Santa Barbara’s Parklet-Palooza Rocks On

Asie Dumpling House parklet on the 500 block of State Street.

This story was originally published by the Santa Barbara Independent and is reproduced here in partnership with Edhat.

By Tyler Hayden of The Independent

The idea was dead on arrival, to force city restaurants still recovering from the financial bite of COVID-19 to redesign and reconstruct their outdoor parklets in a more uniform “Santa Barbara style.” The proposal came from City Hall staff, who said they had received complaints from local architects that the parklets — quickly built at the height of the pandemic when indoor dining was prohibited — don’t conform with the community’s “high aesthetic standards.”

On the table were recommendations to ban overhead elements (roofs, trellises, canopies, and string lights), astroturf, and “inappropriate” patio furniture. “Not indoor furniture that’s been repurposed and dragged outside,” explained Sarah Clark with the Public Works Department, who led the presentation to the City Council, “or cheap plastic lawn furniture that you would purchase at a hardware store.”

Only umbrellas would be allowed for shade, Clark explained, and only in pre-approved colors. Fencing would need to be made of wood or iron and be painted black or dark brown, and if it wasn’t, it would need to be fully screened with plantings to create “a more cohesive, garden-like appearance.” 

Clark said the citywide proposals, scheduled to go into effect July 22, came out of consultations with volunteer representatives of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission (HLC). “A large majority of the enclosures out there at this point are not compliant,” she said. Staff also recommended that the city ban any new permanent parklets from being installed.

The response from both restaurant owners and the entire council was a resounding “no.” It didn’t matter that health restrictions had been lifted and businesses are now allowed to operate at full indoor capacity, they said. It will take restaurants many more months, if not years, to recoup the income they lost during COVID, and the last thing they need at the moment are more expenses and more regulations piled on top of them.

“This is a classic example of not including stakeholders who should have a voice in the matter, ” said bouchon owner Mitchell Sjerven, who politely but pointedly knocked the AIA and HLC for attempting to foist their personal visual ideals on struggling private operators. “We’re just trying to survive. We don’t have the luxury of volunteer services like those groups do.”

Ralph Barajas, owner of the Rose Café on the Mesa, said when he saw the proposed guidelines “it felt like the rug got pulled out from under my feet.” Barajas said he’d put a ton of time, effort, and money into making his parklet a pleasant and inviting space and forcing him to start over just wouldn’t be fair. 

Moreover, Barajas explained, he’s still not comfortable filling his indoor dining room to full capacity, given some customers’ lingering fears over infection and others’ resistance to the vaccine. “We want to keep an open space and a safe environment, and the patio is a big part of that going forward,” he said.

Many members of the public also spoke out against the design changes. State Street is “better, cooler, and more fun” than it ever has been, one commenter said. “Aesthetic diversity is a good thing, and it’s part of the downtown experience now.” Another wondered why City Hall would do anything to mess with the success of the parklets and if staff were looking to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.

Councilmember Meagan Harmon agreed with those sentiments. “The best way to diminish excitement is to layer interim guidelines on top of regulations on top of interim guidelines,” she said. Plus, she went on, not only are the existing parklet rules set to expire in March 2022, when they may be renewed or modified, but City Hall is in the middle of forming a State Street Advisory Committee that will craft a long-term plan for downtown and its pedestrian promenade. Why fiddle with things now?

“It feels a bit random to me, frankly, to be requiring this right now,” said Harmon, explaining she hoped the council would take an approach that would “do the least harm.” “I really just want to see us get out of the way,” she said. That also means, she explained, allowing restaurants who either just opened or who just acquired the necessary funds to build their own new parklets.

Councilmember Michael Jordan said he found it more than a little ironic that the AIA and HLC would argue visual uniformity is what locals and tourists love so much about Santa Barbara, when precisely the opposite is helping drive the popularity of the patios and much-needed income to the region.

“Is there a way that as a city,” Councilmember Alejandra Gutierrez asked, “we can be more of a team player, instead of coming to businesses and being like ‘Bam! These are the new colors, no indoor furniture.’ Can we work with them?”

The council did, however, agree with staff that parklet-related issues over ADA access and blocked sidewalks needed to be addressed. Over the past year, disability rights advocates have often complained that tightly packed chairs and tables along sidewalks prevent wheelchairs from passing. And on Tuesday, Matt Lowe, speaking on behalf of the visually impaired, said he frequently bumps into signs, people, and planters when he walks downtown. “I would like some attention paid to this because it feels long overdue,” he said.

Clark lamented that staff hadn’t received “the cooperation we’ve needed” from businesses to keep the public right-of-way clear. Councilmember Kristen Sneddon called it “inexcusable” the problem has existed this long. The council unanimously decreed that by July 9, restaurants must clear their sidewalks of all tables and chairs, unless they had secured the necessary permits prior to the pandemic.


Written by Tyler Hayden

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  1. This is classic Santa Barbara doing what it does best: ignore practicality, ignore what’s best for locals and local businesses, and remind us all that ultimately the standard is just to LOOK GOOD. What a bunch of Karens. This is what Public Works and other organizations choose to focus on – how colors and designs are not “uniform?” So very tone deaf and, well, just super bratty. Agreed that ADA guidelines and right of way access need to be adhered to. Beyond that, please get over yourselves.

  2. Goes to show just how little I know..
    I was under the impression that feces on the sidewalk, freeway encampments, nude drug addicts, closed storefronts, & shopping-carts full of trash were the main violators of SB’s “High aesthetic standards”..??

  3. Do the restaurant owners also soundly reject paying the city rent for use of the expanded public space? How about the property owners of all the vacant store fronts that are not restaurants. What is their imput.

  4. The regulations should focus keeping sidewalks clear for all people (it’s not just about people with disabilities) and making the dining areas safe, with floors that don’t trip people and roofs that don’t fly off or fall down, etc. I like how each place has a different look and feel. If they are allowed to keep the parklets past next March, maybe some minimal esthetic guidelines can be imposed, with restaurants allowed to upgrade their designs over time. The idea to allow only umbrellas, no fixed roofs, is nuts, because umbrellas get in the way, blow over, poke tall people in the eyes, etc., and look cluttery in many settings.

  5. I’m an architect and member of the AIA, but I am glad the powers that be said “no”. People are hurting and no need to add to their distress by imposing “professional” taste standards on these poor people. These are extraordinary times, and let’s just relax and enjoy the summer and people’s smiling faces.

  6. @Byz, seems you are confused. Your comments should be directed to the City, who sell SB out at every chance they get to high rent developers who care nothing for local residents or businesses. As for the vacant storefront owners on State Street, they remain vacant only because they receive hefty write-offs and no risk by keeping their properties vacant. Who is selling out, again?

  7. The proposal came from City Hall staff, who said they had received complaints from local architects that the parklets — quickly built at the height of the pandemic when indoor dining was prohibited — don’t conform with the community’s “high aesthetic standards.”
    Give me a break. Let’s keep up on trying to keep restaurants existent! I’m done with the smallest pettiest critiques and laws — If they’re kept, give it a rest in this somewhat-post-covid time period!

  8. The architects are just upset because all their designs have had to conform and pass the scrutiny of the talentless, soul-less, Karens who show up to squash their best designs.
    I think someone will eventually push the design envelope too far… naked turquoise cherubs pulling naked santas neon sleigh, but for now, lets let the market decide whose parklet is off putting or inviting

  9. Perhaps the tourists and restaurants enjoy the mish mash of tables, chairs, plants, roof coverings and various wood, plastic, metal and plant wall barriers squeezed into downtown Santa Barbara streets, but some of us miss the vibrant shopping and business district, open public City and County institutions and ease of movement through the downtown. With the pandemic easing, mask restrictions and distancing going away as per federal CDC guidelines, it is interesting that some businesses and institutions continue on with street closures, service restrictions, masking et. al.
    For example, a Santa Barbara downtown Library staffer told me that the Library’s shortened hours, masking requirements and restricted visit times were necessary until children were vaccinated. Since there is no approved vaccine for children at this time, we may be in for a long wait.

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