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Mission and State Q&A: Full House
updated: Jan 25, 2014, 3:00 PM

By Kathleen Reddington

Grant House, looking dapper in a sports coat and button-up shirt, sans tie, strolls down State Street on a sunny Santa Barbara afternoon. The recently termed-out city councilmember has picked a lunch spot in the bustling downtown core that offers a view to one of the city's major accomplishments during his era in local politics: the revitalization of the downtown corridor, near the Paseo Nuevo Shopping Center, in which House played a strong role during his tenure as a planning commissioner and over the past eight years as a councilmember.

During his quarter-century in city politics, going back to his days with the Eastside Merchants' Association through his tenure as a city planning commissioner and, over the past eight years, as a councilmember, House has left his stamp on the city.

He's been instrumental in getting the roundabout built at Las Positas Road and Cliff Drive near Hendry's Beach, in pushing through approval of a citywide plastic bag-ban and, of course, helped usher in a thriving downtown full of shopping, movie theaters, galleries and nightlife.

A small-business owner since 1977 (Grant House Sewing Machines) and a fan of new-urbanist architect and author Christopher Alexander (A Pattern Language), House has helped define the city's contemporary business and social climate. He's also been accused of being a perpetual optimist.

We sat down in a bustling, downtown piazza on an unseasonably warm winter afternoon, with people from all walks of life passing, and talked about his time in Santa Barbara politics.

Former Santa Barbara City Councilmember Grant House in his sewing machine shop in downtown Santa Barbara. (Alex Kacik)

Mission and State: How did you get started in Santa Barbara politics?

Grant House: Since 1977, I've owned a sewing-machine repair and sales shop, and in 1990, I moved to the 100th block of Milpas [Street]. I was the president of the Greater Eastside Merchants' Association and there were lots of issues that had come down on the heads of the local small businesses that I was representing… We began to work with city staff and city Councilmember Gil Garcia.

Eventually, the Merchants Association got to be an incredibly thriving, productive, whole-community engagement from which I really began to know the people that work in the city and the county elected officials, leaders in education.

By 1992, we began addressing the issues-underground utilities, Highway 101, moving the post office and the fire station, the county Bowl was set to be renovated, the kids were getting into gangs-impacting Milpas. There was just tons of stuff.

In 1993, we formed the [Greater Eastside Study Group], and I got really interested in community design, government process and community organizing. I was trained as a facilitator. Then with all this wind in my sails, I applied to be a member of the planning commission. It took me two tries to get on the commission. I think that was 1996. I was a city planning commissioner for eight years, until 2005.

My goal at that time was to get a graduate degree in organizational development and not continue doing community work. After attending the Partnership for Excellence Conference in February of 2005, I was really inspired by the overwhelming commitment of all these people who run local non-for-profit organizations. Then I checked in to see if I had local support. I did. And with that support, decided to run for Santa Barbara City Council.

What are some of your most memorable accomplishments during your eight years on the Santa Barbara City Council?

Wow. The undergrounding of the utilities on Milpas-that was a catalyst because it caused the association to begin to look at what was happening around us in a different way. Out of that came an investment in the design of our community, an interest that precipitated the Milpas roundabout and eventually the opening of Cacique Street, with the bridge undercrossing that gave that neighborhood vitality…

That was a huge, massive accomplishment back then to get Caltrans to help preserve and not destroy that neighborhood. Then I was asked to represent the city on the highway issues.

Beginning in the early '90s, I was at every one of the highway meetings that continued until my term in the council ended. I've been the guy who has been the city's representative with everything that has to do with Highway 101. Along the way, my interest in alternative transportation really grew. I became enthralled with the concept of how Santa Barbara could be more efficient with our transportation system. The irony, of course, is what we call alternative transportation here is not alternative at all in other countries; it's primary. This premise led to some interesting discussions and discoveries, like how to… increase available public transportation routes in Santa Barbara, Goleta, Carpinteria and throughout the county.

In that process, I think we did an excellent job. Beyond that, we had to seriously look at how the [Highway] 101 expansion is going to look when it's all done. The way Caltrans does things, they have a minimum- standard, cookie-cutter approach to freeways, bridges and the design. It's pretty crappy.

I had this idea that if we as a community identify what it is we honor, define what our Santa Barbara standards are-if we spelled those out clearly, I believed Caltrans might do their very best to honor our standards.

We initiated and developed the Highway 101 design guidelines working closely with Caltrans. It's a treatise on how to design bridges, landscaping and expand a freeway, keeping in the character of Santa Barbara.

Once we did ours, the county saw the wisdom of it and they authored their own based on Santa Barbara's. So, we have consistent Highway 101 guidelines throughout the city and the County of Santa Barbara. It's really amazing to have these, especially in the Coastal Zone.

A really strong part of my personal legacy is I've worked very hard on behalf of affordable and workforce housing. I started with a presentation I developed with the Santa Barbara Housing Authority on what it would be like to create adequate-quality, real affordable housing for working-class folks in Santa Barbara. We took that idea to decision and policymakers, basically anyone who would listen to us. It was called South Coast Livable Communities. The sustainable principles we identified in that process brought together developers, environmentalists, social-justice advocates, politicians and bureaucrats to sit down at the same table. There, we identified key principles that are now embedded in our planning policies in both the county and the city of Santa Barbara.

Together, through discussion, we discovered we could make our city more beautiful and meet out housing, transportation, air- and water-quality needs while preserving the environment by using our resources wisely.

The other piece of my accomplishments that is ongoing-as with everything-is dealing with and providing services for those who are marginalized by the way our economy works. That's a really important heartfelt thing for me. I constantly ask myself and others how do we, the affluent community of Santa Barbara, define success with people who aren't living in houses and people who are living on the street? How do we deal with that? Where do we begin our work? It's really complex.

How do we deal with young people who aren't honored in their career as a student? Then they always get behind and they can't ever catch up. With that solution in mind, I helped to start Cesar Chavez School. I was one of the founders of that school. I'm proud that we raised enough money to hire a principal and put the school together.

Now it's called Adelante School and I am very proud of it's evolution to a dual-language, immersion charter school. That equity is a very important piece in education in Santa Barbara, accomplished during my time in local politics.

Do you feel like you fulfilled your campaign promises?

Looking back I remember when I first ran for city council, I talked about three Es. I talked about the importance of a vibrant economy. That's very critical for a community to succeed in the economic sense. We want to have an economy that cares for and supports our people here in Santa Barbara. I've come to the conclusion that a community can't have a vibrant economy if you don't take care of the environment you are operating inside. Keeping the ecology alive is essential to a vibrant economy. Why do we access… extra money to make sure our streams are clean?

Because the streams flow into the ocean. Dirty our ocean and the hotels, the restaurants, the fisherman, small-business people and all those whose income is based on our coastal tourist economy suffer.

A vital vibrant economy must be based on preserving the environment. There's no other way. But none of that matters very much if we don't take care of one another. That's where equity comes into the equation. As elected [representatives], we need to care about education, good jobs, our environment that promotes good living conditions and jobs for everyone to participate and really make sure everyone is listened to and heard and understood.

When we do that, others speak out with equity in the community and bring valuable solutions to the table… My three Es are economy, ecology and equity-the three legs of the stool of sustainability. There have been huge accomplishments-the plastic-bag ban was a big one, rolling that through a multijurisdictional [environmental impact report]. Now, the City of Ventura is drafting a similar ordinance, as is the County of Santa Barbara.

[Also,] the Cacique undercrossing, the most neighborhood-connecting piece of architecture that there is in the entire town and maybe the entire Caltrans system. It's beautiful, and that bridge started as a drawing on my old black-and-white cheap computer. I drew that bridge… I'm very proud of that bridge.

Excerpt provided by Mission and State. Read the full interview here.


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