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How Restaurant, Retail Businesses Open Their Doors in Downtown Santa Barbara

Release Date: February 5,2020

Tenant improvements can eat up a lot of time and money when businesses move into a storefront

State Street M Special siteM. Special Brewery has leased the 634 State St. spot for a taproom in downtown Santa Barbara and owners expect to open for business in mid-2020.  (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

By Brooke Holland, Noozhawk Staff Writer | @NoozhawkNews | February 5, 2020 | 6:39 p.m.

They say all good things take time, and some Santa Barbara business owners have preached the art of patience.

Location is important for entrepreneurs hoping to open a retail, service or food-and-beverage business, and the downtown corridor checks a lot of boxes.

“It’s the old saying, ‘location, location, location,’” said Israel Rodenas, who recently opened Carrillo Street Barbers at 9 W. Carrillo St. 

“You have to take into consideration the best location for the best dollar value, and State Street wasn’t necessarily feasible.”

In addition to the location, Rodenas considered visibility, foot and driving traffic, and pricing, among other factors.

Walking along the block, the large tree coverage can make the street look dark during the daytime, Rodenas explained. A few businesses and a nearby hotel are open at night, and the barbershop’s lights help brighten up the dim location.

“My goal was to find something close to State Street, with enough square footage,” Rodenas said. “I was looking around town, and when I came across the vacancy at 9 W. Carrillo St., that’s in the heart of downtown, but not on State Street, and the price point is more in my favor.”

Once Rodenas found the perfect spot, he reached out to the property management team for the vacant space and started lease negotiations.

The property didn’t need major improvements, Rodenas said, but a ramp and the entrance had to be compliant with Americans With Disabilities Act laws. Changes like that, he said, “ultimately can become major, and it’s something that you discover after the fact, at least in my case.”

Downtown barber Israel Rodenas

Israel Rodenas gives a haircut to pianist Matt Fettbrandt shortly after opening Carrillo Street Barbers in downtown Santa Barbara.  (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk file photo)

Rodenas first walked into the vacant space and talked with the property managers at the end of January. He opened his doors on Oct. 16.

“In all, not too much,” he said of the tenant improvements. “But, at the end of the day, it did take a process to get approved by the city, and once we got the green light by the city, it was full steam ahead with the contractor.

“It was a great experience to finally see it come to life,” Rodenas added. “It did feel like a while, but it felt amazing.”

Goleta-based M. Special Brewery's owners saw an opportunity on State Street itself, and leased the 4,000-square-foot former space that Tonic Nightclub vacated earlier this year. 

The owners, who operate a brewery and taproom in Goleta, are working on getting a full permit from the city for the space at 634 State St.

“We are already making progress,” said Josh Ellis, brewmaster and one of the owners of M. Special. “The process has gone pretty smoothly up to this point.”

Part of the build-out cost is paying rent, Ellis said, mentioning that there are many moving parts and city departments to work with during the process.

“We have got to make sure that we have enough money in the bank to complete the project and pay the rent as we go,” he said.

M Special brewmaster Josh Ellis

Brewmaster Josh Ellis shows off some of M. Special’s beer at the company’s Goleta location. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

“There are different desks that your file has to cross, but that's not a unique challenge, and most cities have a lot of responsibilities.”

The bathrooms will be reconfigured and the site will include a casual-dining kitchen, with walk-up windows, and a decorated patio, among other improvements to the space.

“If everything goes great, I would love to be open by the middle of 2020,” Ellis said of the new Santa Barbara taproom, which they first leased in mid-2019. 

Renee Brooke, a senior planner with the city, said her best piece of advice for someone considering opening a business is to ask a lot of questions — of the landlord, the property manager, and consultants for tenant improvements, such as an architect and contractor. 

Information about each property is available online, and people can also call or visit the Community Development and Public Works Department offices at 630 Garden St., she said.

“The more information they can share up front, the more we can help them,” she said. “We do our best to ask questions and understand the proposal as much as possible when someone inquires about the review and permitting process, so we give the most complete and accurate information. But we need their help to make sure we’ve covered all potential big issues.”

Brooke said an issue she has heard from potential business owners when trying to open up a retail or restaurant space is sometimes, if they are proposing extensive renovations, it may trigger a requirement in the fire code to upgrade the building with a fire-sprinkler system.

“In many cases, I have been told that property owners/landlords will not pay for that improvement and pass that expense onto the tenant, which can be a very substantial investment in a building,” she said. “I believe the same goes for ADA upgrades as well.”

Requirements should not change during the process, unless city ordinances or laws are formally amended, Brooke said.

However, in some cases, city planning staff members ask for additional information from applicants during the review process, and the answer, or revised project scope, could trigger new requirements, she said.

If accurate information is not shared up front about a project— like the proposed use, number of restaurant seats, ADA accessibility/upgrades, access to trash enclosures, parking and exterior changes — projects can get “hung up,” because that information is revealed later, after a lot of time and money has already been invested by everyone.

At that point, it can be difficult to change course and comply with the regulations, she said.

“Some projects can take a while to receive design review approval for exterior changes — we know we have a robust design review process in Santa Barbara, which requires review of project elements that may not be reviewed in other communities — and we see the amazing results from that process, especially downtown,” Brooke said.

“For quite a while, we had a significant backlog of zoning plan checks, but we recently caught up, and so that is no longer a factor in building permit delays.”

The city has been trying to speed up the process for prospective business owners wanting to get into downtown and Coast Village Road properties, and the Accelerate Program has shown some success in its first two years. 

Santa Barbara also offers certain free, early advisory services to address design issues that can slow or hinder improvement plans when identified later in the process, such as ADA accessibility, fire-related review and restroom facilities. 

Click here to read more stories from the Housing & Development section. 

— Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk@NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.