Places like those found at 120 Gray Avenue are an endangered species here in Santa Barbara. A living, breathing workspace nestled just north of the train tracks and south of Yanonali Street in the heart of the Funk Zone, the area has been a vibrant and essential landing spot for local tradesmen since the Weber Bread Bakery vacated the property nearly 40 years ago. From electricians and welders to cabinetmakers, metal fabricators, and furniture builders, the nearly block-long yard with its large warehouse and various outbuildings is headquarters for more than 20 businesses that, with callused hands and years of experience, help provide the lifeblood of our community. That is, until now.
Recently tagged with numerous city zoning, building and safety, and fire code violations in a part of town rife with such issues, more than half of the tenants have been served 30-day eviction notices from a reluctant landlord — a never-pretty development but one that is particularly brutal and potentially fatal to business in these financially wicked times. “Ever since I can remember, this has been a working man’s yard,” explained Mark Heinz as he was packing his things on Gray Avenue late last week. “It works for our landlord and it works for us, but now, all of a sudden, the city comes along and tells us we have to get out, that it was never meant to be a work yard,” continued Heinz, a commercial refrigeration and air conditioning specialist who has been working out of the property for the better part of three decades. “I’m 64 years old and this has pretty much taken the wind right out of my sails. I’m just not sure what comes next.”
According to property owner Janet Nancarrow, daughter of Elephant Bar and Carrows Restaurant founder David G. Nancarrow, the trouble began early last fall when someone, a neighbor perhaps, complained to the city about electrical issues associated with the space. From there, a Fire Department inspector and then a Building and Safety inspector came out for a look-see in late October and found more than enough reason for alarm. “Basically, we not only found dangerous electrical conditions but we also found some illegal tenant space with some very dangerous electrical conditions and illegally constructed commercial space,” says George Estrella, the city’s chief building official. Specifically, aside from unpermitted electrical work, the primary issue was in the large warehouse where a Jiu-Jitsu school was sharing space — thanks to a couple of illegal partition walls — with Heinz, an electrician named George Honeyman, and at least two other tenants. This led to an official Notice of Violation being drawn up in late November and sent to Nancarrow detailing the various zoning, electric, fire code, and plumbing violations and starting the clock on her deadline to remedy them.
In the months since, by all accounts, the overriding effort has been to get the property into compliance. Outside general contractors and electricians have been brought in to fix things up all on Nancarrow’s dime (in her words, “thousands and thousands of dollars have been spent”), dumpster upon dumpster have been filled up with scrap material and various debris that had accumulated around the yard, and the most flagrant zoning violators have been forced to vacate. “There isn’t one of us here who hasn’t given time and/or money to fixing the violations … Our attitude has been, just tell us what needs to be done and what hoops need to be jumped through for us to stay here and we are on it,” summed up woodworker and tenant Skip Saenger recently. And Estrella concurs, “We have had a good working relationship with the owner thus far … To my knowledge, it certainly appears that there has been diligent progress made by everyone to abate the violations.”
In fact, as a result of the many violations already reconciled, a revised Notice of Violation was sent to Nancarrow late last month that reiterated the need for four of the tenants to vacate immediately (the ones in the warehouse space who shared with the Jiu-Jitsu school, the majority of whom, as of press time, have already left). The notice also said it was okay for all other nonconforming and unpermitted uses of the property to continue as long as no immediate health or safety risks were created by them and as long as Nancarrow continued to work toward coming into compliance. “Nobody wants to drive these guys out of business or out of town,” summed up Estrella, “But we have to make sure things are done in a safe and legal way.”
Even with the latest developments, 14 of the tenants are still living with imminent eviction, a reality that has many in the yard — and at the city for that matter — scratching their heads. Strong supporters of Nancarrow — stories flow easily from tenants like Saenger and welder Ray Duncan who speak glowingly of their landlord’s generosity and support of their businesses over the years — and the general consensus among evictees is that their scheduled booting has nothing to do with potential development plans or designs on putting the property on the market. And Nancarrow, who has other property holdings in town and is, like so many others, feeling the fiscal squeeze of the current economy, confirmed as much this week, telling The Independent plainly, “I’m not a developer — I just don’t have it my blood … Santa Barbara needs to save places like [120 Gray Avenue].” Pressed further for the thinking behind the sweeping eviction decree coming from her and her partners, Nancarrow, who admitted to being “very emotional” and frazzled by the proceedings of the past few months, offered only, “It is an old, funky building, and I have to make it safe and follow what the city tells me to do no matter how sad it makes me. I just can’t afford to make the city mad at me and fight it.”
Though she wouldn’t say as much, it seems that the majority of the evictions are a pre-emptive move against having to wage a potentially long and financially taxing zoning war with the city and the California Coastal Commission, were the current incarnation of the yard to be made fully legal in the eyes of the city. “Ultimately, this will be a planning matter as to whether things are zoned properly for the businesses that are currently there,” speculated Estrella this week. And if they aren’t, then a re-zone and/or coastal development permit would be required to stave off eventual eviction for all remaining businesses — two things that don’t come very easily around these parts.
In the meantime, fearing for their livelihoods and running out of time, tenants in the yard have taken their case to various city councilmembers and their cause has not fallen on deaf ears. Both Das Williams and Dale Francisco, two men who often find themselves on opposite sides of issues at the council, have worked behind the scenes to clear up confusion between Nancarrow, the tenants, and both the Building and Safety and Zoning departments on the requirements for compliance. The hope is that they can find a workable resolution for all parties involved that buys time, eradicates safety concerns, and ultimately salvages as much of the current business makeup of the yard as possible. “These are people who make a great contribution to the community and we want to make sure that they can continue to do that,” said Francisco. But with May 27 only two weeks away, whether or not that can happen for the folks at 120 Gray Avenue is anything but certain.