State Street Serenade

By Mitchell Kriegman   |   May 17, 2020

For decades State Street has been the hope or bane of Santa Barbara’s existence. Today, the moment of truth has arrived as a groundswell of public opinion favors the Mediterranean town square model: closing State Street to traffic and opening up the street to pedestrians, retail and outdoor dining, in hopes of making the city vibrant again while remaining within social distancing guidelines.

The City Council voted unanimously on Tuesday, May 19, 2020, to allow restaurants to create “parklets,” placing tables six feet apart in front of their restaurants with planters on the sidewalks past the tables to delineate a less formal boundary. Blocks of State Street would be closed at the 500 and 1200 blocks. This initial small measure is helpful in the short term and would hopefully lead to more aggressive steps to reinvigorate Santa Barbara’s Downtown going forward.

Venerable State Street has been historically important since the town’s inception when, according to the Downtown Santa Barbara Organization, saloons, dry goods stores, hotels, blacksmith shops, bordellos, adobes, feed stores, a few Victorian houses, a clock tower and even one puppeteer, lined the old dirt street. It makes you wonder what the puppeteer was up to. Were there really enough birthday parties?

Just Shy of a Ghost Town

But let’s take our Wayback Machine way back to just three months ago. Pre-COVID State Street was bleeding retail and restaurants, leaving empty storefront windows in the wake. Now, with three vacant movie theatres, the impending shell of Nordstrom, a hollowed-out Macy’s, and an unoccupied Staples, Downtown has at least six massive vacant structures unlikely to be occupied anytime soon.

Watching last week’s City Council meeting seemed like checking in on a cranky old relative who isn’t feeling very well. This week’s meeting was livelier if more contentious which is probably a good sign. The Council has awakened. The moment of truth has arrived. Now they have to navigate the first COVID-related budget with transparency to build trust and take continued action while there may just still be time. 

A significant number of people called into the last two web-based City Council meetings explicitly supporting the preliminary opening of State Street. At the same time other voices were less than confident about the anticipated opening, wondering whether people would be socially reckless. Gathering homeless, especially in these dire times, are a worry both as a welfare issue and as a concern for business.

Many question how proactive the city’s first steps are and whether it still lacks a fundamental vision – a comprehensive understanding and master plan for how to navigate the dire months ahead. CouncilwomanKristen Sneddon, in a recent interview, spoke candidly about this subject. 

The Need for a Larger Vision

“I’ve been a proponent of closing down State Street to cars since I came into office (in November of 2017). I ran on the opening of State Street as part of my campaign,” remarked the council member. “I’m all for it, but there seems to be a panic to just do something without thinking it through. We need the larger vision or at least a framework for how we discuss what that vision is.” 

With these immediate closures some kind of incremental change has begun. Hope has been rekindled. It would be good however to really get a sense of possibilities and whether the City will move off its presumed role as merely a regulator and fully embrace being a supporter or even a facilitator of business and initiate new progressive designs or revert to its narrower role. “Grand reopening” doesn’t mean you just spend one grand on it.

Short term measures may help some merchants and restaurants but it’s not going to fill the seventy plus vacancies on State Street or even bring back the street’s February 2020 levels of occupancy. In all likelihood the new State Street will be even more empty than it was before. These new steps may be a lifeline for some but too late for many.

One important way the City could breathe new life into Downtown would be to fully visualize and present a full understanding of where commerce is going, how this new iteration works and, most importantly, how we get there. 

Fortunately, the Council has in its possession a number of architectural drawings by the AIA, the local architect’s association, that almost directly addresses these opening steps as well as a more robust reopening. In fact the drawings created for the AIA’s 2017 Charette, the same year Councilwoman Sneddon came into office, seem as if they were presciently drawn for this precise social distancing moment.

“We have drawings of different walks of State Street where it’s been suggested that we shut down that block either on a temporary or permanent basis,” AIA member and charrette leader Ellen Bildsten of Bildsten Architecture and Planning remarked. “Each drawing has all kinds of elements including planters and other features that would make for a great pedestrian experience.”

These drawings are at the very least a visualization if not a vision, a starting point and framework as Councilwoman Sneddon has suggested.

Social Distancing Drawings Before There Was Social Distancing

In 2017 a drawing charrette was held by the AIA to envision State Street for a better time. Today these drawings appear eerily designed in anticipation of a world where social distancing is imperative. The drawing of Arlington Way from architect Cass Ensberg, of Art & Architecture, Interior Design and Planning, “You can easily imagine applying this drawing to State Street. You can see how the tables are spaced widely apart,” said Ms Ensberg. 

All the drawings in the charrette were a collection of team efforts made by architects and architectural firms across the city and represent the collaborative effort of the entire professional organization.

The Arlington drawing is more than the addition of a few planters, it summons the sensation of bringing the public out into nature. The triple assets of sea, sky, and mountains are a blessing in Santa Barbara that sheltering in place have given us a renewed opportunity to appreciate. It’s like sleeping under the stars when you were a kid. Yes, we will miss our indoor spaces, but our homes have become so dominant in our lives during this pandemic that the outdoors takes on greater value. The beauty of this design is that it replaces what might seem like a loss with a sense of liberation.

Another drawing also by Ms Ensberg’s charrette team, shows a State Street cross section that adds colored bike paths, planters and Tivoli lights in an “Enhanced Zone.” Imagine yourself one balmy evening under the stringed lights, the street alive with dining tables, murmuring, laughter, and music echoing. Talk about a “moveable feast.”

Planters, lighting, Pedicabs, paths for pedestrians and landscaping block by block are envisioned in these drawings as is greater residential use.

Another drawing shows a bird’s-eye view of the bottom of State Street from Cota to East Gutierrez Street with the cross streets remaining open. This preserves many of the traffic patterns we are used to in order to keep State Street circulating. It also helps to prevent dark corners that are less safe. It’s Santa Monica’s 3rd Street Promenade model.

The AIA is continuing to build on the 2017 Charrette in order to focus on new efforts for needed housing and post-COVID planning. 

“We’re planning a charrette for this year,” Ms Ensberg said, “we’re figuring out our new ‘virtual’ setting and identifying teams for the later part of this year.”

These designs are well-considered and already tailored to spaces we know and love. They could be implemented immediately, adjusted and changed or merely used as a jumping off point for other ideas. They would bring vitality and vibrance and hope to what has become a sad area.

Taking Advantage of Urbanscapes and Landscapes Concurrently

Pictures say a thousand words and drawings reassure and bring understanding. They allow people to conceptualize how they might move around in these spaces which will need to accommodate social distancing in an enjoyable way. Drawings make it possible to mentally place oneself in new environments with the positive anticipation of what these spaces might actually be like to explore. 

For instance, the conceptualization of Lobero Plaza shows how the Lobero might envision outdoor performances maximizing its adjacent spaces, capitalizing on the natural acoustics of Santa Barbara’s downtown area. 

These drawings suggest the idea that we should take advantage of our city more. The streets, the plazas, the paseos are open for us to inhabit and find joy. When one removes the car from so many cityscapes, people are allowed to breathe the city in more deeply, to explore it and appreciate it from a more humane pedestrian perspective. 

These are not new ideas. Cities around the world like Venice, Rome, and Lisbon have long allowed local denizens to use their cities in ways that make the structures they live with more meaningful and purposeful. In the United States think of New York’s High Line as a highly successful pedestrianed thoroughfare and Portland’s Pearl district.

“This is a proven concept in cities throughout the world and all over America,” Sherry Villanueva remarked after this week’s meeting endorsing the new expansion.

At a time where budgets are crunched and even greater sacrifices lie ahead, the AIA drawings provide a great deal of guidance that seem tailor made for now. These charettes are part of their professional mission. They do not cost the City anything. For City Hall to not take advantage of such talent in this city would be a shame, as these plans would enable scaling up the City’s initial steps to bigger, more substantial ones.

People Movers on the Way

Fortunately, Transportation Manager Rob Dayton and his team have already purchased new kinds of people movers that could easily offset the limitations on cars. 

“The first all-electric bike system in the nation is going to be here in September,” Mr. Dayton remarks. “Each bike is $2,500. They are free to the city because the provider charges for use. We challenged the design team for Beach Cycle, and they developed a unique single docking system that looks more like a bike rack. You just push the front tire in, it locks up and you unlock it with your phone.”

“We will have 250 initially. They’ll be up and down State Street, a little bit on the waterfront at the City College to encourage the students to become more connected to Downtown.”

Dayton, who never stops calling Santa Barbara “Paradise,” is probably the city’s greatest optimist and an enormous asset in forward looking planning. He understands how the basic economics of the city work and is always trying to figure out how to make city life more attractive to its residents.

“I always say, we don’t do things for tourists. We do things for locals and tourists want to be here,” he remarks. 

In all likelihood, however, we may not actually know how many hurdles and how long the path will be to true reopening especially in terms of outside visitors. Many tourist-based businesses have already written off the rest of 2020. They are looking to 2021 before the business will even achieve half of the industry’s 2019 capacity. But Dayton wants to be ready now.

“We need to create a destination for people to want to be here,” he insists. “Don’t tell me the rules right now. Tell me how we survive. We just have to be nimble, fluid, ready. In leadership, the worst decisions are made out of fear.”

In the 1990s Paseo Nuevo was built out of fear that La Cumbre Plaza would draw consumers away from downtown Santa Barbara. State Street is the downtown that turned itself into a mall to compete with La Cumbre. Now La Cumbre is dead. Will State Street be the next casualty? It seems clear in these pandemic times that if you live by the mall you die by the mall. Fast Times at Ridgemont High are now past times. 

“I would absolutely state in the strongest terms, we have a moment in time right now to break through this gridlock on State Street that we’ve had for the last fifty years,” Ms Ensberg declares. Despite rolling street closures, Paseo Nuevo clearly remains an issue.

“I’ve been advocating since 2017 that Macy’s should just be demo-ed. Then the street would open up.” 

Time for a Paradigm Shift – Reassessing State Street

Hopefully the City Council’s initial measures will provide some relief to establishments directly in harm’s way, particularly those on State Street. But at some point, the question arises – why does the notion persist that State Street – as a unified thirteen block neighborhood – will transform and become prosperous? Perhaps more importantly, is a reinvigorated State Street a necessity for the sake of Santa Barbara?      

Perhaps the time has come for a paradigm shift, a new way of looking at State Street and the entire city. Instead of assessing Santa Barbara in terms of areas and districts, perhaps the map of Santa Barbara should be regarded from the point of view of providing strong businesses, in whatever part of town that can survive, with help. Not thinking in terms of literal geography, but in terms of history, stability, and potential. 

Instead of looking at the big hole on State Street, perhaps the focus should be on businesses that are uniquely equipped to sustain through this challenging time and take us to the next level of post-COVID prosperity. Businesses like La Super-Rica, a local institution that has had a successful business for decades, will likely come back, if they can survive this difficult period. 

Coast Village Road is another potential area that may already be more geared to survival and growth than State Street. This area warrants taking substantial measures, actually spending the time to design its expansion into the COVID-ready side lane, fully taking all of its establishments into the streets. 

“Ever since I can recall, we’ve had these conversations about the downtown area and the city has been stuck on the downtown area,” Councilmember Alejandra Gutierrez remarked. Born and raised on the Eastside, Ms Gutierrez represents the Funk Zone, Haley, the Eastside and Milpas. She has grown up intertwined in two cultures and in many ways has a wider perspective on the city. Representing such a diverse business base has made her look at the city in terms of those businesses. 

 “Really innovative, visionary people got together, and boom, the Funk Zone came up. Nobody would go in that area,” she recounts. “Then the Funk Zone became this happening place. But there are lots of areas that were thriving and will thrive again if they can make it through this. Coast Village Road, all the restaurants on Upper State, Milpas. We have to look at getting through this in terms of all the businesses.”

One thing is extraordinarily clear, the time has come to look beyond State Street. Certainly, closing the downtown to traffic in order to open more dining, retail, and enjoying the urbanscape and the landscape simultaneously is laudable. 

But the entirety of our businesses can’t be sacrificed for one geographic area. In all likelihood the impending economic reshuffling will be significantly more dire than that which is currently being addressed. There is definitely a factor of how much disturbing news we can effectively absorb. But we need to prepare for greater changes and initiatives as the reality of business demise evolves.

Panacea or Placebo?

Is saving State Street a panacea for Santa Barbara or a placebo? Is State Street a nostalgic attachment or a city administrator’s stopgap? Most importantly has the time come to go beyond the focus on a particular street with such a burdensome past? Maybe it’s better to stop concentrating on streets at all and single-mindedly see our city in terms of the business establishments themselves on a case-by-case basis and become an enabler of those cherished establishments, wherever they reside. 

Regardless, State Street seems to be headed toward a now or never moment. 


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