structures in 2020.

City staff rushed to closed parts of State Street to cars in 2020, shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic erupted. Closing downtown’s main drag to vehicles had long been a goal of alternative-transportation advocates who worked for the city and those in the community.

Using the pandemic as the reason to move quickly, the city bypassed all of the typical design approval steps, including going to the Historic Landmarks Commission, which reviews projects in the city’s El Pueblo Viejo District. 

“These were always meant to be temporary, then it became months, then half years, then years,” Grumbine said.

He pointed out the oddness of the fact that the HLC weighed in on the fence around the Santa Barbara Public Library Plaza, but somehow never had input on the dozens of outdoor dining structures in the city.

“Considering that we reviewed construction fencing, it’s time to really review State Street as a whole, as a whole body, and that’s not only our purview, but our duty,” Grumbine said.

The committee took no action and decided to discuss the matter in a month. But the members offered many opinions.

“My feeling is that this is like a ball of mercury on the table,” Commissioner Michael Drury said. “It is going to be difficult to get our hand on it and control it.”

Drury said his impression is that a vast majority of the citizens don’t want to turn State Street back into a “thoroughfare.”

“I have seen more people enjoying, the citizens, the local citizens, not just the tourists, enjoying State Street in the evening than I have ever seen,” Drury said.

Come May 1, restaurant owners will have to pay for outdoor dining. The rates will vary widely, but a portable setup with a platform and no roof would cost $4 a square foot.

Structures that are not portable, have no roof, but have a platform would be $4.50 per square foot, and structures not portable with a roof would be $5 a square foot.

Commissioner Ed Lenvik said many of the challenges related to outdoor dining might take care of themselves.

“I think it is entirely possible that we see half of the existing parklets vanish when they realize they have to take money out of their back pocket to pay for that space they are currently occupying,” Lenvik said.

The current situation is untenable, he added.

“What I think our concern is, is getting rid of the junk that is contaminating the beauty of State Street, which are the parklets,” Lenvik said. “We got to get rid of them.”

Longterm, some financial realities also exist.

“If turning State Street into a walking plaza at one level is $100 million, who is going to pay for that,” Lenvik said. “If not turning it into that is only $30 million, that may be more acceptable.