SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - A collective voice of former Santa Barbara City mayors -- spanning nearly four decades -- flanked Mayor Cathy Murillo and Police Chief Lori Luhnow on the steps of the city's World War II-era police station Tuesday morning.
The group came with one community message: now is the time to lock in a site for a new police station.
Tuesday's show of unity came one week before city staff recommends the Cota Street commuter lot to council as the preferred site for the new facility.
"The first time I toured this station was in 1975 when it was only 30 years old," said former Santa Barbara Mayor Sheila Lodge. "It was inadequate then."
"In the 90s we tried a bond," said former mayor Marty Blum. "It didn't pass. I don't think the people were quite ready for it."
"We were ready to go almost 10 years ago when we had to get rid of the redevelopment agency and sign the $30 million check back to the state," said former mayor Helene Schneider. "I mean, we were ready to go 20 years ago. We were ready to go 30 years ago. This thing has been studied and studied and studied."
"I think this is a rare opportunity where you've got convergence of the voters wanting something to happen, you've got the resources to make it happen and, you've got a location that you can make it happen," said former mayor Hal Conklin.
That location, preferred by city leaders, is no secret: the Cota Street commuter lot, site of the popular Saturday Farmers Market.
"The Cota commuter lot is the front runner as far as I'm concerned," said Mayor Cathy Murillo. "And, at the same time that I say that, I promise that the city will make the Farmers Market work in another location."
City staff sent out a list last week of the five, final sites for the new police station that included the vacant Sears at La Cumbre Mall, Earl Warren Showgrounds, Louise Lowry Davis Center, the existing SBPD facility on Figueroa St., and the Cota commuter lot.
City Project Manager Brad Hess has said that there is "no perfect site." However, he pointed out that the Cota Street lot, which is city-owned and a 1.6 acre parcel, is the best fit financially, size and location-wise.
Tuesday's show of unity reinforced that.
"We need to be downtown," said Santa Barbara Police Chief Lori Luhnow. "This is a hub of activity for us from a calls-for-service standpoint. It's a very urgent decision, as far as I'm concerned."
Schneider refused to reveal which site she preferred, however, she did admit that "the Cota lot is a very strong candidate."
"My message is that people look at the data and look at the facts," Schneider said.
"Today you're living in the 21st century in a world that is far more complex and has cyber security needs and, has 911 needs and, things that just didn't exist back when this was built," Conklin said. "Frankly, in an era when you could have a major earthquake or any other kind of attack on this community, you better have a place that can respond. It's too late after the fact to say you should've done it."
Conklin said he believed the Cota Street lot was the "preferred choice."
The prospect of moving Saturday's longtime and popular Farmers Market from the Cota lot to De la Guerra Plaza -- despite a petition containing more than 3,000 signatures of people opposed -- is gaining traction, especially at City Hall and the police station.
"I have heard people that support the Farmers Market have said they will follow it for the food," Luhnow said. "They go for the food, not the asphalt."
"We're big supporters of the Farmers Market and there's no reason why this can't be a win-win," Conklin said. "No reason why it can't be a better than win-win, for both."
Conklin pointed out that when he was on the city council from 1977 to 1993, an elementary school used to sit at the site of the current Cota Street lot.
"There were many people who said, 'You can't tear down an elementary school to put up a parking lot,'" Conklin recalled. "But once the parking lot was there and not very many people were using it, we tried to convince the Farmers Market that this would be a good site for them and, they were fighting it. We all agree that most people hate change."
"We actually did a study of De La Guerra Plaza to try to get more people in there, so I like the idea of marrying those two studies," Blum said.
Blum pointed out that there's more parking in the area than people might think.
"We've got the Lobero parking lot and also have parking lot 10 (the Ortega Garage) which is where they're parking now for the Farmers Market," Blum said.
"I think they'll have more customers if they're downtown and it's a great use of De La Guerra Plaza," Lodge said.
De La Guerra Plaza will undergo a "stand alone" renovation that will likely ramp up at the end of the month or beginning of October with meetings and design work.
"I believe the only design parameter set is that we want it all one level, preferably curb-level," Hess said. "Like a European-style plaza. We really want that to be the center of town again."
Hess said staff will recommend the Cota commuter lot as the preferred site to the City Council at next Tuesday's meeting, which starts at 2:00 p.m.
Hess also said once that site -- or another site -- is approved, it will likely be Fall of 2020 before the design process can begin.