Santa Barbara is moving forward on a plan to widen State Street sidewalks underneath the Highway 101 overpass.
The council voted 6-0 last week to pursue state grant funding of about $5.5 million to pay for the project.
“This is an underpass that is too big and too vehicle-oriented,” said longtime alternative transportation activist Lee Moldaver. “It divides the downtown from the waterfront. This is a terrific staff proposal. I wholeheartedly endorse it.”
State Street under Highway 101 is two lanes in each direction, with 5-foot sidewalks. City officials said that vehicular traffic has stayed about the same since the Highway 101 undercrossing was built in 1991, but that pedestrian traffic has jumped.
The city’s transportation planners are rushing to make the undercrossing more inviting and welcoming as they look to lure people from lower State Street.
Santa Barbara’s downtown, from the 400 block up, was once the crown jewel of the city, the unavoidable tourist and local attraction for anyone who touched down on the American Riviera.
The rise of Amazon.com has wrecked the retail experience for many shoppers and business owners, so city leaders are looking to create a more vibrant downtown, where the focus is walkability and experience.
Further complicating matters is Santa Barbara’s accidental success of the Funk Zone, a once-industrial neighborhood that has turned into a destination for wine and beer tasting, along with fun, locally owned restaurants and boutique shops.
Add in the recent completion of the Californian Hotel and La Entrada development on lower State Street, and city planners are worried that people won’t need or want to travel through the underpass because there’s plenty of entertainment elsewhere.
“We really support this project,” said Dave Lombardi, a business owner and interim executive director of the Downtown Organization. “We really need to fix this underpass.”
Lombardi pointed out that when the new morning and late-afternoon train service between Ventura and Santa Barbara counties begins next month, many more pedestrians will use the underpass, so it is important to make the pathway more attractive.
“This project really is an indication that the city understands and appreciates the need to reinvest in its downtown core,” said Matt LaBrie, a member of the Downtown Organization board of directors “The importance of this project is really going to signal to the community that you really care about about what is going on downtown. It is going to stimulate re-investment in the area. You are going to trigger some really wonderful things and attention to that area.”
Councilman Gregg Hart said the sidewalks should never have been only five feet wide in the first place. He said 25 years ago when he was on the city Planning Commission, he voted against the four lanes of traffic and five-foot sidewalks.
“I think this is a great project and an opportunity to fix it,” Hart said. “It is going to be a really great connection to downtown.
Councilman Randy Rowse requested that the city try to install some temporary lighting and clean the undercrossing more often.
“It is kind of dark and dank down there,” Rowse said.
To keep people from lingering or loitering in the underpassing, Rowse suggested “piping a loop of Barry Manilow’s greatest hits.”
“I am excited about this,” Rowse said. “It is a great community project. I would like to see this go forward as quickly as humanly possible.”