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Who Owns This Place?

City's Downtown Report Includes Everyone but Property Owners

The Downtown Revitalization report's Detroit comparison works too well. In all these years, Esau's Café, that wonderful place, has been empty. Boarded up. Abandoned. Why? | Credit: Google Maps 2019

Pretty cool — another study about how to fix downtown Santa Barbara. I just read the Recommendations for Downtown Revitalization report presented to the City Council on July 25.

As a long-term resident of downtown — I remember when Brinkerhoff had antiques — I am always interested in how folks from Los Angeles would make my home more enjoyable. And needless to say, this latest report didn’t disappoint. It’s fascinating reading and nowadays, since all reports are written in PowerPoint, the print is so much bigger. Pictures too!

The report contains lots of statistics, city comparisons and recommendations. In my mind, anytime you hire someone and they compare your city to Detroit — well, that’s just money well spent.

I sort of write a similar recommendation report every time I walk to a restaurant or Farmers Market, but my ideas are usually different. My observations and questions are usually different too.

When I walk around my neighborhood and I see something particularly wonderful or horrible, I often start with “Wow — who owns this place?

I didn’t see much of that in the report. Instead there is discussion about city age profiles, hotel market forces, the homeless, and shopping trends. There is a great part about social media and one about City of Santa Barbara red tape. It was like reading 80 pages of interesting factoids. Fun facts. Fascinating musings from someone who walked around my neighborhood at $125 per hour.

I look at my downtown neighborhood and the challenges and opportunities before us like I’ve looked at all of the other places I’ve lived. There are good neighbors and there are bad. Owners who care and those that don’t.

Take a look at the report. I couldn’t find one sentence, one pretty picture, or one PowerPoint bullet that mentioned an owner. Huh? All that stakeholder outreach and not one owner? There is a big apartment building behind my house. Whenever I have an important issue, I don’t knock on the apartment doors, I don’t call a consultant — I call the owner. It works. They’re my neighbors too, even if they don’t live here.

State Street is no different. Why don’t we call the owners and speak to them?

Let’s face it — when it comes to State Street — the coolest place I know — we’re all renters. We just need owners who care and rent we can afford.

Instead of owners, we talk to Realtors — folks who explain why that little house is so expensive with fun phrases like “San Roque charm.” Don’t get me wrong, Realtors are wonderful people, but they’re no substitute for the shot-callers when it comes to splitting the cost of a new fence.

Let’s take an easy example: About 15 years ago, Esau’s Café, a famous little restaurant in the 400 block of State, was forced to move because the place needed work. That little spot is the front door to State Street. It’s the foyer! It should be that exquisite bouquet on a fine simple table, welcoming all to the wonders that lay just an electric shuttle ride away. But no.

In all these years, that wonderful place has been empty. Boarded up. Abandoned. Unfortunately, that is a Detroit comparison that works too well.

Currently downtown property rents for over $35 per square foot per year. Over the past decade the owner of the former Esau’s Café has lost over $1 million in rent, and they don’t seem to mind. That’s not just a bad neighbor — that’s an amazingly rich, bad neighbor. Who are these people?

Reports on how to make downtown Santa Barbara better are always welcome, and I expect another in a few years. In the meanwhile, let’s figure out what motivates the owners — our neighbors. Let’s speak to them directly in a language they understand. It’s a block party and they are invited. They just need to show up and care.

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