A copper-skinned man with a faraway look and a brown blanket draped over his shoulder plunks away at the painted piano on the corner of State and Ortega streets in search of a melody that keeps slipping away. Behind him, a big chrome padlock intrudes into the visual flow of the tall, twisted, wrought-iron gate posts installed to keep street people from encroaching into the dead patio space of the empty commercial building, vacant so long and so often it could well be haunted. That building at 700 State Street — the site of many restaurants that opened and failed — could well be the big news on State Street in a week of big news. A 7-Eleven franchise is now on the way.
Edged out of the big-news running is the previous week’s revelation that Saks Off 5th at 1001 State Street finally pulled the plug and took itself off life support. That store was dead almost from the day it opened its doors two years ago, and the announcement was long expected. Saks Off 5th will officially turn out the lights next March, leaving unanswered the 46,000-square-foot question of what to do with all that State Street space.
The other big news is the grand opening of the new, fancy 121-room luxury hotel — dubbed Hotel Californian — just below the train depot at State and Mason streets. The ubiquitous Moroccan tile work inside is sufficiently kinetic to have a dizzying strobe effect on the casual observer, but outside, it’s all Santa Barbara’s ubiquitous white stucco: calm, formal, and gleaming. As of Sunday afternoon, it’s still brand-spanking-new, and crowds aren’t pooling yet. Thirty years in the making, the hotel’s arrival — like a slow-moving tsunami — lacks any surprise factor. But its presence — coupled with the ongoing alcohol-induced success of the adjoining Funk Zone — will further tip the central business district’s balance of trade decidedly to the south. And no number of painted pianos — no matter how magically playful — can turn that around.
News of a 7-Eleven headed for State Street was greeted with apocalyptic concern at Tuesday morning’s Downtown Organization meeting. The ink was barely dry on the lease agreement when mayoral candidate Angel Martinez informed the crowd. It would provide yet another exhibit in his unfolding indictment of City Hall’s “lack of vision and leadership” where State Street and its 30 vacant storefronts is concerned. “This is the best we can do?” he asked in an interview later. “What’s aspirational about a 7-Eleven?” Martinez has been banging the drum about the necessity of a paradigm shift for State Street. Amazon.com has permanently altered how most Americans shop; traditional brick-and-mortar retail has withered, leaving in its wake husks of empty storefronts. State Street is no exception.
While Martinez seeks to blame City Hall for a lack of vision — “In the absence of any vision, we will wind up with mish-mash” — Maggie Campbell, executive director of the Downtown Organization, stated she’d like to talk with the property owner about the 7-Eleven deal. About two years ago, the building was purchased by Bruce A. Meyers, owner of Gearys, the Beverly Hills emporium of luxury wedding gifts. Campbell said she’s been trying to contact the owner for some time but without success. “We already have a convenience store downtown,” said Campbell. “In every downtown I’ve worked, 7-Eleven has been a nuisance operator. There’s a drive-in nature that changes the dynamic of the district.” What she didn’t say is that 7-Elevens sell alcohol. Campbell has been waging a long, uphill fight against street drunks, demanding greater police enforcement from police chiefs who caution that certain problems defy such simple solutions as citations or arrests.
Instead, Santa Barbara Police Chief Lori Luhnow just put four Americorps volunteers on State Street to engage with any street people, diverting those who are divertable into available treatment options. She’s also fielding two red-shirted “Ambassadors” onto the street at any given time, equipping them with radios but not guns. The department is also exploring ways to embed mental-health professionals onto the department’s Restorative Policing detail, which focuses exclusively on street people.
Privately, many in the commercial real-estate business are cautioning against overreaction. Many of the vacant storefronts have, in fact, been rented out but are not occupied yet. Some vacancies — like the soon-to-be-empty 1001 State Street that houses Saks Off 5th — account for three listings, one for each floor.
While Santa Barbara appears to lag way behind San Luis Obispo in terms of reconfiguring the DNA of its downtown district, there is motion. Earlier this summer, City Hall convened a gathering of property owners, commercial brokers, and business leaders to talk about the future of downtown. The Downtown Organization hired consultants to study the problem.
Though brokers complain it’s too little too late, city planners have adopted a plan — dubbed Accelerate — to expedite the permitting process. Of the 18 building permit applications sought by downtown business owners in the past two months, eight have been issued and 10 are in plan check. Of the nine design review applications, eight have been granted. And of the 20 sign applications, 20 were approved, though four of those approvals have been appealed.
In the meantime, Campbell has teamed up with the American Institute of Architects to do what architects always do in times of crisis: Hold a planning charrette. Architects, planners, and landscape architects will break into teams of eight or nine each and be assigned small chunks of downtown to reimagine and redesign. Spearheading the effort is architect Brian Cearnal, who designed the Saks building at 1001 State Street and has already started plans to rebuild it with apartments on the second and third floors. He could soon be designing the new digs for downtown’s 7-Eleven. Cearnal said he’s been advised by some city councilmembers to “not get too artistic or creative,” but he pushed back, saying, “Sometimes, you need to look at things from 30,000 feet up.”
It’s too soon to say whether the new 7-Eleven will withstand the gathering storm of indignation. No application has yet been submitted to City Hall, though city planners say it fits existing zoning and land-use designations. “It’s a convenience store,” said one City Hall insider. “We have convenience stores downtown. What do we say? No to 7-Elevens, but yes to wine tasting?”
Cearnal acknowledged the awkwardness of the situation. A 7-Eleven may not have the cachet of other tenants, but with so many vacancies, property owners are hard-pressed to find suitable operators. (Campbell with the Downtown Organization said she knows of several retailers interested in that space.)
Santa Barbara has another 7-Eleven at State and Mission streets, one conspicuous for its flamboyantly Moorish design. “Does that mean I need to start designing a mosque?” quipped Cearnal, who pointed out that only half the downtown property would be occupied by a 7-Eleven. His role is not to design the new 7-Eleven but to bifurcate the building so it can be shoehorned in. By next week, the painted pianos will be gone from State Street, part of an annual public art installation project. So, too, will the clusters of players tinkling the worn-out ivories. The empty storefronts, however, will remain for the indefinite future.