Release Date: February 4,2020
The commercial vacancy rate in downtown Santa Barbara has declined in recent months, as the city prepares to hire an economic development director to boost business vitality. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)
By Joshua Molina, Noozhawk Staff Writer | @JECMolina | February 4, 2020 | 10:22 p.m.
The city of Santa Barbara plans to hire an economic development director in the next week, Community Development Director Paul Casey announced at Tuesday's City Council meeting.
The announcement came during an update on the city's downtown economic vitality, seven months after the city paid a consultant $87,000 to offer suggestions on how to improve downtown and the business climate.
Downtown, between the 400 and 1300 blocks of State Street, there's a 10.6 percent commercial vacancy rate, down from 11.9 in November. The city also held pop-up shops inside some of the vacant storefronts to make the street look less empty.
"What remains a challenge in the downtown area is the vacancy of retail spaces," said Marck Aguilar, business liaison for the city.
Richard Berti, a downtown property owner, urged the council to facilitate development on State Street, but not to relax parking standards.
One of the suggestions from the consultant group was to reduce parking standards for housing or mixed-use development on State Street.
"We have plenty of parking because we have no business," Berti said. "If we become vital again, we're gonna need more parking. We need to keep our parking. If you get rid of it, you will destroy the economic vitality of the downtown."
The mood of the room was upbeat, acknowledging that the city has made progress in the past year.
City officials have been working to expedite permits in order to approve businesses faster.
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Historic Landmarks Commission meetings now include digitized plans and drawings to allow for quicker public review. The HLC is also trying to adhere to approximate start times on agendas; in the past, meeting items could start more than an hour after the listed times.
The city in August also hired a downtown business liaison to facilitate permit review. Casey said the new economic development director will be announced in the next week or so, and he hopeful that the position will make an impact.
"The economic development director is going to be a great resource, but it takes partnerships in the community," Casey said.
Amy Cooper, owner of Plum Goods and one of the most vocal advocates and activists for the downtown, said despite the progress, now is the time for solutions.
She said her new neighbors pay two-thirds of what she pays on State Street.
"It's more than filling spaces," Cooper said. "It's about keeping the business we have."
Councilman Eric Friedman said he is happy with the direction the city has taken.
"Even though we have our challenges, we are all headed in the right direction," Friedman said.