A push by the Santa Barbara City Council and community members to prioritize the revitalization of downtown State Street resulted in much talk and little action during the council’s Aug. 14 meeting.
The council did vote to hire an economic development consultant, form an ad hoc committee to oversee the consultant and review suggestions for revitalizing the area.
“Let’s eat the elephant one bite at a time,” said City Councilman Randy Rowse, a restaurant owner who backed the measures.
The consultant will develop an economic development plan for the city’s downtown area and manage its implementation in hopes of speeding up processes between city planning groups and businesses looking to set up shop in the area.
The moves are the first steps in an effort to break a cycle of decline and empty storefronts and address homelessness and panhandling. Business interests and property owners packed the council meeting to demand action in reviving the region’s most important retail district.
The new ad hoc steering committee is comprised of Mayor Cathy Murillo, Rowse and City Councilman Eric Friedman. All council members were tasked with reviewing each of the items on a list of improvement suggestions.
The list, drafted by stakeholders, details ideas for revitalization, including consistent oversight and guidelines during the permitting process and adding housing to the downtown, among many others.
Although referred to many times during the meeting, the document was not addressed directly by the council because it is not a public document. It was sent to the council by Amy Cooper of World Business Academy, who heads the Santa Barbara Retail Task Force and also owns the Plum Goods store on State Street.
Cooper’s action plan was a combined effort by business and property owners, nonprofits, real estate brokers and others to encourage a business-civil partnership. She implored the council to consider revitalization ideas, such as hiring an economic development consultant and creating a clear and speedy permitting process.
“We were trying to all put our best foot forward in terms of coming up with solutions,” Cooper said during the meeting. “I feel like a lot of the time we only hear about the problem and, at this point, all I want to hear are solutions.”
Nina Johnson, senior assistant to the city administrator, also gave a presentation of current city efforts toward revitalization, which outlined steps being taken to increase visitor traffic, streamline permitting, bring arts and culture into the area and safety measures, among others.
The steps she mentioned included short-term leasing agreements for vacant spaces, trial runs for pop-up shops and street closures, rebooting the 1st Thursday event, streamlining event approvals and improving the stretch between the waterfront and downtown.
“There’s no single driver of economic vitality; it belongs to all of us,” Johnson said.
Public comment stretched on for nearly two hours as person after person implored the council to take action, sharing experiences of slow and costly permitting processes.
“I’m a young professional, and I don’t want to stay,” said one resident during the meeting who cited “excessive and stifling” regulations for dance and live music events she discovered while trying to host an event in the area. “You want to talk about what you can’t get online, it’s that — it’s live performances, and there’s just not enough of that on State Street.”
Murillo and Rowse were responsible for putting State Street on the agenda — a step in toward solving the problem that many attendees welcomed.
“I think this is one of the few times that I have really just wanted to get down on my knees and thank you for making this a significant part of your agenda,” said one attendee, a third-generation resident of Santa Barbara.
In turns, the packed room offered praise and encouragement or disdain and cynicism as citizens urged the council to stop talking and take action.
A landlord shared a story about a tenant who was going through the process of opening up a business on lower State Street. He said more than a year and a half later, the tenant has spent $1.5 million on the 2,000-square-foot space and hoped to open in August.
“I’m now 81 going on 82; I don’t have time to even think about building anything in Santa Barbara,” he said. “This is the pretty lady that no one wants to date. It’s too high a price; it’s a fatal attraction.”
Ray Mahboob, a real estate investor, said he wanted to see the council take immediate action on 10 items from Cooper’s list. He noted that an attitude of teamwork was important for all parties involved.
“Right now it really seems like there’s us against you, and you against us,” Mahboob said. “And I really think we should change that and work together as a team, as a partnership, to progress. If we win, city government wins.”
• Contact Annabelle Blair at [email protected]