Panelists reiterated ideas to revitalize Santa Barbara's State Street at a Wednesday event, with proposals that focused on building more housing and bringing more locals downtown, as well as seeking innovative solutions to retail vacancies.
The Noozhawk Public Newsroom event was held at Youth Interactive, and publisher Bill Macfadyen moderated the forum's three panel discussions on State Street mobility, pop-up shops, and following up on the American Institute of Architects' October 2017 design charrette that sought block-by-block plans for the commercial corridor.
Many of the panelists' major takeaways were suggestions that have been made before, but have not been put into action: building more housing downtown; experimenting with closing blocks of State Street for special events, or permanently; and creating more collaboration between stakeholders such as the city, property owners and business owners to lower barriers to entry for new businesses that want to open on State Street.
Noozhawk's Reimagine: Santa Barbara series, which has been published over the past 14 months or so, has reported on many of these issues.
In August, the Santa Barbara City Council asked for feedback on plans to revitalize downtown, and voted to hire a consultant to make recommendations, after receiving a lot of them from the community.
The council will likely hire a consultant in January and hear a report two to four months later, according to city staff.
The debate over closing part of State Street to vehicles has been going on for decades, and panelists dove into that topic Wednesday in front of a crowd of about 90 people.
World Business Academy Founder and President Rinaldo Brutoco and Dave Davis, board chairman of the Santa Barbara Metropolitan Transit District and former city community development director, talked about the pros and cons of closing blocks of downtown State Street to through traffic, temporarily or permanently.
Davis said nearly all pedestrian mall efforts don't work out, and that closing any part of State Street to cars isn’t going to happen without support from the merchants in the affected area.
Closing several blocks of State Street to create a pedestrian mall was in the city's general plan for about 30 years, he said, but was taken out because of business owners' concerns.
“The way we have done State Street, the way it is today, is because the merchants demanded it because we were facing the threat of suburban shopping malls, and they had free parking,” Davis said.
Some businesses worry that stopping vehicle traffic on State Street will decrease their visibility and especially hurt business from tourists, added Amy Cooper, owner of Plum Goods.
Brutoco noted that the pedestrian-friendly Third Street Promenade in the city of Santa Monica, and Pearl Street, a four-block pedestrian mall in Colorado lined with shops, restaurants and entertainment, are two examples of thriving downtowns. He said both downtown corridors turn the areas into “fun” for people.
“We need to look at this as ‘how do we make this fun — how to make State Street fun?’” he told the crowd.
“No one would mind walking 10 blocks if it was Disneyland,” Brutoco said. “And there are no empty shops on Disneyland’s Main Street — why is that? — part of what we have to do to revitalize downtown is make them entertainment.”
Entertainers should be encouraged to perform in downtown, and frequently, he said, adding that a downtown area should also be “interactive and experiential.”
Getting businesses into State Street spaces faster
A panel on pop-up shops also discussed the barriers to new businesses downtown, particularly the high cost and amount of time it takes to go through city permitting.
Adam Geeb, asset management director at SIMA Management, Nina Johnson, senior assistant to the Santa Barbara city administrator, and Amy Cooper, owner of State Street's Plum Goods, discussed the recent focus on encouraging pop-up shops and shared spaces.
“One of the biggest misconceptions I hear is that it’s vacant on State Street because the rents are high,” Cooper said. “The rents are not high. They are not compared to Santa Monica and the Funk Zone... nowhere near Los Angeles.
“A lot of it has come down to permitting, and that people realize that it’s going to take a year or two years to open their business, and or it’s just a big space,” she continued.
The city has held speed-dating-style workshops to match up property owners and business owners for the pop-ups or partnerships, and Johnson said the city recently approved a signage template that will allow new businesses to skip a trip to the Sign Committee.
Signage can cost businesses a lot of money and time, and the templates help cut that down, she said.
“It seems like a small detail, but it’s huge,” Johnson said. “These are the types of steps that will encourage people to get started.”
She also said the city is encouraging businesses to find spaces that don't need many interior renovations, so they can avoid needing a building permit prior to opening.
The Accelerate permit program, which the City Council recently extended indefinitely, is designed to expedite permitting for downtown businesses.
Santa Barbara is an anomaly in that it does not have an economic development department, or even one staffer dedicated to that purpose, although that may be a recommendation that comes out of the city's consultant, Johnson said.
AIA charrette's recommendations, a year later
The AIA charrette produced a comprehensive document that the group presented to the city soon after the event a year ago, but its recommendations have not gone anywhere, panelists said.
Robert Perry, project manager/energy research director at the World Business Academy, Tom Parker, president of the Hutton Parker Foundation, and architect Brian Cearnal, founding partner of the Cearnal Collective, provided an explanation and overview of the 2017 State Street charrette during Wednesday's event, and gave insight on what steps the community could take to move forward.
A charrette is a solution-design practice common in the field of architecture, to address housing, retail, transportation, public engagement and other measures that affect the quality of life.
Cearnal emphasized the importance of allowing higher-density housing downtown, and building more housing near State Street, in his comments and said there has been no movement on the charrette's recommendation.
“We have to get the horsepower of people living in, close to downtown, for downtown to be vital,” Cearnal said. “That was No. 1 that came out of all of the groups.”
Now, more than a year later, there is still little housing within the State Street corridor, Cearnal added.
“I’ve been extremely frustrated that the city…is nowhere closer to allowing more dense housing in the downtown than we were when we started that charrette,” Cearnal said. “The AIA is active in continuing to be a force within the city process to encourage change.”
Other suggestions out of the charrette included a State Street-specific task force to work on downtown vitality.
“There is no silver bullet,” Cearnal said. “It’s a lot of things. It’s art, housing, a vibrant retail, closing off State Street at certain times, etc.”
Wednesday's Public Newsroom event was sponsored by the Hutton Parker Foundation and Union Bank, along with Noozhawk’s Reimagine: Santa Barbara project partners and DPNews.
Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli contributed to this story.