Planning director George Buell said the new State Street working group has been brutally honest about downtown’s problems. | Credit: Paul Wellman

It wasn’t long ago that Santa Barbara City Hall couldn’t — or wouldn’t — admit its famously difficult design review and permitting processes were likely contributing to State Street’s record-high vacancies. Stubborn planning staff and members of both the Architectural Board of Review and Historic Landmarks Commission bristled at the mere suggestion. But that appears to be changing. “The first step was acknowledging the problem,” said Councilmember Kristen Sneddon during Tuesday’s meeting, where the council heard about collaborative efforts among a new group of city staff, architects, commercial brokers, and business owners to streamline the approval process. “I think that was the hardest step for a lot of us to take.”

For the past 10 months, planning director George Buell explained, this Downtown Economic Vitality Working Group has hammered out a list of 20 recommendations for improving customer relations, many of which are already underway. City staff and design board members are undergoing “empathy training” to better understand how costly planning delays can be to project applicants. Planners are getting more consistent oversight and receiving regular performance reviews, Buell said. Faster, over-the-counter permits are being developed, and the appeals process — frequently abused by serial obstructionists — is being reexamined. The recommendations also called for hiring an economic development officer, lowering or waiving fees for outdoor dining areas, and removing parking requirements for mixed-use developments. 

“I love this group,” said Mayor Cathy Murillo. “This is really exciting and impressive,” said Sneddon. But the next step, she stressed, “is assessment and accountability.” Buell highlighted the development of an online customer service survey. Architect Edward deVicente, a member of the Working Group, said he appreciated Buell and his department’s willingness to come to the table but emphasized there’s still much room for improvement. “The key issue is the disconnect between applicants and staff,” he explained. Communication is critical, as are respectful interactions with planners. “Those courtesies go a long way,” deVicente said. Staff have been asked to respond to phone calls and emails within 24 hours and let applicants know when they are taking vacations, Buell said.

The first step was acknowledging the problem.

Buell also provided the council an update on the city’s Accelerate Program, which was initiated in August 2017 to reduce State Street vacancies by giving downtown projects priority placement on review boards. The goal, Buell said, is to get the vacancy rate to 5 percent. The rate was 11 percent when the program started, and it has since increased to 13.4 percent. Buell said 23 storefronts need to be filled to reach the 5 percent goal. 

The council didn’t seem encouraged by those figures. Are we getting a good return on our investment in the program, Councilmember Meagan Harmon asked, if we’re not improving the numbers? Buell said it would take a “significant” increase in staffing to make the program more effective, but he did highlight the success of pop-up stores organized by Nina Johnson of the City Administrator’s Office, as well as the notably low vacancy rate achieved on Coast Village Road. 

Gene Deering with Radius Group said State Street’s commercial market remains unpredictable. In the next few months, all of the spaces occupied by Samy’s Camera, Restoration Hardware, and Forever 21 will be up for lease. Nine properties are currently up for sale. On State Street’s 900 block alone, there are seven vacancies. Most notable, Deering said, is the growing disparity between what lease rates landlords are asking for and what they’re actually getting. One property was recently asking $3.75 a square foot but was leased at $2.15. 

But there are definite glimmers of hope, Deering went on. He pointed to the multi-tenant concept of Cubaneo at 401 State Street and the new House of Clues escape room in the old Aaron Brothers at 601 State. These are the kind of “cool operators” that draw visitors downtown instead of the Funk Zone. Deering said the influx of tech companies, notably the impending move-in of Amazon to the Saks building, is a good thing. “We don’t need — and we can’t get — 14 blocks of retail,” he said.


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