December 2, 2022
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Dubroff: State Street’s problems have a simple solution

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When it comes to fixing Santa Barbara’s increasingly shabby-looking State Street, it’s clear that the issue nobody wants to address is housing.

With an additional 5,000 or more residents in the downtown core, State Street would again resemble a vibrant neighborhood that could support the merchants and restaurants who are struggling to sustain themselves.

By allowing — by lottery if necessary — commercial space to convert into residential units, the glut of offices would be absorbed, and the city would have a bit more spring in its step. Instead of being a retail dinosaur, Paseo Nuevo could house a new generation of residents for a revitalized downtown.

Henry Dubroff
Henry Dubroff
From the Editor

And Gov. Gavin Newsom likely would throw millions of dollars at such a plan, which clearly fits the more-housing mandate that he’s imposing on coastal California. Some portion would have to be affordable housing, but if that’s what it takes, so be it.

It does not take a genius to diagnose the rest of Santa Barbara’s problems. The Funk Zone on the waterfront has soaked up the tourism dollars that once belonged to lower State Street. Upper State Street is thriving thanks to some new retail, including Target, some timely redevelopment of hotels and some new residential projects.

Without tourist throngs to sustain the downtown portion of State, and with offices increasingly vacant, there is a barbell effect. The waterfront is thriving, while Upper State Street attracts new workers and residents.

But in what still passes for the Central Coast’s financial district and the county’s legal and professional core, there are truly no clothes on the once-powerful emperor of the region’s economy.

Bringing parades back to State Street would encourage area residents — and more than a few out-of-towners — to come downtown, but that seems years away, after the City Council decided not to require existing outdoor dining parklets to become portable.

The demise of core Santa Barbara amid the rise of Ventura, San Luis Obispo and Thousand Oaks is shameful. Los Alamos is getting raves from the Los Angeles Times and Orcutt is leading a retail revival in the Santa Maria Valley, but beyond the Funk Zone, Santa Barbara has an identity crisis — especially after Labor Day, when tourists are scarcer.

Santa Barbara is not without assets. There are billions of dollars in trust and investment accounts in the aforementioned financial district. There are families willing to invest in the downtown core — I know because I’ve spoken with several of them.

The American Institute of Architects has hatched plenty of innovative housing solutions, and it can create more of them, given affirmative direction from City Hall.

It should not be surprising that Santa Barbara has reached this point. It has happened before — each generation faces a need to reinvent State Street. Pearl Chase did it after the 1920s earthquake; it happened again after World War II and in succeeding generations until the 1990s, when Paseo Nuevo and tunneling State Street under Highway 101 gave the area its current look and feel.

Now the creation of the Funk Zone and the development of the Haley Street corridor have left the middle of the city exposed to urban decay.

Santa Barbara has plenty of accessible capital in the form of infrastructure, recovery act and Inflation Reduction Act funding at the local, state and federal levels.

It has talented architects and professionals who understand how to build things while respecting the city’s architectural traditions and limits. Its bureaucracy is creaky but can get things done if prodded.

But one key ingredient is missing.

Who will step up to lead a new vision for Santa Barbara? In the past, whether it was Pearl Chase, Tom Storke, the Hollister family or former Mayor Harriet Miller, someone has stepped forward. We can wistfully remember that former Deckers CEO Angel Martinez, a Business Times Hall of Fame member, came close to winning a mayor’s race that could have made a difference.

I have said before, paraphrasing Winston Churchill’s comment about America, that you can count on Santa Barbara to do the right thing after it has tried everything else. During the past decade, a lot has been tried that didn’t work.

This time is no different.

• Henry Dubroff is the founder, owner and editor of the Pacific Coast Business Times. He can be reached at hdubroff@pacbiztimes.com.