State Street rendering.
A rendering shows the proposed design for Santa Barbara's State Street. Credit: City of Santa Barbara rendering

A battle between bicyclists and pedestrians took center stage at Thursday’s meeting to talk about the future of Santa Barbara’s State Street.

The consultant group MIG presented three plans for State Street, and in doing so, sparked a fiery and intense discussion among dozens of people in the room.

“I am not anti-bike, but I am anti-disrespectful and bad behavior,” said Steve Fort, who spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting. “It’s a public space. It’s not a bike playground. I am a little troubled that we are bending over backwards for bikes here.”

The meeting was held by the State Street Advisory Committee in the library’s Faulkner Gallery. The presentations heavily favored bicycle access, with some committee members and the public accusing the city staff of wanting to turn State Street into a bicycle “thoroughfare.”

A heated discussion erupted between developer Peter Lewis, who sits on the committee, and Tess Harris, the city’s State Street master planner.

“If essentially engineering is telling us we really want to make that a thoroughfare, that drives our design and then all of a sudden we have to figure out how to make it work,” Lewis said.

Lewis said city traffic engineers should have said from the beginning that building State Street around bicycling was the goal.

“If that’s the case, this committee needs to kind of wrestle with that and decide if we agree with engineering,” Lewis said.

When he started to tell the engineering staff to visit Boulder, Colorado, to see how their downtown works, Harris attempted to jump in.

“If I can just interrupt for a minute, it is not just the city staff that has recommended this,” Harris said.

Lewis tried to continue speaking and Harris responded, putting the palms of her hands up in the air, “Hold on, hold on.”

Lewis spoke over her.

“This isn’t fair. I am in the middle of it; I don’t need to be cut off at this point. I am not trying to make the city staff feel bad,” Lewis said.

The exchange spotlighted the deep divisions in the room over the future of State Street. Former transportation planner Rob Dayton closed State Street to cars in May 2020 shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic began. Ever since, it’s been a hybrid of pedestrians, bicycles, skateboarders, dog walkers, and scooters, mixed with outdoor dining in spots.

The city created the master plan committee and hired the $800,000 consultant to oversee the process. State Street has long been the primary attraction for locals and tourists, but the community has been wrestling for three years now with the look, design and feel of State Street.

Depending on a person’s perspective, the street is either an outdoor haven for dining, bicyclists and pedestrian activity, or it’s a shabby, messy cluster of mixed uses, with bicyclists, some of them on electric vehicles, zooming down the street, threatening the safety of pedestrians.

It’s the consultant and committee’s job to figure out the answer.

MIG presented three plans during the three-hour meeting.

Plan 1, known as “Flat and Flexible,” would include the 500 through 1,200 blocks and would eliminate curbs on some blocks to allow for maximum activation and programming. Service cars would be allowed on the 700 and 900 blocks during the morning.

Plan 2, known as “Multi-Modal,” would stretch from the 500 to 1,300 blocks with curbs, and would be open to one-way cars toward the ocean, along with a designated bike path, and pedestrians on the sidewalk.

The third plan, a “Mixed/Hybrid,” would combine elements of all three, with the 500 to 600 and 1000 to 1,300 blocks being multi-modal and the 700-900 blocks, flat and flexible.

Some people also clashed over the role of outdoor dining in the plans.

“People were anticipating that outdoor dining was going to be prominent and pedestrian space would be prominent,” said Dave Davis, chair of the State Street Advisory Committee. “The scenarios I have seen so far basically accommodate bikes and cars, and I think we need to look beyond that.”

Ed Lenvik, a member of the State Street Advisory Committee, asked why so much of the planning focused on outdoor dining.

“We are obsessed with restaurants, it seems,” Lenvik said.

He recited statistics that there are no outdoor dining parklets on the 900 block, one on the 800 block, one on the 700 block, four on the 600 block and 15 on the 500 block.

“I don’t know that we should be obsessed with restaurants on the entire reach of State Street,” Lenvik said. “We are obsessed with restaurants, and there just aren’t that many.”

Robin Elander, executive director of the Downtown Organization, urged the consultant to remember the business community’s needs amid the discussion.

“This is our central business district, and this has to work for the existing and future businesses,” Elander said.

She noted that the consultant showed a lot of renderings, but not necessarily anything focused on retail or other business types, Elander said.

“We have more than 1,700 businesses in this area,” Elander said. “Thinking about it as it relates to those businesses is really critical.”

No decisions were made, and the committee will continue its discussions.