Robert Stark talks to Santa Barbara Mayoral candidate Hal Conklin for a written interview. Hal Conklin was the former Mayor of Santa Barbara and is the President of USA Green Communities.
Hal Conklin’s accomplishments as mayor
Environmental solutions for the City and his work for USA Green Communities
The need for leadership in the future, giving the entire community a voice, and the Mayor’s role of “mediator” of dialogue
Historic preservation and the City’s legacy of maintaining historic standards since the 1925 Earthquake
The Average Unit-Size Density Program, Height Restrictions, and the Housing Shortage
The Homeless Situation
The City’s Budget, the proposed Sales Tax, and revenue solutions
Bringing new jobs to the City
Mass Transit, the Bus System, and a hypothetical Light Rail Line
What are the key issues that inspired you to run for mayor in the upcoming election and what do you see as the biggest problems facing the city?
With the turnover of almost all of the City Council, there is little institutional memory left, nor any leadership devoted to bringing the community together in a dialogue on the future of our city. Santa Barbara has had a long history of citizen involvement in its future stretching from its historic preservation of architecture after the 1925 earthquake, to the restoration of its waterfront and downtown in the 1980’s, to the creation of its cultural institutions in the first decade of the 21st century. Where is that leadership for the future??
We need to return to giving the whole community a voice. It is the peoples’ voice – not the voice of the City Council – which needs to speak with clarity and inspiration. The Mayor may be in the role as the orchestra leader, but it is the orchestra itself (the people) which makes the music! The Mayor needs to be the “mediator” of dialogue – giving everyone the opportunity to voice their concerns, hopes and desires. Too often it just becomes the voice of special political interests.
Our country is living through a period of division that could tear us a part. While our national leadership fights among itself saying “NO” to everything, we need to build Santa Barbara as a model community that says’ “YES” to supporting one another moving forward. We need to roll up our sleeves and bring our citizens together in unity, and I am committed to being the kind of Mayor that will work tirelessly to see that this is done.
As the former mayor of Santa Barbara what were your biggest accomplishments as mayor?
- Saved Stearns Wharf from being torn down and raised the funds to have it restored and put back in service
- Created the Santa Barbara Cultural District (sometimes referred to as the Historic Theater District) that stretched from De La Guerra Street to Sola Street, and from Chapala Street to Santa Barbara Street. We funded the restoration of the Museum of Art, launched the creation of the Santa Barbara Center for the Performing Arts (Granada Theater), improvements to the Arlington Theater, and brought restaurants and street art to the district.
- I was a member of the three-person committee that oversaw the development of Paseo Nuevo to bring retail sales back to downtown Santa Barbara.
- Created a process of public involvement that tackled and reduced gang violence in the city
- Made the Arts and protecting the Environment my top priorities
As the President of USA Green Communities, what have been some of your accomplishments with that organization and what are your plans to make Santa Barbara more eco-friendly and energy independent?
With the help of the Institute for Local Government (ILG) in Sacramento, of which I am still a Board member, and with the help of the Bren School at UCSB, we developed a set of ten criteria for sustainability against which cities could be measured to determine their commitment to sustainable practices. These included criteria for water, energy, transportation, product purchasing, recycling, etc. When a city achieves one complete program in each of these areas they would are rewarded with a Silver designation. If they achieve three programs in each of these ten areas, they get a Gold certification. When they have reached six programs in each of these ten areas, they receive a Platinum certification. Currently, we have 115 cities in the program in California that are being reviewed and certified by the ILG, and through USA Green Communities we are putting graduate level interns in many of these cities to add practical experience to their studies.
You have a strong passion for historic preservation. Is most of the Spanish Colonial architecture that was built in the early 20th Century protected by Historic Preservation laws? Is Mid Century modern architecture the most vulnerable to demolition and in need of protection?
Santa Barbara led the nation following the 1925 earthquake in developing and implementing historic standards for the preservation of history and architecture. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that the Historic Landmarks Committee process was enacted into law and put in the Charter of the City. Many people come to Santa Barbara because they like what they see, but when they go to develop property, they do not like the process. For example, it can be expensive to cover the costs of gas and electricity, especially when managing a large portfolio of buildings or apartments. Fortunately, there are solutions available. Aspiring property developers can use an energy supplier comparison website like Utility Bidder to find a provider that meets their needs at a competitive price. It is an interesting “give and take” dynamic community conversation that has a lot of subjectivity built into it. Nevertheless, it has created a wonderful mix of preservation and replicated history. Mid Century architecture is part of the guidelines for historic preservation.
What are your thoughts on the Average Unit-Size Density program which allows developers to increase density in exchange for providing a certain number of affordable units? Do you see increasing density a solution to housing costs?
AUD is a good tool for building more so-called “affordable” housing. It needs to be focused though, on where it is most appropriate and where it is needed the most – namely downtown. Having a greater mix of residents downtown is part of the next generation of what a downtown needs to create in order to sustain itself. Unfortunately, up to now, the City Council has taken a “hands off” policy until a certain number of units are built. I think the City has to have a much more proactive response so that the public sees the immediate benefit of housing for workers. If all that gets built first are upscale condos, then the public could easily rise up and throw the whole program out the window. Everyone thought that lower Chapala Street would be a good place for worker housing, but what we ended up with was mostly more expensive condos ranging up to $3,000,000 each.
Many students struggle to pay rent and that puts further strain on the rental market. Would you support incentivizing Santa Barbara City College and UCSB to build more student housing on campus?
I would certainly provide incentives for City College to build more housing, but it needs to be a community process to determine when, where, and how big each project is to become. Without citizen involvement from the start, the project will be killed by negative public opinion. As for UCSB, I think housing needs to be within walking distance. If we provide incentives for UCSB housing that add to the auto traffic, it would be a nightmare.
Even though the city of Santa Barbara itself has a greenbelt what are your thoughts on the argument that infill development prevents further sprawl into neighboring regions?
Infill development always occurs, but the traffic impacts have to be known by the community well in advance. The citizens have voted twice for a level of circulation, and the “experts” at City Hall often see it differently for good and practical reasons. In the end though, the citizens of the city have the final say, and if City Hall loses trust with the voters, they will just shut down any infill development. A community-wide planning process is critical to the success of more density.
Most new rental units tend to be expensive one or two bedroom units. Do you support incentivizing a variety of new housing units ranging from micro apartments for students and several bedroom units for families?
Right now the City owns or controls over 10% of the housing stock in Santa Barbara. With the help of the Housing Authority as the control agent, it’s possible to manage the rental rates so that most, if not all, units stay affordable. We should use the Housing Authority to build micro apartments on the parking lots below the bluffs at City College and more rental units downtown for workers and families. You can only get away with more density if you reduce the need to drive, so the housing has to be adjacent to where people need to go to school or work.
Santa Barbara has very strict height limits and there has been pressure to restrict heights even further. However it is important to point out that many of Santa Barbara’s great landmarks including the Court House Clock Tower, The Arlington Theater, and The Grenada Theater could not get built with today’s height limits. Would you support allowing for taller structures if they conform to an aesthetic standard and what should be the official height limit? The hotel next to the Historic El Paseo is a great example of a structure that is fairly tall yet conforms to a historic aesthetic standard. I see the key issue as good design rather than height.
The 60 ft. height standard was voted into the City Charter in the 1960’s and it cannot be changed by anyone except at the ballot box. Based on previous attempts to do so, the chances of that succeeding are slim to none. Whether or not I think it is a good idea, there are some issues that are worth fighting over, and others that are not. I would look for more practical ways to approve projects.
There are several massive parking lots downtown. On one hand they create convenient parking for visitors and shoppers but also take up a lot of valuable land creating pedestrian dead zones along Anacapa and De La Vina. Would you support turning those parking lots into mix used projects with Paseos and relocating the parking underground?
Based upon what it cost to build underground parking at the Granada lot, the cost per space is prohibitive. In order to do it, you either have to put in a massive subsidy from the taxpayers (e.g.- the old Redevelopment Agency or the current Parking Authority), or you have to allow very expensive condos to subsidize it. I think our first priority should be modest housing for workers downtown, and expensive condos just add to the problem.
What are your thoughts on the situation between the police and the homeless on State Street? On one hand there are the concerns about civil liberties and the criminalization of homelessness while others are more concerned about the homeless harming business and tourism. How do you address these issues and do you see the key as finding the right balanced approach?
Unfortunately, I have been through too many court cases over this issue, and I realize how frustrating it is to deal with people panhandling. I am a big believer in providing alternative housing and services to people on the street, but I also have little tolerance for bad behavior. Having a son who has run a home for alcoholic and drug offenders, I am convinced more than ever that we need a concerted effort of education and partnership between the merchants, tourist outreach, the City and the Police to discourage the giving of money to panhandlers on the street. Once the money dries up, the “problem” people on the street will move on to more lucrative environments.
The city council recently voted for a measure for the public to vote on a sales tax increase. Do you support the measure? What are your thoughts on the argument that sales taxes disproportionately affect the working class and harm the tourism industry?
I do support allowing the voters to decide whether or not this is a worthy idea and a good source of money. I think this has to be accompanied by a well-designed set of benchmarks and scoreboards that let the public know on a regular basis whether or not we are achieving our goals and objectives. There is no easy answer that is totally fair in terms of how you achieve these goals of a new Police Station or repairing our roads, but to put it off forever because the perfect solution hasn’t come along will lead to more and more frustration and anger.
Do you have an official budget proposal and what do you see as the biggest areas of waste in the city’s budget?
I have to admit that I have studied the City’s budgeting process more than 99% of the people in Santa Barbara, and I tend to look at anyone who tells me they have a new budget proposal with a fair degree of skepticism. The priorities of the Budget (outside of special funds such as the Harbor, Airport, etc.) are always public safety first, followed by basic infrastructure, and then finally, social services including parks and recreation. The biggest issue with the Budget is that it is almost impossible for the average citizen to see how the money is being spent. It isn’t that we need a line-item budget so that everyone can take pot-shots at it, but rather the budget needs to be tied to measureable indicators so that the public knows whether or not they are getting what they believe they are paying for. In a Budget where the public is in the dark about what is happening, they tend to become frustrated and “assume” that money is being wasted. We need to have good salaries that attract good police and fire personnel, but we also need a transparent process of budgeting.
What are your thoughts on proposals to generate revenue for the City? There are alternative proposals and solutions to generate revenue including a recent op ed in the Santa Barbara News Press by Frank Sanitate advocating for a County run Public Bank and proposals to tax offshore oil revenue which has been done in Alaska. Do you see any of those proposals as viable?
There are a lot of great hypothetical proposals that people put on the table, but in many cases this requires voter approval at the ballot box. The voters have voted numerous times to restrict oil development in the city’s jurisdiction, so doing anything that suggests we use oil revenue is a fantasy. A County Public Bank is an interesting idea, but once again it might have to go before the voters and the city cannot spend any taxpayer dollars to promote it. If we are going to look at any ideas for revenue generation, the first place to look would be to the other 480 cities in California and see what they have been able to make work. We should look at all ideas, but the public wants to see results, not pie-in-the-sky ideas that then get shot down. We would be better off taking a good idea from another city where the idea works rather than speculating on an idea that has a limited chance of success.
Do you support increasing the number of hotel unites as a way to generate tax revenue rather than raising taxes on locals?
I am in favor of more visitor serving uses, as long as it fits within the existing zoning and coastal plan. I am not in favor of extending a lot of visitor serving uses into peoples’ neighborhoods without their permission. Ultimately, each neighborhood “owns” their own destiny, and we don’t need “smart planning” City Council members thinking they are smarter that the citizens who elected them.
What do you see as solutions to the vacant storefronts on Lower State Street? Should the land owners be required pay a vacancy fee? What are your thoughts on opening up the unused storefronts to local artist?
There are many cities that have tackled this problem creatively. One way I favor would be to put an ordinance in place that requires that if a building is left vacant for more than sixty days, then the owner needs to work with a local arts or historical entity to allow a creative display for their window. If they leave the property vacant without a display for longer than 90 days, and the property becomes a public attraction for the homeless to sleep in their doorways, then the owner should be required to donate a monthly fee to the local homeless shelters.
What are some of your economic proposals to bring new jobs to Santa Barbara? What can be done to attract more well paying middle class jobs to the city? Should we focus on luring existing industries or create new industries?
One of the greatest sources of new ideas that lead to new jobs are the universities and colleges in our area. We should have their various departments tied into an economic development plan for the city. With a variety of good ideas coming in the forms of environmental protection from the Bren School, or economic development opportunities from the nano-technology divisions, or a host of others, we should be creatively finding incentives to plant these new ideas in business locations within the city limits or on the airport property. The City’s economic development programs have most often been passive. It is time for a proactive partnership formally implemented.
The transit system in Santa Barbara is currently reliant on bus transit which is often slow and not accessible for many commuters. For example there is not a direct way to get from upper State Street to City College or from Upper State Street directly to the waterfront. What are your plans for bus transit?
While the City does not have any authority over the Metropolitan Transit Authority, it does have the power to appoint members to their Board. It also has the power of persuasion to bringing the MTA to the table for long-ranging community planning. Tactical implementation of transit should be tied at the hip to community planning and the City Council and the neighborhoods should annually review and approve a plan that advances the City’s long-term objectives.
You have expressed interest in a light rail system. It would make the most sense to have either a light rail or monorail connecting downtown to UCSB with multiple stops in between including City College. Does Santa Barbara have the density for mass transit to be viable and do you see creating transit oriented developments along the stops as a solution to that?
I don’t know what is technologically possible today – or in the future – but I do believe we need to “think outside the box.” State Street downtown, outer State Street, and Hollister Ave. are all one long direct corridor, and it could easily accommodate a light rail corridor, especially if we reach a point with new energy technologies that would eliminate the need for overhead power lines. Five years ago, there was no such thing as a mass-produced hydrogen car. Five years from now, we might have the ability to power light rail trains with hydrogen propulsion. A “horizontal elevator” of non-polluting, efficient, and frequent transit would transform the ability to move people anywhere along the route, through the high-tech Goleta corridor, and out to UCSB.