Opinion: Let’s work together to save outdoor dining in Santa Barbara
By Richard Yates and Tina Takaya
In the years leading up to the pandemic, we all began noticing the ever-increasing number of empty storefronts on State Street in downtown Santa Barbara, the high rents, homelessness, and a struggling retail economy brought on by online shopping. Adding to this, the creative re-branding of the Funk Zone brought increased vibrancy to that area, and caused the business energy, particularly for restaurants and bars, to shift away from the downtown State Street corridor to the newly bustling waterfront area.
This had many of us in the downtown corridor worried not only for the future of our businesses, but also for the future prospects of Santa Barbara itself, especially our downtown. In a town continually topping many polls as one of the leading tourist destinations in the world, visitors came with high expectations that were simply not being met. Instead, they found a downtown riddled with vacancies, and an increasingly battered restaurant scene in what was once a thriving center of exceptional food and beverage businesses.
A great city needs a great downtown, and a great downtown needs a critical mass of vital businesses and other energizing organizations to create the kind of vibrancy that attracts visitors and locals. Despite our best efforts, that energy was dying out and our downtown faced a dire future.
Then, in the face of this situation, along came COVID-19, which sadly took many lives and looked like it might result in as many as 30%-50% of downtown restaurants closing their doors, potentially creating even more vacancies and economic blight
But instead, an amazing thing happened! City officials pivoted quickly and bravely, turning State Street into a pedestrian-friendly promenade and gave restaurants, coffee shops, bars, and other retail the opportunity to expand their dining outside, and as a result, brought a renewed vibrancy to the downtown core that hadn’t been seen in years.
Voila — we had created al fresco dining, which is surely one of the first things most people think of when they think “European Riviera.” And suddenly, here it was in Santa Barbara, all up and down State Street! We have always called ourselves the American Riviera and now we had actually re-created that European outdoor dining experience in a climate that was even more suited to it than Europe itself.
Locals who for years had not come downtown were suddenly walking, riding and rolling to restaurants, excited to be dining outdoors. And visitors also quickly discovered our newly invigorated downtown and found it equally as compelling as the waterfront, further adding to the vibrancy of State Street. This has led to an uptick in retail, with new storefronts opening, many of which, not surprisingly, want to be located near places with outdoor dining, due to the increased traffic and overall interest and vibrancy.
Somehow, facing this dire threat, our city’s incredible response, initially conceived of as a temporary measure to allow businesses and the city to survive, became something much more. It became a roadmap to the future of Santa Barbara.
The closure of State Street to automobile traffic and its accompanying transformation to a primarily pedestrian thoroughfare with outdoor businesses is a forward-thinking, modern vision that understands that things are changing. And if we are to remain relevant as a vibrant model California city, we must change our vision from what Santa Barbara used to be, to what it must become.
Are there problems with the current look and feel of some of the outdoor business structures? Yes. Can they be improved upon? Certainly! And local businesses have met numerous times over the past three months with city officials to discuss key concerns such as:
• Working hand-in-hand with the city to make outdoor dining structures and parklets more aesthetically pleasing and in accordance with proper attention to accessibility, cleaning and stormwater management, in a manner that has sought to balance the city’s requirements with the business needs of the restaurants to operate their outdoor structures in a financially viable way.
• Arranging appropriate rental payments to the city for the use of outdoor space in the public domain. These would then become revenues that the city may choose to use to supplement any additional costs incurred by the use of its public property.
• Addressing potential “inequity” issues of those not fortunate enough to have locations within the promenade, possibly by creating universal size and seating limitations.
Finally, we strongly support and encourage the city to go forward with efforts already undertaken by the State Street Advisory Committee to develop a State Street Master Plan. The success of the Promenade “experiment” to date warrants its continuation, and the exploration of, and hopefully eventual implementation of, further improvements to enhance the beauty, vibrancy and economic health of our city’s downtown corridor, which we firmly believe is good for all of Santa Barbara.
However, as we work towards that goal, we urge the city to allow existing outdoor operations to continue as they have been, with minor modifications as needed, until the Master Plan guidelines have been announced, currently scheduled for December 2023.
Please let the City Council know your thoughts on this. We hope that you will share our vision for the continuation of the downtown State Street Promenade and outdoor businesses as a key component of the new Master Plan for Santa Barbara. Let’s work together to create a sustainably vibrant future for our chosen and beloved hometown.
• Richard Yates and Tina Takaya are the owners of Opal Restaurant & Bar in downtown Santa Barbara.