Downtown Santa Barbara
The new façade of downtown Santa Barbara. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

Clean up your act — sort of. 

That’s what the Santa Barbara City Council told restaurants with outdoor dining on 10 blocks of State Street. 

The council voted 5-2 Tuesday evening to make swift changes to outdoor dining, a little more than two years after the city closed a portion of State Street to cars in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Council members Kristen Sneddon, Meagan Harmon, Alejandra Gutierrez, Oscar Gutierrez and Mike Jordan were in support of the change, while Mayor Randy Rowse and Councilman Eric Friedman were opposed. 

“The downtown retail district remains the No. 1 attraction for our visitors,” said Kathy Janega-Dykes, president and CEO of Visit Santa Barbara. “Downtown’s reputation is intricately tied to Santa Barbara’s overall brand perception. Any steps we can take to optimize and improve State Street will enhance that visitor experience here.”

In approving the changes, however, the council accepted the staff’s premise that State Street will be in an interim stage for another “two to five years.”

Friedman said he was uncomfortable approving something with such a long and vague end date. Rowse also was hesitant of essentially allowing outdoor dining indefinitely, with design changes that he felt where “painting some parklets brown so it fits in.”

He said all the focus on restaurants was coming at the expense of other businesses.

“I am not saying it has to go back to exactly the way it was,” Rowse said. “But I sure as heck don’t want to say, ‘let’s see what we can do for the next four or five years, and have it be the county fair. I don’t think that’s fair to this town. It’s not fair to our legacy.”

Rowse, a former longtime restaurant owner, is typically muted in council discussions, often seeking to strike a middle ground and move the meeting along.

But this issue has elicited strong emotions for two consecutive meetings on the topic. 

“It really seems that the concern we have for having a closed street is trumping the vitality of downtown,” Rowse said. “The restaurant business all over town didn’t increase, it concentrated. There’s places that are hurting other places. We didn’t make the pie any bigger. We just concentrated the slices of pie in one area.”

Rowse said he has a history of supporting restaurants and small businesses from his time as owner of the Paradise Cafe and decades in public service. 

“We have an entire city to govern,” Rowse said. “We have other properties that are important. People say retail is dead. You better hope not. Restaurants and retail go hand-in-hand. There’s more than just the restaurant business downtown.”

Rowse added that people “want their Santa Barbara back.”

City staff rushed to closed parts of State Street to cars in 2020, shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic erupted. But closing State Street to vehicles had long been a goal of alternative transportation advocates who worked for the city and the in the community.

Using the pandemic as the reason to move quickly, the city bypasses all of the typical design approval steps, including going to the Historic Landmarks Commission, which reviews projects in the city’s El Pueblo Viejo District. 

Two years later, the 500 block of State Street attracts crowds to eat, but some retail spots and restaurants not on the 500 block are struggling. The outdoor dining also displaced parades on State Street.

Rowse, from his time on the City Council, has never been an advocate for closing State Street to cars.

The council actions Tuesday night 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, parades must be off State Street until the State Street Master Plan is conceived, which is expected to take up to five years.

The outdoor dining has made it difficul for people to experience the parades in the same way, and has also created public-safety concerns.

“Anytime we have a wider street is better,” said police Capt. Marylinda Arroyo. “More visibility, always better.”

Businesses also have to address any storm runoff problems that might exists from their outdoor dining structures before Dec. 1. All new businesses, beginning today, that want to create portable dining structures, must make them portable. 

The most notable new requirements for outdoor dining structures state that “platforms must be stained, painted, or colored a dark El Pueblo Viejo-approved color (“iron colors” from guidelines) and that “the area underneath any platform must be accessible for cleaning.”

Turf, fake grass and lawn are prohibited, and barriers and rails should be no higher than 48 inches.

The finance committee will also review a proposed fee structure for outdoor dining facilities. The amount still needs to be approved by the council, but the recommendation is $5 per square foot for all space within property frontage

Restaurant owner Richard Yates expressed concerns about the fee structure. 

“Five dollars is significantly higher than most typical patio rent,” Yates said. “Make it too high, and we’ll lose parkletts. Why not keep the rent low enough to ensure maximum participation?”

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