As rents rise and online corporations grow, State Street businesses have suffered the consequences, causing city leaders to brainstorm new ways to get people out and invigorate commerce. What started as a unique approach from City Hall administrator Nina Johnson ended in a light-hearted event shared by the Santa Barbara community and visitors alike. The State Street overpass witnessed an overwhelming increase in pedestrians that resulted in a prosperous weekend for nearby merchants and restaurants.
Artists and deejays kicked off the event dubbed “Experiment Weekend” on Friday, April 19 as darkness fell, with eclectic videos projected onto the tunnel walls and music to supplement the vibe. Combining the popularity of events like Fiesta and Summer Solstice with the recent growth and success of the Funk Zone, Experiment Weekend sought to use the lower-State underpass to bring more visitors downtown.
With a projection on either entrance to proclaim the event, hundreds of people gathered beneath Highway 101 to see what the excitement was all about. The hubbub of laughter and conversation arose from the crowd making themselves comfortable in the unlikely central location. The effect spilled up the street, as restaurants experienced long lines of people out the door.
Saturday’s events, which lasted from noon to 10 p.m., prohibited vehicles on the first two blocks of State Street between Gutierrez and Cota, just beyond the overpass. Visitors casually walked through the temporary pedestrian corridor, enjoying live music, basketball courts, a food truck, a ping-pong table, outdoor seating, and a wine and beer garden.
Merchants unanimously reported increased sales on Saturday, with an employee at Folio Press & Paperie saying they nearly doubled their sales. Samy’s Camera usually has a negative experience with the similarly pedestrian-friendly farmer’s market, a representative said, but it also observed more business than average. Mini Mart Groceries underwent a 15 percent increase in sales, and owner John Chaves added, “It was a good crowd. I liked the atmosphere, not at all rowdy like Fiesta.”
In addition to accomplishing its mission, the weekend proved to unite the community in a low-key atmosphere previously unexperienced in downtown events sans automobiles. “This is what we’ve needed,” said one local, noting the success of other cities that have made pedestrians a priority in attracting business. Randy Rowse, a councilmember who was skeptical of hosting the event on a holiday weekend, didn’t attend the festivities but said “In terms of public participation, I’d guess you’d call it a success.” He also expressed support for an eventual underpass project but was unsure of how representative the weekend’s events were of that vision.
Nina Johnson reflected, “The weekend was full of surprises. I was really happy to see the huge turnout and diversity of all the people who attended, a full range of ages and backgrounds that was really representative of our entire community.” She affirmed, however, that the City Council won’t make any determinations about the future of State Street until a thorough survey has been conducted and properly analyzed.
[Editor’s Note: This is an updated version of the story that was posted on April 21, 2019.]