Efforts to locate a brand new Target store on property owned by the City of Santa Barbara adjacent to the municipal airport were rejected for the third — and presumably — last time at last week’s Santa Barbara City Council meeting. Acting in closed session, the council voted not to pursue exploratory talks with Target or real estate developer Andrew Bermant — attempting to broker a deal between the two — to develop the 15-acre island of land owned by the City of Santa Barbara but surrounded by the City of Goleta.
Councilmembers expressed hope that Target would still open an outlet in Santa Barbara — perhaps buying out the Sears outlet in La Cumbre Plaza — but opined that the airport property was not appropriate. Santa Barbara officials voiced concern about the traffic congestion the proposed Target might cause at the Fairview/Highway 101/ Hollister Avenue interchange. They also expressed real apprehension over the potential opposition such a development could unleash among Goleta officials and residents. If Target were built there, they said, Goleta would bear the brunt of any additional traffic congestion, while Santa Barbara would reap the financial rewards — $700,000 a year in rent and up to $1 million a year in sales tax revenues.
Andrew Bermant decried City Council’s action. “I’m shocked. I’m upset,” he said. “The public never had a chance to explore the proposal. The council killed it behind closed doors and before it was ever really looked at.” Bermant complained that Santa Barbara’s airport property — 15 acres of prime real estate — has sat fallow way too long. “If I ran a property like that, I’d fire myself,” he commented. In fact, Bermant and his brother Jeff long held rights to develop the airport property, but their efforts to locate two major projects on the site — a Miravant and Citirix — fell through for a host of reasons.
Following those failures, Bermant has pushed hard to locate a Target there, and continues to do so even though his lease with Santa Barbara City Hall expired three years ago. About five months ago, Bermant organized a quasi-grass roots campaign to generate public support for Target. He held a rally in De la Guerra Plaza in front of City Hall, passing out toy Target dogs and collecting signatures. While Bermant tapped into some eager and enthusiastic popular support, he also managed to annoy many in City Hall.
Bermant has acknowledged as much, recalling that during a recent meeting with City Administrator Jim Armstrong, “Jim Armstrong just about jumped down my throat.” Armstrong did not respond calls for comment, but City Planning Czar Paul Casey — who attended the meeting in question — stated, “Andrew is not completely incorrect.” Casey said Bermant angered Armstrong by “pontificating how he’d already brokered a deal with the Santa Barbara and Goleta city councils.” To what extent Bermant had accomplished such political spadework remains unclear.
Goleta City councilmember Roger Aceves said there never had been any official discussion of the proposal by the Goleta council. Aceves expressed concern about the traffic impacts of such a development — 130,000 square-feet on 10 acres of land —especially when combined the impacts anticipated from UCSB’s planned expansion. But none of the preliminary planning analysis upon which the politicos would rely had been done, he added. According to Bermant, Goleta and Santa Barbara could split the sales tax revenues generated by Target, and Target would spend up to $9 million on traffic mitigations. Casey said he’s never heard Target commit to such expenditures. He noted that the $1.2 million a year the airport can generate by leasing space to light industrial companies and start-up R&D firms will be considerably more than the $700,000 annual rent Target would pay City Hall.
Space for such light industrial and commercial functions is becoming increasingly rare in the City of Santa Barbara. As the Funk Zone — where many small industrial operations are now headquartered — becomes increasingly gentrified, Casey and others are looking to the airport to help fill the breach. Casey said it would make more sense for Target to move into the site at La Cumbre Plaza, now occupied by Sears. He said Target representatives have expressed a willingness to explore that.
Bermant said that Sears’ lease runs through 2028, and that Sears has no interest in moving. While revenues at La Cumbre are low, he said, Sears’ costs are even lower, meaning that the outlet is consistent performer. Besides, he added, Sears is owned by K-Mart and K-Mart would be loathe to give a competitor like Target a toe-hold in the lucrative South Coast market. Likewise Bermant said none of the other locations frequently cited as more appropriate actually work.
Bermant also suspects the council violated open meeting rules. The council is allowed to meet in closed session to discuss personnel matters, labor contracts, and real estate negotiations. But Bermant claims because no actual negotiations were underway — only the question of whether they should be entertained — that the council should have discussed the question in public.