Keeping the Lights Shining on State Street

Architects to Reimagine Downtown Santa Barbara During Multi-Week Charette

State Street | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

How many architects does it take to screw in a light bulb? Or more precisely, how many does it take to turn State Street’s lights back on? The number, it turns out, is 173, and they are participating in perhaps the largest and longest group-planning exercise designed to reimagine and reengineer State Street and downtown Santa Barbara for the years ahead.

The effort, sponsored by the local chapter of American Institute of Architects, started off with a survey of the public on changes they’d like to see happen downtown. To date, 4,400 surveys have been submitted — 200 in Spanish. Starting in August, the architects will break into 16 teams of eight. Four will be charged with conjuring plans for the whole length of State Street, and the others will be assigned specific blocks. Whatever the architects come up with, housing will clearly play a new and dominant role.

In the past 10 years, area architects have hosted two similar “charettes,” but these have been contained, one-day events. This one will run multiple weeks before the finished products are released to the public or the City Council.

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Many of the architects see the COVID pandemic as equivalent to Santa Barbara’s historic 1925 earthquake, out of which sprang the city’s defining red-tiled architectural style. In this instance, State Street had been zombie-walking against the stiff winds of online sales, the screaming success of the Funk Zone, governmental red tape, and a lack of any definite defining vision.

In the meantime, Mayor Cathy Murillo’s ad hoc task force on State Street — a who’s who of real estate and business movers and shakers — has just held its last meeting. While not all of its recommendations — particularly on reforms to the city’s land-use permitting process — have been implemented yet, even the most government-phobic task-force members were blown away by how quickly their recommendation to create a nine-block pedestrian promenade on State Street was carried out.

Had that not happened, as much as 30 percent of State Street downtown properties could have been rendered vacant, stated Bob Tuler, a commercial real estate agent with more than 40 years of leasing experience. Instead, Tuler said, his most recent survey shows a vacancy rate of only 13.25 percent, up from 10 percent in the last quarter of 2019. According to Tuler, 30 State Street properties are currently for lease (the bulk of which fall within the 800-1000 blocks), a number he finds remarkably low given the economic distress inflicted by COVID. 

“When was the last time you walked down State Street and it was fun?” Tuler asked. “They transformed the street in a matter of weeks. I did not think that was possible.”

In the wake of the mayor’s task force, the council itself just launched the first meeting of a new — and more official and longstanding — task force to focus on State Street matters. On it are councilmembers Kristen Sneddon, Meagan Harmon, and Oscar Gutierrez.

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