Outdoor dining on State Street.
The City of Santa Barbara is considering an “outdoor business facility charge” for use of the public right-of-way on the State Street promenade, from the 400 to the 1300 blocks of State Street. Credit: Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo

It took the Santa Barbara Finance Committee one hour and 17 minutes to do nothing.

The committee was supposed to make a recommendation to the full City Council about whether to charge restaurants $5 a square foot for outdoor dining space, but the three members present couldn’t agree.

So, they made no recommendation to the council. 

“I don’t know what the answer is, but I don’t think we have found the answer today,” said Mayor Randy Rowse, who was filling in for committee member Alejandra Gutierrez. 

City staff proposed an “outdoor business facility charge” for use of the public right-of-way on the State Street promenade, from the 400 to the 1300 blocks of State Street.

The proposal was the latest city attempt to manage the promenade, after city planners closed the street to vehicles in June 2020.

The city hired a consultant for $800,000 to oversee a master plan for the area, but restaurants and retailers have collided over the State Street closure, with critics, including Mayor Rowse, saying the closure has unfairly benefited restaurants over retail outlets. 

Committee member Eric Friedman supported the $5 charge. Rowse expressed concerns about parklets in general and questioned why the city still even had the street closed to vehicles.

Committee member Meagan Harmon wanted a $3 charge for restaurants. She said charging restaurants $5 a square foot was too much. According to a staff analysis, there would be a 25% attrition rate if the city implemented a $5 per-square-foot fee for outdoor dining.

“To me, that’s too much,” Harmon said. “I want energy. I want these parklets. That’s a big red flag to me that these are going to go away. I don’t want that.”

She said that as the city is simultaneously embarking on a State Street Master Plan, it doesn’t make sense to take action that causes the city to lose energy. 

Some of the public speakers agreed. 

“Some businesses said they could potentially pay the $3 to $5 per square foot, but they would make little to no profit,” said Robin Elander, executive director of the Downtown Association. “Restaurateurs expressed that they are dealing with exorbitantly high housing prices for their workers and have had to increase wages and are dealing with high costs due to inflation.”

Bob Stout, owner of the Wildcat Lounge, said $3 a square foot would be more appropriate and that the city shouldn’t discourage outdoor dining. 

“Outdoor dining is really, really important,” Stout said. “COVID has not gone away. We are in the winter season.”

The matter will now go before the full City Council.

Council Sets Aside $3.6 Million for Housing

Later, at the City Council meeting, the council voted on how to spend an unexpected $14.6 million budget surplus.

The council voted to set aside $3.65 million for a Housing Trust Fund, $7.3 million for General Fund reserves, $1.8 million to pensions and another $1.8 million for raises for city employees. 

Councilwoman Harmon said dedicating money to a Housing Trust Fund was investment in the community. 

“This is a chance for us to truly hit a home run,” she said, “and have incredible leverage and multiplied. It’s an investment.”

She said it’s good when the city invests its money in the stock market, but setting aside money for housing “is an opportunity to invest in our community in a tangible way, and that provides unlimited return.”

The vote was 5-1, with Gutierrez absent and Rowse voting no.

Joshua Molina

Joshua Molina, Noozhawk Staff Writer

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at jmolina@noozhawk.com.