Op-Ed: Why City Planners' Proposed Redesign of De la Guerra Plaza Should be Rejected
By Lanny Ebenstein
Santa Barbara is the beautiful community that it is because those who have come before us have taken the time to do things right.
Now, it is this generation's chance to do De la Guerra Plaza right.
De la Guerra Plaza is one of the very most historic sites in Santa Barbara. Casa de la Guerra, immediately across De la Guerra Street from the Plaza, was one of the leading residences not merely in Santa Barbara, but in Alta (Upper) California. Jose de la Guerra was one of the major figures in Santa Barbara and in Spanish and then Mexican California.
Now, however, De la Guerra Plaza is faced with destruction and transformation.
City planners are advocating the replacement of the naturalistic ground cover - currently, lawn - that has typified De la Guerra Plaza for more than two centuries, with a strictly hardscape surface. This would be a great diminution of the Plaza.
The Plaza is a truly unique historic resource and cultural landscape. It has existed mostly in its current, naturalistic form, and with current uses and activities, for more than two centuries.
Is there any other secular, civic plaza, west of the Mississippi River and north of Mexico City, which has such continuity of design and use for two centuries? If so, what and where is it?
Why it matters. It is often forgotten that Santa Barbara during its Spanish and Mexican period was at times the second largest community in population in California, because of our Presidio (or military fort), of which there were only four in Alta California. The Santa Barbara Mission, as rebuilt after the 1815 earthquake, was the most impressive structure in Alta California.
Jose de la Guerra, who was born in 1779 in Spain, became commander of the Santa Barbara Presidio in 1815.
His command, according to a 1910 historian of Santa Barbara, "extended over a period of 24 years, during which the Presidio passed through the best days of its existence." A 1930 history of Santa Barbara described Casa de la Guerra during the Spanish and Mexican period as, "the center of the political and social life of the city whether he [Jose de la Guerra] held office or not."
Now, the proposed redesign of De la Guerra Plaza effectively would rip the historic heart out of our community.
The key issue. The issue is not whether De la Guerra Plaza would benefit from modest refurbishing and renovation. The question is whether De la Guerra Plaza should be transformed beyond recognition and its historic connection to Santa Barbara obliterated.
The 2011 Historic Structures/Sites Report, prepared by the consulting firm Post/Hazeltine, affirmed that De la Guerra Plaza is eligible for listing as a local, state, and national historic site and significant cultural landscape, including in the National Register of Historic Places.
And the minutes of the most recent Historic Landmarks Commission meeting that considered design of De la Guerra Plaza, on January 19, 2022, state that, "For the surface materials, all Commissioners prefer some grass."
The proposed redesign of De la Guerra Plaza is not merely inonsistent with its historic essence, but also does not possess community consensus and likely would not withstand legal challenge on the basis of its environmental-historical impacts.
The proposed redesign should be rejected and the Historic Landmarks Commission should instead give direction that future planning of De la Guerra Plaza must reflect and characterize Santa Barbara's invaluable past more faithfully.
It will be by preserving Santa Barbara's irreplaceable past--to the extent possible and feasible--that Santa Barbara's best future will be created.
Next up on Plaza redesign: The Historic Landmarks Commission and De la Guerra Plaza Advisory Committee will hold a special joint meeting tomorrow -- Friday, April 22 -- from 8:30 to 11:00 a.m., at the Faulkner Gallery. Public comment will be accepted at that time.
Lanny Ebenstein is a long-time civic activist, author and UCSB economics educator..