A parklet along State Street in Santa Barbara.
Dining parklets and bicyclists can remain on State Street, the Santa Barbara City Council decided Tuesday. It also voted to keep the street closed to vehicles. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

Nine blocks of State Street will remain closed to vehicular traffic through at least 2026, the Santa Barbara City Council decided Tuesday.

The meeting lasted for five hours, with more than 60 people filling out speaker slips. Some council members expressed frustration with one another, the process and City Administrator Rebecca Bjork.

Councilwoman Meagan Harmon said it was important that the city change the paradigm of the conversation around State Street. She momentarily halted her comments to look and glare at colleague Mike Jordan, who was talking over her while she was trying to speak.

“[We need to change that] paradigm to one that permanently commits to and prioritizes robust communal life,” Harmon said. “Robust communal life in the form of our State Street promenade and robust communal life in the form of outdoor dining, including parklets, everywhere in our city.”

The vote to keep State Street closed to vehicles was 5-2, with Councilman Eric Friedman and Mayor Randy Rowse voting in opposition.

Rowse and Friedman said the city should experiment with keeping State Street closed to vehicles on just a couple of the busiest blocks with outdoor dining, but reopen it to cars for the rest of the promenade.

“Something different’s got to happen than what’s out there because what’s out there looks like it did in June 2020,” Rowse said, pointing his thumb backward from City Hall to State Street. “This is our fourth summer of that. I don’t think it is responsible.”

Rowse also said that the current State Street configuration excludes people with disabilities and seniors who can’t navigate the parklets, pedestrians and bicycles safely.

El Bajio Restaurant on Milpas Street in Santa Barbara.
El Bajio on Milpas Street, and other restaurants with parklets throughout Santa Barbara, must follow guidelines that will be established by a committee. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

Councilwoman Kristen Sneddon framed the discussion, which included multiple votes.

In addition to keeping State Street closed to vehicles, the council also voted to direct the Ordinance Committee to create a public right-of-way parklet design program for parklets outside of the promenade. That vote was 6-1, with Rowse in opposition.

Private property parklets can remain throughout the city but must go through the Community Development Department for permitting approvals. That vote was 7-0.

Finally, the council voted 6-1, with Rowse dissenting, to replace an ad hoc committee with a public, State Street interim operations committee that must comply with the Brown Act, the state’s open meetings law.

“The biggest psychological impact a city can have is on creating spaces for people to be together,” Sneddon said. “To me, cars in individual lanes is not an opportunity to be together. We are in transition. This is a new era.”

The council’s decision was a win for downtown restaurants and other businesses.

Robin Elander, executive director of Downtown Santa Barbara, rattled off statistics about how large retail chains are closing all over the country in an attempt to show that retail is struggling as a nationwide trend.

She said Placer.Ai data show 200,000 more visits to the promenade area in 2022 compared with 2019.

“Despite the significant challenges, downtown Santa Barbara is doing quite well in responding to our collective efforts,” Elander said.

The issue highlighted deep division in the community. Although community surveys showed that a majority of responders enjoy State Street with outdoor dining, critics, including Rowse, said the city was planning around restaurants only and not taking into consideration the needs of retail tenants.

The street bustles on the 500 block of State Street, which has 15 parklets, but other blocks up to the 1300 block have fewer parklets and outdoor dining options. In addition, the closed street has created a situation where pedestrians, bicyclists, some of them on electric bikes, skateboarders and others must share the road.

Sneddon said she hopes the new subcommittee will work on addressing some of those issues. Harmon said the time for trying to go back to pre-COVID-19 conditions is over. The time now is to find solutions, she said, not look for ways to fail.

“It’s not about getting to ‘no,'” Harmon said. “It’s about how do we get to ‘yes.'”

Councilman Oscar Gutierrez said he was working hard to control his frustration.

“I, too, am really tired of just the talk, just the talking and the lack of action,” Gutierrez said.

He paused, slowed his speech and scolded some members of the audience and his colleagues for not supporting his effort to close the 400 block of State Street to vehicles, too. He said there are many business owners of color on that block and that they have been mistreated. Gutierrez has been pushing for the 400 block, which is in his district, to also be closed to vehicles.

He also said he wished that some of the energy from members of the public could be spent on demanding that absentee landlords rent their vacant spaces so that businesses can flourish.

“If you stand on the corner of Haley and State streets, it literally feels like you are standing at the corner of West and East Berlin,” Gutierrez said. “That’s the way it kind of feels and looks like.”