How Santa Barbara saved Downtown State Street with outside dining and why we need to make that a permanent feature of our downtown.
In the years leading up to the Pandemic, we all began noticing the ever-increasing number of empty storefronts on downtown State Street, 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, 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 just 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 the accompanying transformation of it 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 dining 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; i.e., 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 also 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.
We do also need your help on a matter specific to our 1300 block of State Street and the 01 block of West Victoria, where the City is considering making our 2 blocks back into 2 way streets which will severely curtail or eliminate all 6 parklets in these areas, due to a bike path that will be constructed a block or two north of us. In a previous meeting the City suggested there were other possibilities that would allow our blocks to remain as they are. We need your help to make this point to the City Council before this Tuesday, and specifically request the City to leave the 1300 block of State Street and the 01 block of West Victoria one way streets, and to seek other traffic circulation solutions to any issues posed by the bike path.
Please let your city council know your thoughts on this as well as the larger view of the future of Santa Barbara contained in this message. 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 home town.
If you would like to help us by doing so here is a link to the City Council page where each of you can do a group email to all of them.
Thank you very much for taking the time to read this and we really appreciate your support at this time!
Tina Takaya and Richard Yates
Owners, opal restaurant and bar