Sometime this past Sunday, the plug was officially pulled on the Sears department store that had anchored Santa Barbara’s La Cumbre Plaza since it opened for business in 1967. Small clusters of customers showed up, tugged on the front doors, but finding them locked, walked away. Everything that could be sold on the first floor already had been sold — some for discount rates as steep as 90 percent.
Sears’s days in Santa Barbara had been clearly numbered since last fall, when the corporate chain announced bankruptcy and said massive liquidations were on the horizon. Even so, the timing was telling. For decades, Sears had functioned as the Amazon.com of its time — the iconic Sears catalog offering landlocked consumers of rural America a passport to mail-order shopping. The store on La Cumbre Road has folded just as Amazon is preparing to take over the State Street property long occupied by Saks Fifth Avenue. Although no details of that transaction are “officially” known, real estate agents claim that an A.I. (artificial intelligence) subsidiary owned by Amazon will populate most of the building with 250-300 workers; the bottom 5,000 square feet will reportedly become an Amazon outlet of some sort.
The Cearnal Collective, on behalf of the building owner — 1001 State Street Partners, LLC, which is a subsidiary of Woodridge Capital Partners, LLC, the company that owns the Hotel Californian — has received both design review and building plan check approvals. Architect Brian Cearnal said they’ll be adding large windows along the second floor “to create an exciting and light-filled workspace up there,” which should be completed by June 1. The tenant, Cearnal said, would then begin interior improvements. That will take at least three to four months. Ideally, he said, the tenant will move in by October 2019.
The loss of Sears creates yet another gaping hole in Santa Barbara’s porous retail scene; even real estate professionals don’t pretend to know what happens next. At a time when market forces favor smaller retail operations, Sears offers a vast and unwieldy 147,000 square feet of rentable space. Complicating matters further, the ground underneath Sears is owned by a local family-based consortium of deed-holders; four different ownership groups own the rest of the mall. The land itself is zoned to allow housing, but whether that’s a real possibility or merely a hypothetical dream remains to be seen.