BASTA: Okay, I admit it: Long before construction even started, I’ve had it in for the monumentally silly new parking garage that’s recently erupted behind the Granada Theatre. It’s been explained to me a million times that this aesthetically overwrought and hyperventilated, five-story, $24.5 million parking lot is the second coming of sliced bread and Swiss cheese — not to mention the salvation of upper State Street — but such arguments fail to penetrate the perimeter of my cranial fog. The way I see it, upper State — the stretch between Carrillo and Sola — has been thriving very nicely without divine intervention of massive publicly financed construction projects. I know that $50 million is regarded as mere chump change in some quarters, but I have a nagging sense it could be better spent on 1,001 other projects — like more, better, and faster mass transit, as just one example. Naturally, my festering attitude is ideologically rooted in the wildly improbable. I think it makes no sense to coddle our cars so extravagantly when we should be planning for a rational future — at least where the automobile is concerned — rather than an obviously insane past. As such, building the Granada Garage is akin to installing a wine cellar in your basement before checking into the Betty Ford Center to dry out.
Architecturally, the Granada Garage contributes to Santa Barbara’s obsessive-compulsive Edifice Rex complex, in which everything built henceforth must rival the Courthouse in both splendor and grandeur. Functionally, the lot is hamstrung with serious traffic flow problems. The engineers who designed it failed to include an entry lane for the lot’s Anacapa Street entrance, an omission that will generate gratuitous traffic agitation, rear-end collisions, whiplash, and all the attendant lawsuits. But all that’s old news. What we’re seeing now is how the presence of the new parking lot will accelerate the Guccification of State Street, an upscale blight already well underway.
Everybody knows that Isaac Newton postulated the first law of physics: If we build it, they will come. And when that happens, Santa Barbara landlords will charge higher rents. Although Newton didn’t live long enough to see that happen, this phenomenon has been codified by subsequent physicists as the Second Law of Nature. With the arrival of a new lot with a carrying capacity of 550 cars, landlords reckon there will be more foot traffic. If their tenants are benefiting, so should they, and rents are going up. The first and most obvious victim of this is the Santa Barbara Sandwich Company on the 1200 block of State Street, which for my money delivered the best and biggest sandwiches for the lowest price in town. The owner, whom I knew only as Roger, was famous for three things: He wore shorts no matter how cold or wet it was outside; he remembered the first, middle, and last names of every single customer he ever served; and he worked so hard people standing in line could work up a second-hand sweat just watching him. Roger took over a location that most real estate agents had written off as haunted because so many businesses had failed there. Roger made the place hum. It was always packed. Now, after 10 years of hustling, smiling, and memorizing, Roger’s gone without a trace. Hope you got kissed, Roger, because we all got screwed.
The next domino to fall is Alpha Thrift, located on the 1100 block of State Street right across from the Museum of Art. Alpha’s 10-year lease is with Jim Knell of SIMA Corp., and they won’t be renewing. Affable but disciplined, Knell plays real estate like a contact sport; he extracts market value from his properties with an efficiency that borders on ruthless. As a result, he owns and manages more downtown real estate than anyone else. In the board game Santa Barbopoly, Knell has long been the reigning King of Marvin Gardens. Knell explained that Alpha Thrift simply could not afford State Street rent anymore. He acknowledged Alpha was facing a rent increase had it stayed, but protested, “It wasn’t that much of a rent increase.” But he also said Alpha was looking at a 30 percent rent increase. He said that in the 10 years, its rent had doubled. I understand that among thrift store connoisseurs, Alpha Thrift was regarded as a little pricey, especially its clothes. Maybe so, but I’ve bought many a $5 pair of shorts there that would have cost $60 elsewhere. And besides, the proceeds went for a good cause — Alpha Training — which works with developmentally disabled clients right here in town. Alpha has been on State Street since 1967; its previous location was at State and Ortega, now the site of that ex-restaurant, Ma Dolce Vita.
Maybe it was inevitable that Alpha would be pushed off State Street sooner or later. Maybe it’s not entirely fair to blame its demise, however tangentially, on accelerated market forces unleashed by the Granada Garage. But who said life was fair? The fact is, other thrift stores are having a hard time surviving Santa Barbara’s boon times. RADD, located on lower State — well beyond the Granada’s sphere of influence — is also about to fold. Maybe there’s not enough room in this town for a couple of thrifts and all the new art galleries sprouting up, hawking overpriced paintings of whales, grizzly bears, and other wildlife. And if the poor find themselves excluded by the downtown’s dramatic demographic tilt, I say let them eat $400 jeans.
But this story has a happy ending. Rather than watch Alpha Thrift swirl down the toilet bowl of oblivion, the Hutton Foundation intervened. It actually bought Alpha Thrift brand-new digs out in Goleta by Hollister and Kellogg. The new space, the site of a former furniture store, is way bigger than Alpha’s State Street site, and the rent will be roughly one-third what Alpha currently pays. And with such low rents, one would hope that Alpha can drop its prices. Santa Barbara’s loss will be Goleta’s gain, and presumably Alpha Thrift will live happily ever after. Assuming, of course, no one gets the smart idea of building a new parking garage next door. — Nick Welsh