State Street in Santa Barbara.
Business owners along Santa Barbara’s State Street promenade can continue with outdoor dining but will have to create a 20-foot fire lane down the middle of the road, the City Council decided Tuesday. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

Outdoor dining along the State Street promenade will continue, but with a 20-foot fire lane down the middle, the Santa Barbara City Council decided on Tuesday night. 

City staff had proposed a multitude of changes, most of which were shot down, largely because they were sprung on the public without any conversations with the business community or council members. 

Councilman Mike Jordan, typically a defender of city employees, ripped the staff for a lack of communication, saying he had not seen such a public relations debacle in the dozen years he was a planning commissioner and now council member. 

“This particular process, over the past 2½ weeks, is one of the worst that I have witnessed in those 12 years,” Jordan said. “I found out about the fire lane issue the same day the public did.”

He said the city’s process was a “lack of outreach effort.”

“To have stakeholders notified by just a notice being dropped off to whomever was at their business that day — a body, whether that’s a server, an owner, a dishwasher, whatever — is not the definition of outreach,” Jordan said. “It’s backwards.”

City staff in January proposed that outdoor dining structures on the State Street promenade be portable and that there be at least a 20-foot-wide passage way down State Street. Currently, there’s about 14.6 feet of space down the middle. The proposal also called for returning Victoria Street and the 1300 block of State Street to two-way vehicular traffic.

The business owners, however, said they felt left out of the process because city staff just unleashed a proposed ordinance that looked to dramatically change outdoor dining. The council rejected all of the staff proposals and encouraged them to be discussed in adhoc committee with proper outreach. Apparently, the 20-foot fire lane is a state law that city staff overlooked when they allowed outdoor dining, so the council really had no choice but to approve that change.

Councilwoman Kristen Sneddon said it was “incredible” the amount of support through emails and calls that she received for maintaining outdoor dining. 

“It’s not just something for businesses,” she said. “It’s something for the whole community, and this is what the community has been asking for.”

State Street, particularly the 500 block, has been transformed into a vibrant and energetic scene where people of all ages go to eat, socialize and be seen. Many of the busineses have invested tens of thousands of dollars into their outdoor dining setups and would not have been in a position to immediately make them portable.

Mayor Pro Tempore Meagan Harmon said that despite the communications snafu, the city and the businesses are in a better place.

“Lessons certainly have been learned about communication, about engagement, about how we share information with one another and stakeholders,” Harmon said. “But I see what has come out of this evening really as quite the positive step and forward movement in the development of what State Street will be for the next generation.”

She noted the work of the ordinance committee — made up of Sneddon, Jordan and Oscar Gutierrez — for redrafting of the proposal earlier in the day. Even though “mistakes were made,” she said, the city is headed in the right direction. 

“The success of the last two years of the State Street promenade in a lot of ways is premised on our commitment as a city and to the responsiveness that is really rooted in the collaborative engagement of the stakeholders on the street,” Harmon said. “So much of what we have seen that has been positive about the promenade and what has developed is a function of that.”

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.