Three times since 2020, M. Special Brewing Co. co-owner Joshua Ellis has pulled up the parklet in front of his restaurant and tap room on the 600 block of State Street in Santa Barbara.
He and his crews have never found a rat underneath the outdoor dining structure.
“There are no rats underneath my parklet,” Ellis said. “There never have been.”
Any pest problems in downtown Santa Barbara, he said, were there before the outdoor dining structures were built.
Amid rumors of rats, a decline in the number of workers who eat lunch downtown, and a city government moving at a gingerly pace to complete a State Street Master Plan, businesses in the downtown core are struggling to survive both in reality and in perception.
The city of Santa Barbara has hired a consultant to oversee the Master Plan process, with a focus on community outreach, at a cost of $780,000.
The consultant is looking at Bell Street in Seattle, Church Street in Greensboro, North Carolina, First Street in Long Beach and downtown San Antonio as examples of vibrant areas. Meanwhile, businesses are closing their doors.
The Natural Cafe owner Kelly Brown announced three weeks ago that he was closing his once-popular restaurant on the 500 block of State Street, citing homelessness, city red tape and the presence of rats.
Not since the Earthling Bookstore closed in 1998 has the closure of a business sparked so much buzz — and controversy.
Brown, in a letter to his property owner, wrote: “The rat/vermin problem, which starts with the city and their lack of any program to address this, has in the last few years become intolerable. Look under any parklet and you will find rats nests. Food is just falling on them from above.”
City of Santa Barbara officials have said that rats profilerating State Street is just a tale.
“At this point, we have not observed any rat problem specifically attributable to the parklets,” said Sarah Clark, downtown plaza parking manager. “We work hard to maintain vegetation, remove trash and create a clean environment on State Street to avoid providing food and harborage that can attract and shelter rodents.”
Robin Elander, executive director of the Downtown Association, said the perception of rats downtown is false.
“This issue has been completely blown out of proportion,” Elander said. “Ninety-nine percent of business owners and members of the public I have talked to have never seen a rat downtown. This issue has been raised to be alarmist by people who want State Street to go back to the way things were pre-COVID.”
The City Council in September voted to require restaurants to comply with design guideliness by Feb. 1. Those guidelines will be in place for the next two to five years. In addition, businesses have to address any storm runoff problems that might exist from their outdoor dining structures before Dec. 1. The area underneath any platform must be accessible for cleaning.
Clark acknowledged that rodent nesting under platforms remains a concern and that the city has not inspected the parklets for rodents.
“These areas could certainly provide harborage for rodents, so it’s important that we work with the businesses to mitigate this possibility,” she said.
The new design rules require businesses to modify platforms to make it easier to keep the undersides clean.
“We’re hopeful these changes will also help keep the rodent population down,” Clark said.
The city has maintained a robust rodent abatement program on State Street for many years, she said.
“We have a pest control contractor who places and maintains approximately 80 traps along State Street, from the 300 to 1200 block, which are checked weekly,” she said. “We track every rodent caught, and have not seen any recent uptick.”
There might even be fewer rodents, she said.
“We’re working on pulling together data on our rodent abatement program through the years, but it’s my understanding that the counts in recent months have been on the lower end of the historical averages,” Clark said.
John Nasser, owner of Night Lizard Brewing Co. on State Street, pulled up his parklet on Saturday morning in anticipation of the new storm runoff rules going into place. He said he didn’t find a single rat.
He is working with a group called Friends of State Street, whose members volunteered to help him remove his deck permanently. Instead, he put out tables and chairs and won’t have to worry about storm runoff problems.
Nasser said he has seen only one rat and that was more than four years ago.
“I have never seen a dropping,” he said.
He wants all businesses to work together to solve problems because a perception of a rat problem hurts everyone.
“This town is special,” Nasser said. “This community is special.”
Among the other concerns about the outdoor dining structures has been the impact on retail. The city has fussed over the outdoor dining requirements, while vacant storefronts sit at about 35, according to Radius Commercial Real Estate’s most recent quarterly report.
Alan Howard, the owner of Antique Alley, said his retail business has improved since the outdoor dining and closure of State Street went into place in 2022.
“I have been here for 30 years, and I have seen it all,” Howard said of his business on the 700 block. “At the beginning, when they talked about closing off the street, I was the naysayer.”
He said in the past his business would plummet during street closures for parades or car shows.
“Now, I am the cheerleader for the street,” Howard said. “It totally flipped it around for me. My business has never been better.”
He said allowing the bikes, skateboarders and scooters back on State Street has rejuvenated the area.
“It’s brought the kids, the youth of Santa Barbara back to State Street, almost like hanging at the mall,” Howard said.
Aron Ashland, owner of The Cruisery on the 500 block, said it’s unfair to blame the rats on the parklets, but he does have other, more serious concerns about the city’s handling of the situation.
“The parklets didn’t create the problem, or make it worse,” Ashland said.
He blamed any increase in rats on nearby hotel construction and that the critters are being scared out of their normal digs. But those kinds of rats, he said, are roof rats and aren’t looking to live under parklets.
The real problems, he said, are not the rats, but the rules forced on the businesses.
The requirement to create a 20-foot-wide fire lane down the middle of State Street forced business to reduce the amount of outdoor dining.
“The city ruined it,” Ashland said. “A year ago, it was vibrant. There were people down here playing in the streets, walking their dogs and everything, and now it’s like a bicycle race track.”
The city rules “crushed” downtown, he said.
“It’s a shortcut for e-bikes to get to the beach,” Ashland said of State Street. “No one is riding their electric bikes downtown to shop or to eat. They are riding them to go hang out at the beach.”
For M. Special owner Ellis, he just wants all of the business owners to work together to make sure the outdoor dining structures remain.
“I just think these parklets, this promenade, are really good for Santa Barbara and amazing for State Street,” Ellis said. “I am going to work with the city and do everything that they want to do and try to keep this, and I think it is really good for downtown.”