Future of Santa Barbara's Waterfront Stirs Debate


This picturesque city, famous for its red-tile roofs and Mediterranean architecture, is locked in a debate over how to remake its quaint but aging waterfront. Although many residents concede that renovation is needed, there is less agreement as to how that should happen.

At least three major developments have been proposed along Cabrillo Boulevard, the beachfront thoroughfare that is a hodgepodge of large-scale hotels, 1950s-era motels, bike rental and T-shirt shops, burger joints and seafood restaurants.

The most ambitious proposal, a $50-million aquarium and marine education center, is intended to emulate and compete with Monterey's successful aquarium. The center would be built on 18 acres between Cabrillo and U.S. 101 east of Stearns Wharf.

If all of the projects go forward, they will profoundly change the complexion of the waterfront. That prospect has spurred new anxiety over the pace of the city's growth and whether development should be geared toward tourists or residents.

Jon Clark, director of the Community Environmental Council in Santa Barbara, says the waterfront already offers enough for tourists. Instead, he would like to see improvements for residents, such as new housing and more parkland and open space.

Others believe that the projects would enhance the area.

"None of us wants to see Santa Barbara turn into an L.A. or anything else," said Fred Benko, owner of the Condor, a whale-watching boat. "We all want to preserve what we have. There isn't any need to change very much, and if it does need to change, it needs to change in line with what we have.

"I happen to be in favor of all three of these proposals."

Benko, who helped launch the whale-watching industry off the Santa Barbara coast, is especially interested in the aquarium and marine education center, which he says are vital to sustaining a thriving city economy.

"It's no more a tourist attraction than the zoo," he said.

Bill Wright, who owns the land where the aquarium would be built, is working with a nonprofit group, the Santa Barbara Channel Foundation, to promote plans to develop it.

In addition to an aquarium, the project would include a 250-room hotel, 60,000-square-foot public market, 325-seat restaurant and a five-level parking structure. A 242-seat theater would be built three to five years after the aquarium's proposed opening in 2002.

Another project is a five-star hotel proposed by actor-turned-winemaker Fess Parker that has been in the works for more than a decade. It would be built next to his Doubletree Resort on Cabrillo, but changes in design and city requirements have delayed progress.

Parker contends that a city-approved 150-room hotel isn't financially feasible. He wants to build 225 rooms. But when city officials told Parker that he would have to start over with the city review process, he withdrew the project. Last month, Parker announced that he is gathering signatures and hopes to put the issue before city voters in a June election.

The third major project is proposed by Santa Barbara developer Bill Levy and his partners. Levy has substantial holdings in the first two blocks of State Street, at the foot of Stearns Wharf, which he wants to transform into a two- and three-story "urban village," with restaurants, shops, offices and condominiums.

The development proposals prompted the Santa Barbara City Council to appoint a 109-member committee of residents and others last year with interests in the waterfront area. The group--which included environmentalists, homeowners, fishermen, developers and shopkeepers--presented its 20-year vision statement for downtown and the waterfront to the council last month.

Groups traditionally at odds over growth-related issues managed to come to agreement on a series of core values, said John Romo, a Santa Barbara City College administrator who headed the committee.

Maintaining mountain and ocean views, keeping a small-town atmosphere, requiring development to be small in scale, getting people out of their cars and into alternative transportation, focusing on meeting the needs of residents--all these were deemed critical to creating the right ambience at the waterfront.

Even so, the issue of whom the waterfront should primarily serve--residents or tourists--was a point of contention among committee members.

Many of the environmentalists oppose any development--tourist-oriented or otherwise. Some, such as Clark, favor new housing near the beach, reasoning that pressures for development on the outer fringes of the coastal community, particularly in the neighboring suburb of Goleta, would be eased.

Gordon Cota, a lifelong Santa Barbara resident who fishes commercially, worries that development will slowly push the fishers out of the harbor. It's becoming difficult to find adequate space to repair nets and boats, and for storing gear and supplies, he said.

The working harbor and marina just west of Stearns Wharf already are undergoing transformation as the city moves forward with a separate redevelopment plan for that area. A market at the breakwater offers seafood fresh off the boats every Saturday morning. Parking improvements and remodeling of the harbor's old Naval Reserve building into shops, restaurants and a maritime museum have begun.

Cota says he is happy with the work of the waterfront committee, but would have liked it to be more specific in its recommendations. Whether the result will serve the interests of commercial fishers is not clear, he says.

The City Council has accepted the committee's report, but hasn't taken a formal position on the development proposals, which still must go through Santa Barbara's rigorous planning review process. That could take months.

Mayor Harriet Miller supports the aquarium project, saying that it would offer tremendous opportunities for educational projects for children, and also with UC Santa Barbara.

Miller, however, expresses doubts that the city needs more large hotels along the waterfront.

"As long as we look at how we can make things better for residents, consider what serves the people here, the tourists will come," she said.

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