Answering Kennedy’s Call
What are the requirements for a livable community? I will be posting excerpts from my new memoir, Building Community Answering Kennedy's Call, just out on Amazon.
As recently as 2005, the
Institute of American Architects said that
“. . . broadly speaking, a livable community recognizes its own unique
identity and places a high value on the planning processes that help manage
growth and change to maintain and enhance its community
The Goleta Valley still had a rural feeling. It had been settled by immigrant
farmers after the Civil War when the huge Spanish rancheros—made up of tens of
thousands of acres—were broken up following an especially severe drought that
killed the livestock that were the livelihood of the earliest settlers. Now it
was a valley filled with lemon and avocado groves.
But a battle had erupted between developers building new subdivisions and
environmentalists who wanted to keep the valley as rural and agricultural as
possible. The developers had been winning until the environmentalists succeeded
in passing a water moratorium that stopped new building projects that didn’t
have existing water allotments.
I became involved with community events like the Lemon Festival and July
4th celebrations, where I met residents who wanted to live in a
unique community. Many of them had already made several attempts to form their
own city to control its development.
I thought the Goleta Valley, an area with more than 50,000 inhabitants,
should become a city. Its revenues for needed improvements were spent elsewhere
in the county rather than for the benefit of the Valley. And Goleta continued to
attract high tech businesses due to its closeness to the top-ranked physics and
engineering schools of the University of California’s Santa Barbara campus.
The unplanned expansion had not been preserving the open spaces and
pedestrian-friendly commercial centers that residents and sustainable
development principles required. The third largest oil spill in U.S. history
(behind the Gulf of Mexico and the Alaska oil spills) occurred in the Santa
Barbara Channel in 1969. More than three million gallons of crude oil leaked
from a deep water well and coated 35 miles of South Coast beaches for months,
requiring massive cleanup.
The oil spill mobilized the whole South Coast community, searing the memories
of those living there, helping to spawn the national environmental movement.
Goleta had a wonderful history, from its earliest Chumash Indian inhabitants
to its discovery in the 1500s by Spanish explorer Juan Cabrillo, which led to
the founding of California’s mission system. It then became known as “The Good
Land”, an agricultural paradise named by a local historian for its abundant and
fruitful soils and climate.
But as a bedroom community to Santa Barbara, the Goleta Valley had no real
community organization of its own other than the Goleta Valley Chamber of
Commerce. It needed an established entity to ask for what was needed to improve
the valley’s aging and dilapidated infrastructure, and to reduce chaotic
development. More public transportation, water resources, and just smart
community planning were needed to mitigate the effects of a growing
There was much opposition to any organizing effort that would create more
than a bedroom community in the Goleta Valley. There were those who wanted to “belong” to the City of Santa Barbara
so their property values would be the beneficiary of Santa Barbara property
values. They wanted no part of a new, more rural city. Then there were the
environmentalists that tended to cluster around UC Santa Barbara with its strong
environmental studies program. They were afraid a new city would encourage more
But in fact, being unincorporated didn’t prevent development: property owners
and developers had only to convince one County Supervisor that represented a
larger area, rather than a city council responsible for the entire
Goletans couldn’t agree on what was unique about their own community. Was it
a farming culture, bedroom community, or just funky adjunct to UC Santa Barbara?
Many thought that, with prosperous Santa Barbara next door, what was the need
for another city on the already crowded South Coast? Hence the impasse that had
defeated earlier cityhood attempts.
The first step in building a livable community, in my view, had to be
creating a town center that could focus planning efforts, and Old Town Goleta
seemed just the place to do it. Old Town had been the historical center of the
Goleta Valley with stores, a saloon, and a blacksmith for farmers in the early
There were marsh lands and the large Goleta slough to the south. Goleta
Valley and Santa Barbara have the only southern facing coastlines in California
due to a geological quirk. Early schooners could sail into what was then a bay
at high tide, refill their water caskets at a natural spring where UC Santa
Barbara is now located, and even dock near Old Town’s center.
Spanish explorers in the 1700s who were looking for mission sites originally
thought it could be an ideal site for a mission, as a large island in the center
of the slough had originally held five indigenous Chumash Indian villages and
was surrounded by water making it easily defensible. But when the Spaniards
returned several years later during a drought, there was very little water to
protect it. So, they chose to build the mission in Santa Barbara, which had no
natural harbor but a seasonal creek that could provide an adequate water
Old Town, with its own past, could give Goleta Valley residents a sense of
their own history and separate community identity. It even had a Community
Center that hosted many community activities. An associate County Planner at
that time, Dan Gira, also thought Goleta should become a city able to determine
its future as part of the County’s General Development Plan update.
The update was required by the state of California to accommodate the changes
necessitated by a growing population. I was one of many moving to this beautiful
area of the South Coast with its unique climate sheltered by east-west mountains
and south facing beaches. Santa Barbara and the South Coast has always been a
beautiful and very desirable place to live, and the people kept coming.
The County would apply to the state of California for the formation of a
Goleta Old Town Redevelopment District, which would allow some tax monies to be
withheld for use in Old Town to upgrade its housing and infrastructure. While I
loved the beautiful outdoors and the nature that surrounded us, more housing was
needed in Old Town. Many Mexican agricultural workers—mostly undocumented—were
living in Old Town because of its cheap rents, but landlords were taking
advantage by housing ten to twenty of them in a single dilapidated housing
I had to raise $50,000 in the community: 50 percent of the expense the County
would incur to do the studies necessary to classify Goleta Old Town as a
redevelopment district. The County would chip in its 50 percent in the form of
time and labor, and whatever was needed for the feasibility study that would
determine if Goleta Old Town fulfilled the state requirements for its
The study would include a report on degraded infrastructure, such as
inadequate surface transportation, and the number of bars and other
“nonproductive” businesses in Old Town. The point was to determine the extent of
blight, or physical deterioration, of the Old Town community, and a cost
estimate for fixing those problems.
There was plenty of blight. Goleta’s Old Town had become run down in the
1980s as competing malls were built elsewhere to accommodate the new
auto-dependent subdivisions built to hold the growing population. Bars had
proliferated as businesses left Old Town. A fire partially destroyed a ten-unit
apartment building. A Santa Barbara News-Press reporter covering the fire
reported that residents thought the popping noise from breaking Windows sounded
like gunfire from gang warfare.
We raised the $50,000, the County Planning Department hired a consultant to
write the feasibility study, and it was approved within a year. That gave us the
means to begin planning for a new town center, and maybe a city.
Harlan Green © 2022
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