CPA Sends HLC Suggestions for De la Guerra Plaza

Re: HLC Concept Review, Item 4, de la Guerra Plaza, 20 de la Guerra St.

Dear Historic Landmarks Commission members:

Citizens Planning Association has been active in Santa Barbara since 1960, working for good planning, including the preservation of our historic resources for the present and future appreciation of Santa Barbara residents. The de la Guerra Plaza is central to the two or three blocks of our historic civic center, the heart of our city, and it deserves and needs careful and caring attention. It’s also our Commons, belonging to all of us, the housed or, as, sadly, too many Santa Barbarans these days, the unhoused. And, finally, it’s not a park but a plaza that has had a lot of study and praise over the years. We watched the 1999 Plaza de la Guerra Reconsidered Symposium, learning some of the history of our city and its Commons.

It’s a balance: city commons are organic, not stuck in the past but responsive to present needs and designs, always keeping in mind the wishes of the residents. It is a herculean task for planners and one we think that has not been well met: this has been a top-down, staff-driven process, starting with the so-called workshop of March, 2019. CPA representatives participated, thinking that this would be different, a true outreach for Santa Barbara ideas, a charette, basically, where we all participated, but instead it was not. True, there were pages to respond to questions asking for opinions, but it was apparently already decided that the Plaza needed a major overhaul.

A committee was born, its name indicating the intention, DE LA GUERRA PLAZA REVITALIZATION ADVISORY COMMITTEE. It met once in 2019, 3 or 7 times in 2020, the website says both, and three times in 2021, again according to its webpage. The staff report says 12 meetings over 25 months on Friday mornings; CPA representatives attended, via webinar, of course, after the first (in person) meeting, many of the meetings that were notable in having very little public participation. It was a committee of two councilmembers and tried and true city commissioners, with no ordinary Santa Barbara public Plaza-users to hone the staff-chosen RRM presentations.

For two weeks last October there was an “online community questionnaire”, designed “to confirm if the project is still consistent with the desires of the community” to which there were a tiny number, 342, of responses, with the major concern, 85, being homelessness (page 3, staff report).

Recommendations for the HLC Concept Review:

Landscaping: first and foremost, there needs to be a grassy center. In this period of a changing climate and the recognition of the value of greenery, to convert even a small Plaza into hardscape is not acceptable and not wanted, probably, by most Santa Barbarans increasingly few of whom have their own backyards. The 2011 plans brought the lawn from 17,307 sq. ft, 43.5% of the project area, down to 10,731 sq. ft; why, a little more than 10 years later, the urge to replace it completely! Best, as others have noted, to bring in purple-piped water and allow the grass to grow.

A proposed splash pad water feature should be abandoned. It would be better located in a neighborhood park than in front of City Hall. Even the questionnaire respondents voted against it: 51 disliking to 14 likes. The argument in favor was that it would attract families with toddlers or weary visitors from State Street. We think that if the Plaza were revitalized with cared-for grass, benches and seating, with art displays, and is used, as are many commons, for public gatherings, the public would return to enjoying it, as they used to not so long ago.

We also have concerns about adding trees, their water and nurture needs, the space they’d require taking away from an important usage, public gatherings. However, on the other hand, they would add pleasant shade for summer lounging. We think that the changes for the Anacapa Street entrance are positive and long overdue.

Not least in the landscaping, the venerable Washingtonia filifera, the California palm, should be allowed to live out its life in place. However, if it must be moved, then before that’s done there should be an independent analysis by an arborist knowledgeable of such palms, skilled in such a move and able to assure Santa Barbarans via the HLC that the tree will survive.

Architectural features: the arcade: We don’t understand its purpose: slide 8 of the PowerPoint pdf shows it to resemble a Potemkin Village gateway: nothing apparently behind and leading nowhere but looking good with its arches. Unless it is locked at night, it is likely to attract sleepers, as does the portico of City Hall; but to have a major feature of a commons be off limits, locked, is unfortunate.
We also don’t understand the moving of the flagpoles and the apparent move of the major plaque, which commemorates Casa de la Guerra and the Plaza. We do support the moving of the Armenian memorial.

CPA is very grateful to the Historic Landmarks Commission for your dedication to protecting the historic character and charm of Santa Barbara. Thank you for your work! For this very important civic and historic site, surrounded by designated historic buildings, there’s a need for more public participation in the “revitalization process” and a thorough environmental review.

Yours sincerely,

Marell Brooks, President of Citizens Planning Association