Unofficial Isla Vista History


ike generations before and after, I could not wait to escape the safe, snug Anacapa residence hall and flee to the euphoria of living my sophomore year at UC Santa Barbara in the liberating sea coast town of Isla Vista.

For economic reasons I ended up far from campus and the beach at 6681 Berkshire Terrace,where I learned how to work a pool heater to create a midnight hot tub filled with naked graduate students, how to cook tortillas and cheese to subsist, and how to use Indian curtains to turn a tiny bedroom into a two-man nest.

Eventually the pool heater broke, the rents went up, and my graduate friends moved on. Like generations before and after, by the time I graduated from UC Santa Barbara, I was ready to flee the noisy, unhinged and sophomoric Isla Vista village.

My story is repeated to this day by tens of thousands of UC Santa Barbara students. From euphoria to escape, the only things that stay the same are the apartments.

To say that after more than 50 years of history Isla Vista is at a crossroads is too kind. Isla Vista is stuck in political gridlock and civic neglect. It is now the fifth largest community in Santa Barbara County, far ahead of Carpinteria and Lompoc, and yet its citizens have the least amount of political control of any urban area in the state.

Isla Vista has gone through booming development, ugly riots, invisible demographic changes, and a long history of special reports and studies, mostly long forgotten and ignored. Little seems to change, other than the names of Pardall Road restaurants and the style of bicycles that clog its few main arteries.

Evolution not Revolution

Walking through Isla Vista today you do see the first small signs of economic change in the downtown core, if you can call a smattering of buildings and bars a “downtown.”

The Isla Vista Bookstore has closed, killed by the forces of publishing that have slaughtered the likes of Borders and Barnes & Noble. The Rexal drugstore is long gone, killed by the big chains. Chic restaurants like Sorriso Italiano have sprouted near monolithic new townhouse commercial developments. Nothing is as ostentatious as The Icon, a three story modern apartment building that boasts some of the highest rents in Isla Vista. Nothing is as innovative as the new “Campus 880,” where rental discounts are given for high Grade Point Averages.

But this spurt of new development masks the fact that Isla Vista development has been seriously undermined in the past 12 months by the dissolution of its Redevelopment Agency, part of a statewide effort to redirect local tax monies from urban improvements to the original source of the RA funds: schools and local government. The Isla Vista RDA Plan had called for $6 million in improvements to sidewalks, downtown businesses, streets, storm drains and lighting. It had the capacity to borrow an additional $8 million for even more improvements, like buying up open space and building new low income apartments. The collapse of the Isla Vista RDA meant locals had to rally this past summer to save the Isla Vista Neighborhood Clinic building from being sold by the state for commercial development. More importantly, it means that new funding for traffic, safety and aesthetic improvements in Isla Vista has evaporated.

De Facto Mayor

Carmen Lodise was the irascible pot stirrer that one finds in every small town. Pony tailed and goateed, he was everywhere, and where he was, controversy was not far behind.

Lodise enjoyed bringing anguish to university administrators, county officials and anybody who did not agree with Lodise’s single minded mission of turning Isla Vista into its own incorporated city. Arriving as a research assistant for a UC Santa Barbara professor in 1972, Lodise spent 30 years organizing, agitating and browbeating, often to no avail.

While Lodise was involved in many of the civic movements that led to first the Isla Vista Community Council and later the tax-supported Isla Vista Parks & Recreation District, his real legacy may be that he has written the only detailed history of Isla Vista: “Isla Vista: A Citizen’s History.” Of course, the perspective is purely Lodesian: one key administrator at UC Santa Barbara is referred to as “Fast Eddie,” the book illustrates one chapter with a photograph of the former Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Captain Joel Honey wearing a medieval sword and mace on his uniform during the Isla Vista riots, and an Isla Vista landlord is referred to as “Pond Scum.”

History, of course, is defined by those who tell it, and it is ironic that the most authoritative and detailed history of UC Santa Barbara, history professor Robert Kelley’s “Transformations: UC Santa Barbara 1909-1979,” barely mentions Isla Vista in its 134 pages.

What all three note is that when the UC Regents decided to accelerate the growth of students at UC Santa Barbara in a move to propel the Santa Barbara campus into the ranks of the big sisters of UC, Isla Vista was missing in action. Lodise argues that this was part of the deal with local officials and land owners. Originally the campus was going to incorporate Isla Vista into the main campus and build its student housing there. But under pressure from locals, the Regents backed off that plan and allowed Isla Vista to develop with little urban infrastructure, planning or oversight. Today’s parking problems in Isla Vista are a direct result of zoning rules laid down in the 50s and 60s that allowed dense apartment construction with no off-street parking.

The Regents’ first plan for UC Santa Barbara on its current campus was for 2,500 students. According to Kelley’s history, within a year, that number was pushed to 3,500 and faculty members wanted more, as many as 10,000 students. Twenty years later, when Isla Vista exploded in riots that not only burned the Bank of America but also trashed numerous real estate offices in Isla Vista, the campus population was over 13,000. Today it stands at over 20,000, with a Long Range Development Plan being considered by the California Coastal Commission that would push the number up to 25,000 by 2034.

How Much is That Apartment With the Broken Window

6500 block of Segovia (1 bed, 1 bath)  —  $1210/mo
6300 block of Del Playa (3 bed, 2 bath)  —  $2994/mo
6500 block Trigo (Icon apts.)(2 bed, 2 bath)  —  $2400/mo
6600 block Sabado Tarde (3 bed, 2 bath)  —  $2900/mo
700 block Camino del Sur (2 bed, 1.5 bath)  —  $2465/mo
6600 block Del Playa house (3 bed, 2 bath)  —  $4100/mo

The Man in the Middle

Ed Birch has had a Storke Tower-type view of Isla Vista for more than three decades. In the 1980s, he was UC Santa Barbara Vice Chancellor for Student and Community Affairs.

One of the first important lessons Birch learned early in his tenure was that the University walked an excruciatingly fine line with regards to oversight of students while they were living in Isla Vista. “People have forgotten,” he noted, “in the 1970s the University was relieved of responsibility for students as part of the move away from the idea of in loco parentis.” Prior administrations had been held to the standard of “in place of parents,” but with the cultural changes of the 1970s, universities were told to back off. Nowhere was that more true than in Isla Vista. “The University had no right to control students who were not on campus.”

Birch, who now is the chair emeritus of a Santa Barbara bank and the chair of the board of the Mosher Foundation (its $3 million gift made the Mosher Alumni House on campus possible) is candid about what Isla Vista has become. “It’s now commonly referred to by the [Santa Barbara] community as the armpit of our community.” He added, “It’s a crime how this community has left [Isla Vista].” In a slum environment, “you are going to have problems.”

The problem, he said, is a lack of government structure. He notes that the ultimate government authority is the county Board of Supervisors, whose jurisdiction ranges far and wide across the county. Only one supervisor, Doreen Farr, has responsibility for Isla Vista, but she also is politically beholden to votes in Goleta and more important, the Santa Ynez Valley.

Yet the history of student voting in Isla Vista also means that local politicians have to cater to students, even if at times it resembles pandering. Students, in effect, have power every two and four years, but they have no government.

What should or could have happened?

Birch believes that the first small steps are occurring under Chancellor Henry Yang, who believes deeply that Isla Vista has become a drag on the University’s national and international reputation. He is more and more concerned about the impact of non-students on the image of Isla Vista and by extension, UC Santa Barbara.

Birch believes the University should begin buying up land in Isla Vista and putting academic buildings in the community. The ultimate goal is to “integrate” Isla Vista into the University community. The University should partner with local investors and builders to upgrade the housing stock and improve the aesthetics of Isla Vista. Just as important, the local community has to take responsibility, Birch said, for the nonstudents, including local high school and community college students, who use Isla Vista as a party pad.

More importantly, the political and civic leadership of the South Coast has to “address the Isla Vista issue,” Birch said. “It is a mistake to look at Isla Vista as one of those historic college villages like you find at the University of Virginia or at Ann Arbor. It’s not.”

The Trow Report

In the wake of the Isla Vista riots of 1970 the President of UC commissioned a 7-member panel (which came to be called the Trow Commission) to study ways to “eliminate or ameliorate the causes of unrest in Isla Vista.” The panel concluded that UC Santa Barbara had to take a more active and aggressive role in creating stable civic institutions in the community, improving housing and living conditions and ultimately taking a high profile in terms of building and land use in Isla Vista.

Almost 45 years later those recommendations seem as current today as then.

The University has taken a higher profile in Isla Vista than in previous years (the fortress-like Bank of America building that was built to replace the burned building is now a University lecture hall with student services in adjoining offices; the old Magic Lantern is now a University run film theater and event hall; and the twin towers of bacchanalia, Francisco Torres, were purchased by the University and turned into UCSB student-only residence halls now called Santa Catalina).

The University found the political landscape far more treacherous because of competing local political interests, though it did support Isla Vista being annexed to Goleta when that city incorporated. (Goleta cityhood leaders nixed that idea for fear Goleta residents would never incorporate themselves if they had student voters heavily influencing elections.)

What UC Santa Barbara Promises to Pay To Grow to 25, 000 Students

The University entered into agreements with the city of Goleta and the county of Santa Barbara to pay mitigation fees for the impact of increasing enrollment to 25,000 over the next 20 years. Many of the impact mitigations go towards improvements in Isla Vista. The agreement was in sharp contrast to lawsuits in Berkeley and Santa Cruz brought by local jurisdictions against UC campuses there that had proposed similar growth plans.
The deal includes:
• Payment into a trust fund of $400 per new student up to $2 million to be matching funds for traffic, bicycle and pedestrian improvements in Isla Vista
• Provide 5,000 new beds for students built on campus land
• Provide 1,874 new residential units for faculty and staff built on campus land
• Payment of $280 per student bed to either the county or city as an impact fee to be used for public services including fire, police, parks and recreation for any new housing constructed on land not owned by the campus at the time of the agreement
• $9 million to the city for 28 traffic/intersection projects in the City of Goleta
• $3 million to the county for Los Carneros and Storke Road widening projects
• Two new officers added to 7 current UC police assigned to Isla Vista Foot Patrol
• County will bill UC Santa Barbara $600,000 per year for paramedic services provided out of Station 17 on campus.
• UCSB will pay 70% of the cost of current firefighters assigned to Station 17 and 100 percent of cost of any firefighters required to maintain staffing ratios as new students, faculty and staff are added to campus. (Currently 1 firefighter per 4,000 students)
• If UC Santa Barbara demolishes Station 17 it is committed to rebuilding a new fire station.
• UC Santa Barbara agrees to lease to the county a one acre parcel on the West Campus, near Isla Vista, for a possible new fire station.
• UC Santa Barbara agrees to buy at a cost of up to $170,000 a new emergency response vehicle for paramedics and turn over two existing emergency response vehicles to the county.

From RA to Building Czar

Chuck Haines epitomizes the new style of UC Santa Barbara administrator. A former resident assistant on campus, and a resident of Isla Vista for several years, he is both smart and engaging. Like the archetypal UC Santa Barbara alumnus, he can tackle the toughest, knottiest financial problems and still crack a joke when the tension is highest.

Today Haines is the campus building czar, in charge of the planning, design and construction of all new buildings. With a team led by Executive Vice Chancellor Gene Lucas, he is helping shepherd the campus’ plan for the next 20 years of development through local government agencies and the California Coastal Commission. After years of tough negotiations, both the County of Santa Barbara and the city of Goleta have signed off on the plan. (This is no easy feat. Both the communities of Berkeley and Santa Cruz sued the University of California over development plans for both those campuses. The lawsuits were in court for years.)

The future of Isla Vista, Haines conceded, is facing some rocky roads, not to mention potholes. He points to the Isla Vista Master Plan, drawn up by the county and community in 2007, as providing a road map to a better Isla Vista. But it requires investment. The University has just gone through five years of steep budget cuts and tuition increases. The county of Santa Barbara does not have the political will or interest in major investments, and the county’s Redevelopment Agency is gone.

What is the roadmap to a better Isla Vista?

It includes:
• A revitalized downtown with more commercial opportunities and better pedestrian/bicycle circulation.
• Better traffic circulation throughout Isla Vista
• A solution to the chronic parking problem
• Development credits for dense development that provides community amenities
• More parks and open space

Haines argued that there have been improvements over the past few years. With prodding from community groups the University moved its San Clemente graduate student housing on El Colegio Road closer to the street in order to integrate it more into the Isla Vista community. Plans are under way to improve the connections between the campus and Isla Vista. The current Pardall tunnel and Eucalyptus Curtain provide graphic evidence of the barrier between the campus and community. Plans are to create wide-open and welcoming entrances from Isla Vista onto campus.

The campus’ most western parking garage was built with more capacity with the idea that it would help with parking problems in Isla Vista. So far that has not been the case.

But perhaps the most ambitious plan calls for a whole new community of faculty and staff along Ocean Road, which is the dividing line between Isla Vista and UC Santa Barbara. Drawings that have been completed show townhouses and commercial development that would be on campus land but border Isla Vista with the hope they would lead to improvements in adjoining properties inside Isla Vista. The project would also provide the long sought “mature” influence of faculty and staff living with students in what would be more of a traditional campus community. Equally important is the fact that these residents would not be transient and thus be willing to invest in civic development.

The Ocean Road project, which would be built by the campus Housing Department, is still years away, Haines conceded. Perhaps five to 10 years. It is waiting for the campus to finish construction of some 157 units of faculty housing in what is now called “North Campus Housing,” west of Storke Road.

The big hurdle is the Long Range Development Plan. It calls for 25,000 students, with an increase in graduate students, by 2034. In precedent-setting agreements with both the county and city of Goleta, the campus has agreed to build all the housing needed by the new students, new faculty, and new staff on existing campus land, including the recently purchased Devereaux property.

However, the county created a new hurdle in attempts by the University to improve the Isla Vista housing stock. Fearing that if the University bought IV apartments it could create a housing squeeze, as well as take housing off the tax rolls, the county decreed that all the housing to be built for the LRDP must be new housing and be built on existing University land.

The most promising development is that the University has agreed to set aside $400 per new student, up to $2 million, to provide improvements in Isla Vista. The money will go to mitigating traffic problems as well as safety issues in Isla Vista.

Haines’ grand vision for Isla Vista would be to create a 12 month, permanent population in Isla Vista, a less transient, older and more settled population. Still, he can’t get the old Isla Vista out of his head. “IV in the summer was the best place in the world to live,” he recalled. “It was spectacular.”

The Mellow Radical

When Dr. Richard Flacks was hired by the Sociology Department in 1968, the appointment immediately ran into resistance from none other than then Gov. Ronald Reagan. The UC Santa Barbara faculty and administration supported the hiring and Flacks joined the faculty. Flacks lived up to his radical reputation. He was a leading and very visible voice against the war in Vietnam and in support of student protests at UC Santa Barbara. He and fellow sociologists wrote a landmark report showing how the campus growth was depleting water supplies for the entire Goleta Valley. Legions of students took his social protest class and left UC Santa Barbara with an activist spirit.

Today, Flacks is just as heavily involved in campus and community politics as ever. But to say he has mellowed is an understatement, though he would never admit it. A group he has mentored, Sustainable University Now (SUN), has been an important player, and goad, to the University in pushing for more sustainable growth on campus and for mitigation of the impacts of that growth.

SUN and the University came to historic agreements regarding the LRDP and as a result the campus is committed to retrofitting all its existing buildings to reach energy and water efficiency standards and to mitigate the impacts of the next two decades of growth.

Flacks sat down to ponder all the changes at UC Santa Barbara over coffee at the Coral Tree Café, outside Cheadle Hall. He was getting ready to host his weekly music program on KCSB. One of his biggest surprises over the years, recalled Flacks, was that parents did not take a more active role in Isla Vista, given the living conditions of their children. “The kids probably think it is great,” he said and noted that even at some Ivy League schools the living conditions near campus are slum-like.

But he has some surprising observations. “In discussing Isla Vista with students over the decades, they like the place. It’s a fun place, even though they are being ripped off.” Flacks believes the new LRDP will transform the connection between Isla Vista and the campus. The Ocean Road development will hasten the integration of the campus and community.

Flacks recalled that when UC Santa Barbara was first being planned an architectural firm was hired to plan a student community in Isla Vista. “If that had occurred this community would look very different. Instead, the local real estate and land interests said no and threatened to oppose support for the campus unless they were allowed to develop Isla Vista.” “IV developed as a bubble,” Flacks said. “the University’s role was marginalized. Now the LRDP tries to undo some of that historic failure.”

Still The Same

Isla Vista Vital Statistics
(2010 U.S. Census Data)

Population  —  23,096
Housing Units  —  5,091
Percent Apts  —  86%
Per Capita Income  —  $10,324
Anglo Population  —  64%
African American  —  2.8%
Hispanic  —  23%
Foreign Born  —  17%
Retail Sales  —  $12.6 million
High School Graduate or higher  —  79%

There are more than a dozen student interns who work inside the Alumni Affairs office on projects as diverse as social media and the senior class gift. What do they think of Isla Vista?

Jessica, who asked that her last name not be used for fear of retaliation, turned angry when the topic of Isla Vista housing was brought up. She lives with four other students in a two bedroom one bath apartment. It rents for $3,500 a month and is far from campus and the ocean.

“As soon as I graduate I’m leaving, moving to Santa Barbara. I want to get out of IV,” she said. Sinks and toilets back up, repairs are slow and sometimes non-existent, and it is noisy. “I’ve had bad experiences with landlords,” she admitted.

Yet as I walk through Isla Vista at ten minutes before the hour, the faces are bright, if a little intense. The bicycles come in metal waves down Pardall, and there is not an angry word to be heard. It is spectacular.