San Luis Obispo City Manager Derek Johnson speaks to a packed house.
Paul Wellman

Thirty years ago, the cities of Santa Monica, San Luis Obispo, and Palm Springs, all struggling with deserted downtowns, came knocking on Santa Barbara’s door to ask how it had created such a vibrant urban center. These days, with a record number of storefront vacancies blighting the State Street corridor, it’s Santa Barbara doing the knocking.

In June, the World Business Academy invited Palm Springs planners to give their advice, and last Wednesday, the S.B. chapter of the American Institute of Architects asked San Luis Obispo and Santa Monica managers to explain how they’d turned their downtowns around. More than 100 people attended the evening event held, fittingly, on the cavernous second floor of the empty Macy’s building. Three main themes emerged from the discussion: housing, public-private partnerships, and leadership.

San Luis Obispo City Manager Derek Johnson explained that his city’s Downtown Concept Plan (a critical, forward-thinking planning document Santa Barbara is conspicuously without) focuses on housing and explores creative ways of repurposing outmoded spaces into livable real estate. “You can’t bring people downtown,” Johnson quipped, referencing an old parking lot that’d been transformed into 40 units of mixed-use housing for Cal Poly business students. “You have to put them there.”

San Luis Obispo has also made a conscious effort to avoid an “everytown” feel and instead embrace the unique and quirky elements of its identity, Johnson went on. Take Bubblegum Alley ​— ​a narrow passage between downtown buildings plastered from sidewalk to roofline with thousands of discarded gum wads. “It is quite disgusting,” he admitted. But it’s one of the city’s most popular destinations, and it cost nothing to create. “Small things have a big impact,” he said.

Santa Monica’s concept plan also centers on housing, explained David Martin, the city’s planning and community development director. Right now, a massive 2,200 units are either approved or under construction. In response to complaints that the city’s approval process was exceedingly lengthy and cumbersome, Santa Monica dramatically streamlined its standards to be more “prescriptive,” said Martin, and did away with many of its design restrictions.

Just as critical, Martin said, Santa Monica invested heavily in its public transportation system (whose ridership numbers have already exceeded 2030 projections) and injected new life into “empty, windswept” public plazas by softening building rules so vendors could set up kiosks and “reactivate” the spaces. Parking requirements for downtown developments were completely eliminated.

From the start of the event, Katie Lichtig, Santa Monica’s assistant city administrator, stressed how critical public-private partnerships were to the recovery of both cities’ downtowns. “Property owners need to be willing to spend as much money on public spaces as they do on their own properties,” she declared. “There needs to be the recognition that if we don’t change, we’ll wither and die.”

That’s all well and good, responded Santa Barbara Planning Commissioner Mike Jordan during the Q&A session, but how does a city engage with parcel owners who seem reluctant to participate in the recovery process? Lichtig said strong leadership from a downtown organization is important (something Santa Barbara also lacks), as is a self-awareness among property owners that remaining stubbornly idle will directly affect their pocketbooks.

Lichtig emphasized that local governments, especially those that preside over communities with anti-urban sentiments, have to be willing to be “super, super risky” in terms of taking on and approving projects that may generate publish backlash. “It takes political courage to say yes to unknowns,” she explained. The trick is to determine what a community will temporarily “endure” before it becomes accustomed to and accepts the change. Johnson, a former Santa Barbara planner, said he remembered when Santa Barbara implemented its one-way street system. “You’d [have thought] the world was ending,” he said.

Both Johnson and Martin said their housing initiatives came from clear direction from their respective city councils, who recognized the urgency of the downtown dilemmas. Lichtig said Santa Monica’s homelessness problem is being tackled by a proactive city administrator.

In the audience Wednesday were a number of Santa Barbara City Hall managers, councilmembers, and Mayor Cathy Murillo. City Administrator Paul Casey was invited to participate in a panel discussion with the San Luis Obispo and Santa Monica representatives, but no direct questions were asked of him, and he did not speak.


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