Op-Ed: The Continued Decline of Downtown State Street

By Ernest Salomon

An Open Letter to the Residents of Santa Barbara

Former and now deceased Mayor Harriett Miller, started the downhill plunge of State Street in 1996 by asking the ABC to issue a more than normal supply of liquor licenses.  Santa Barbnara now has more per capita liquor licenses than any city in the entire State of California and our present City Council has given State St. a Coup de Grâce.  

Retailers cannot and will not survive in the shopping hell that our City Council has created on State Street.  The growing vacancy rate is stark proof. The council has partnered with restaurants and bars at the expense of retailers to make this happen.

Like it or not, State Street is on life support and the have nothing, know nothing about this matter council and its staff will only make it get worse. This council continues to decimate our way of life here.  

Council members like Oscar, Alejandra, Eric and others including staff, have no chips in the game. Some don’t even live here. They own nothing.  They have no real world life or business experience.  Yet these outliers are making long-term social and financial decisions for our entire population.  These people are totally unqualified to make these decisions, yet they keep making the wrong ones over and over again.

I do not dislike any of them personally. I do hold the fact that they continue to overreach their abilities against them.  They are being unfaithful to their constituents and their office.

If the building owners on downtown State are smart and on the ball, they will all ask for a reassessment and a property tax reduction based on the diminished value of their properties because of vacancies and lost income.  This would cause a reduced amount of property taxes to the city and it would lie at the council’s feet, as is this ongoing disaster for our city.

Siesta is over folks-wake up!

Op-Ed’s are written by community members, not representatives of edhat. The views and opinions expressed in Op-Ed articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of edhat. [Do you have an opinion on something local? Share it with us at info@edhat.com.]


Written by TheKid5

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  1. Online shopping killed retail because it’s more efficient, there are more options, and people have learned to delay gratification for a few days.
    Don’t listen to this prohibitionist drivel. Smarten up like the bars, and sell experiences.
    A cannabis bar with VR rigs and games seems like a good idea. Cannabis vending machines would also be pretty cool.
    I’d like to open up a shop where I teach anyone 18+ how to grow mushrooms or how to brew prison wine out of fruit, sugar, and water. No drinking until you’re 21+, “kids”, but you are allowed to learn.

  2. What council members “don’t live here” according to Ernie? All of the councilmembers live in Santa Barbara. That’s the whole point of getting elected from their district.
    And what does Ernie count as “real world or life experience?” Perhaps the council members were born in raised on Mars and moved here in the intergalactic space migration of 2011? WTF is he going on about? I can’t tell if he’s agist, sexist, racist, or all of the above. Living and working in Santa Barbara counts as real world and life experience in my experience. This is not an easy place to live, many of us work our asses off just to stay here.

    • I included city staff in my remarks and some of them do not live here. The three councilmembers I mentioned, among others, have no business experience and certainly are not versed in planning. They keep kicking the solving of the Downtown State St. decline down the road of years because they really don’t have a grasp of what needs to be done.

    • Mr. Salomon wrote, “Council members like Oscar, Alejandra, Eric and others including staff, have no chips in the game. Some don’t even live here. They own nothing. …” The “some” was referring to “including staff”, I think. As for councilmembers having “chips in the game”…, I don’t know what he’s referring to, except, perhaps, most all have no business experience; and the most vehement, Harmon, urging the “community aspects” of State Street, has lived in Santa Barbara for only 4 or 5 years, almost all of it as a councilmember.

  3. So a thriving food and beverage sector is responsible for the downward spiral of State Street’s retail sector? Not mentioned: online retail and sky-high rent increases.
    Salomon is correct regarding council inaction; I would love to see them do their jobs and come up with a coherent long-term plan for State St. and actually implement it. The late Hal Conklin beat this drum for years and yet, here we are.

    • The retail sector cannot function in the present envronment of Downtown State. St. Not only the bars and restaurants are in the mix. Too may local who once went there no longer do. On line shopping is not the major reason for its decline. The better merchandise stores are all but gone and continue to leave.
      It is because they cannot make it here any longer because of the conditions on State. As to sky high rents: Have you looked at your restaurant and drink tab recently? Groceries? Gas? Look at all the empty storefronts. You are 100% correct on the council. They have jumped ship on Sate Street.

  4. Wait until companies are allowed to deliver using self-driving vehicles, the cost/time efficiency of delivery will improve, and automated distribution centers will serve as far more cost effective real estate than the brick and mortar display-cases we have today.
    Amazon already offers “try before you buy”, I’m sure we’ll find a way to match or exceed every form of utility you claim to offer from within your waste of space. Good luck with the lobbying to keep technical efficiency illegal for the sake of your own profits. I bet you will lose, and it has nothing to do humans’ attraction to alcohol.

  5. “State Street is our main thoroughfare and invites visitors to venture up from the beach to experience one of the most renowned walking boulevards in the world with interesting shops, vibrant restaurants, cultural attractions and entertainment, all surrounded by the majestic Santa Ynez mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Our blend of architectural heritage and dramatic natural surroundings is one of the true wonders of the New World.
    The current disarray caused by the pandemic, a global slump in retail sales and persistent lawless activity challenge our central business district like never before. Our new “Promenade” configuration must consider all uses while maintaining a fun and vibrant atmosphere. What is desperately called for is a cogent strategy, and that will take leadership, not yet another outside consultant contract.”
    – Randy Rowse

    • District elections would have been ordered here by the courts, just as they were ordered in several other cities. Using district elections as being responsible for the the ongoing disaster that State St. has become is an opinion that Gerry and Kane Kena have every right to express, but at best, the district council representation is only a part of this issue. The people of Santa Barbara must ask themselves this question: Are the members of our City Council qualified to make long term decisions concerning the future of our downtown State area? The quandry that they are now in after working with city staff and spending seven figures on consultants and voting to continue with the unacceptable status quo, says to me that they have hit a wall. They just have no conception of what comes next. Randy is on the money with his remarks on EdHat, but he is not the Lone Ranger who can do everything by himself. The people of Santa Barbara have to have a voice in the future of our city and at present, they do not!

    • So don’t blame him for the Council’s inaction – work to elect Council members who will support him! In our system of government, the Mayor is the City’s figurehead, but has only one vote on the Council. He is not the “boss.” Your blame is totally misplaced. Sadly, he is the only one who can claim to represent all City voters. District elections have destroyed any incentive for the rest of the Council to think beyond their districts. The lack of focus has resulted in a total lack of action on anything. Be grateful that the Mayor is there with a position you support – don’t criticize him for not accomplishing his goals singlehandedly.

    • Randy has only one vote. He cannot do it alone. The problem is that most of the rest of the council have limited or no real world business experience. They are not qualified to make long term decisions that affect the distant future of our city. This doesn’t stop them from spending hard earned millions of dollars of SBA residents’ money on consultant stiudies that have gone nowhere, just like the council.

  6. Not to discount all the other factors, but the debacle about what to do with State Street is largely due to a lack of imagination. Imagine, if you will, State Street and its sidewalks all on the same plane and paved with bricks or cobblestones. Imagine arbors, draping flowers, exotic plants, and spectacular landscaping bordering the way. Imagine pockets of beauty created by local artists. Imagine an almost Disneyland-esque/Spanish Days architectural esplanade where people love to stroll, unwind, and take in the gorgeousness. After which tourists go home and tell their friends. And word spreads about how Santa Barbara’s main drag has transformed itself into a signature destination. If you create it…people will come.

    • I hear what you’re saying A-16. You might be right about the funding. But what if the money came from doing away with all these “studies.” And the city and/or a nonprofit did some sort of fundraising ? And secured grants from the state and feds? I hate to use tired cliches, but if there’s a will, there’s a way.
      As for the time to construct all this, anything has to be faster than Caltrans.

    • Imagine, if you will, the cost do all that work on State Street. Imagine other city programs and departments that will need to be eliminated in order to fund it. Imagine the businesses that will fail when their block is turned into a construction site for a year plus. Imagine all that with a “if you create it… [we really really hope] people will come [or else SB goes bankrupt]” mentality.

    • It would cost tens of millions of dollars to the tune of $50M plus for the length of the promenade and take years to construct, there is no getting around that and no amount of fundraising, canceling studies/consultants would move the needle on that front. It would be great if State or Feds funded it but at the same time I’d be pissed they would use our tax dollars on something like this when there are much more pressing matters for them to address with the dollars they have – like affordable housing, mental health care, childhood education, increased access to health care, and of course fighting and funding wars halfway around the world. (j/k on that last one, pissed about the military industrial complex as well).

    • Carp boy, imagine all that stuff – it’s a great dream situation that you’re describing, but the reality is millions of taxpayer and private investor dollars in the current SB/CA political situation would be wasted on a pipe dream effort that would surely be filled with bums, urine, poop, rando beggars, and trash. Wake up dude.

  7. Forget brick n mortar retail. Why go downtown when e-commerce delivers? Santa Barbara is leading the way: restaurants, bars, day spas, and a few liquor stores. Add a few dozen cannabis shops and the city will do just fine. When old people with money come to town they don’t want to shop. They want to visit with their parents and take them to dinner. Lead on SB.

  8. The local population in SB is made up of a 15% of VERY affluent, 40% on some type of government aid whether EBT, Section 8 or working under the table, 20% of people who abide by working full time, paying a mortgage or rent, paying for medical insurance, car insurance, their own food costs and maybe saving a couple hundred bucks a paycheck… Another 15% are the transient student population living on their parents credit cards, and lastly, the 10% or so who are alcohol/drug addicted transients/homeless/mentally ill due to fried nervous systems and brain cells… WHO IS GOING TO SUPPORT LOCAL BUSINESSES IN SB…??? It’s a socially unbalanced and unhealthy version of “community”…

  9. Only 1 person on council owned a business, which suffered through the years, a restaurant.
    What business or managing experience does Oscar, Eric, Meghan, Mike have? None.
    As to brick & mortar, we are forced to shop online. SB is primarily filled with food & alcohol places.
    Oxnard, Long Beach, Orange County & numerous other areas still have thriving brick & mortar stores along with numerous food establishments.
    Brick & mortar stores have been dying here since Sachs left. Look at 5 points & Paseo, state street, they’re suffering with vacancies.
    None of this is new, this started before the COVID.
    Makes you wi set about City mgmt & all the oriole who complain at how unfriendly SB is towards businesses. SB is unfriendly towards housing as well. Look at the moderate income units at Capitol Hardware years later.
    So why is SB so difficult? Could it be because our leaders have zero business experience?
    Do they even have a degree?
    Stock person, guy holding a camera for Murillo on public tv no one watched.
    Just asking. If they have business degrees & have manage my experience then my bad.

  10. I wonder how much of the decline in shopping has to do with the demographics of disposable income. When I was much younger I enjoyed shopping on State Street and would buy small ticket items at places like Z Gallerie. Might buy a few clothes, definitely got coffee and pastries, went out to lunch on my day off. All of that even though I never had a lot of money. Now I have way more money, but I don’t want stuff and things. House is as furnished as it needs to be—I don’t even want a candle holder or other little knick knacks. Clothes bore me now so I buy them online. How many young people actually have the money and want to shop for “stuff”? I keep reading about how younger folks don’t want unnecessary material goods. Doesn’t matter whether you sell them in a store on State or an online site, if people don’t want it, they won’t buy.

  11. Socialists don’t like to invest, because investment is done with the idea of a return. We do not have to turn State Street into Disneyland or the Grove but we do need to invest in downtown, spend some money to upgrade, refurbish. The return would be increased sales taxes and occupancy taxes.
    We miss the old places for a while… like Frank’s Rice Bowl, Ott’s Hardware, the old pool hall next to the Mission Theater, Casa Blanca, the flophouses. Time waits for no one

  12. “The current disarray caused by the pandemic, a global slump in retail sales and persistent lawless activity challenge our central business district. …” Well said. Add the challenge minimum wage workers have in finding affordable housing. Historically, Big Retail ( Nordstrom, Macy’s, Sears) were failing before COVID and while State Street was still open to traffic. However, State Street can evolve. With our Mediterranean climate and world class destination reputation, we should keep the pedestrian/bike/parklet zone for now. Vacant offices and retail stores could be turned into housing and a community where workers live and walk. Affordable and convenient public transportation (electric trolleys) could lure people out of their cars. Tourists and locals enjoy bars, restaurants, family fun arcades, free street concert venues. Santa Barbara needs to find its own soul as Barcelona (Las Ramblas), Boulder, and Santa Monica (Third Street Promenade) have done.

  13. Hey Ernest, Do you attend the City Council meetings? The council and staff are ALL over this issue. We (yes, WE the City, not THEY) have hired consultants who have come up with options to reconfigure State street, they have sent out polls and 88% of the thousands of respondents say they want more outdoor dining and cafe style atmosphere. Its a complicated issue and the City Staff has done an excellent job of laying out the issues and possible solutions and are looking for your input. State Street retail is not open in the late nights when the bars are busy generating tax revenue. State Street retail was suffering before the increase in bars. State Street retail rent is too high for any small time vendor and big box retailers are selling online. The configuration of our City where the store size is dictated by Store front (state street) and goes all the way thru to Chapala on one side and Anacapa on the other is too big for most boutiques. Some have tried sharing the space with 2 other retailers but it doesn’t often work out for all 3. Please stop complaining and get engaged with solutions.

  14. The current and past two city councils have damaged our town. The current being one of the worst in past memory. They have spent hundreds of thousands on consultants and this and that and years of back n forth BS arguments, and have accomplished nothing aside of spending a lot of money. They cater to the bars and pubs. They cater to the cruise ships, but not catering to us locals. We get a handshake and a smile and a thanks for your vote, then they ignore reality and logic. How many people and how much money does it take to say, ok time to open up state street again. we closed it for the COVID pandemic and now it’s over. Yeah that took a lot of time and money. This is absolutely ridiculous. Here is another thing, our housing crisis and the amount of families, youths, and elderly that are living on the streets due to over inflated rentals. I make 60k a year and can’t even afford a one bedroom apartment in town. Our Mayor is just one vote and the guy can’t seem to do much, because again, he’s just one vote. Mayor isn’t an authoritarian position.

  15. State Street is like the wild west. It’s chaotic. I’m not a fan of over regulation, but it’s anarchy. Kids on ebikes going full speed, running the cross traffic red lights, the homeless situation and people using the planters and sidewalks as toilets, the unfortunate schizophrenics exhibiting their symptoms, groups of kids on regular bikes hauling ass and doing wheelies (hard to control a bike in a crowd like that), and on and on. It’s all on full display for the average consumer, tourist, and resident trying to A) get to their spot safely, and then B) enjoy the experience. Our elected officials have allowed the quality of life in this town to spiral down the toilet. State Street is one symptom of a much bigger problem.

  16. So in response to all this stuff the city council voted last night to continue to keep State closed for years. This is capitulation to the restaurants and land owners. We thought district elections would loosen the stranglehold that the downtown organization had on the council but we were wrong it seems. They still fund the politicians. The city used that absurd survey (which made people with views against the “Promenade” have to work hard to express those views) and then seemingly weighed the answers to the survey by ranking those who have patronized the bars and restaurants more highly than those that haven’t! This is a blatant acknowledgement of the purpose of the city government it seems. Not to do what the public wants them to do but to do what the merchant and ownership class wants them to do.

  17. The City Admin and Council are doing something, but all one can say is here we go again, kicking the can down the road — or in this case kicking the can down State Street.
    Once again, when faced with a “planning” issue that is outside the every day routine, the City staff’s solution is to hire a consultant rather than do it in-house. And unfortunately the City Council has again decided to go along with this business model as they have in the past. After all, it’s only tax-payer money.
    Santa Barbara has a Community Development Director and City Planner, both having support staffs and both paid significant salaries, with a major Department to plan the development of the City. Why are they unable to accomplish this planning project? So are we now just hiring contractors to do their jobs?
    The City has a General Plan for the development of the City. Why isn’t State Street development part of the GP?
    As far as the City’s planning staff, a review of state data reveals that Santa Barbara has more planners per capita than any other California city. Why are we then too short on staff to handle these types of tasks? And this doesn’t even include the transportation planners that aren’t in the Community Development Department.
    Three years ago the City hired Kosmont Company to prepare a strategic plan and specific recommendations to revitalize the downtown area. That report was widely discussed and was supposed to be implemented as soon as possible. What happened to that and why do we need another strategic study at almost ten times the cost?
    Two years ago, the local chapter of the AIA hosted design charrettes to come up with ways to update and improve State Street. The team included local land use planners, architects, city planners, community leaders and was titled A Community Vision For Downtown Santa Barbara. A major detailed report was prepared and, as far as I know, it was given to the City for free. What was done with that?
    Two years ago the City hired Jason Harris from Santa Monica as Economic Development Manager to fix State Street’s and the City’s economic development problems. He apparently never came up with any breakthroughs and he has now been terminated.
    A year ago the City established a State Street Advisory Committee, headed by former Community Development Director Dave Davis, to chart the future course for State Street. What happened to that planning effort?
    Earlier this year, the City promoted Tess Harris to be the State Street Master Planner. What Master Planning has she done and how do her responsibilities coordinate with all these other persons, committees, consultants and departments supposedly working on this issue?
    The City really can’t afford to spend almost a million dollars on yet another consultant, especially one from out of town and that has no skin in the game. And this million won’t accomplish any changes, only give us yet another plan to implement further down the road at even more cost. We are already well into a financial hole to fund unpaid Calpers retirement benefits for our large staff. And with Calpers recent admissions that it has lost fund value, not gained as predicted, the hole will get deeper.
    It seems to me, and many others here in the City, that rather than more consultants and committees we are in need of some serious leadership to steer us back in the correct direction using existing assets rather than just throwing more of our tax dollars at yet another consultant.
    By the way, did Pearl Chase hire consultants?

  18. My guess is State Street 2023 is a reflection of the national trend that began before the pandemic where retail spaces shifted to focus more on restaurants plus non-dining “experiences”. A friend owns a restaurant here and pointed out that Hollister Village Plaza and the Collection at Riverpark in Oxnard are newer examples of these hybrid “mixed-use” settings. The difference is State Street doesn’t quite have the residential component but that could be argued.
    I’m not informed enough to play the blame game. But I can say I really enjoyed the 5 years I had an office on State Street. It was great having the option to walk/bike/motorcycle to work. Most of my money spent downtown during those years were for food (really miss The Greek/Italian deli), home stuff at World Market, and underwear at Macy’s (too much information, I know).

  19. No matter if you agree with Mr. Salomon or not, it’s completely obvious to even the most casual observer that the current model of “lower” State Street is not working at all for business. If you simply disagree with this article a-r-t-i-c-l-e due to the author’s politics, please get over what I would call “closed mindedness.” Walk on State St. between Victoria and Haley any time of night/day on a non-holiday weekday or weekend and you’ll notice it’s quite lifeless except for the bars near the 500 block.
    It would take nearly no effort at all to return State St. back to configuring how it was pre-pandemic. Restaurants no longer need to take up street space with their outdoor seating. Look at Ca Dario and Trattoria Vittoria on Victoria St…back to normal operation without the presence of the tear-down, dilapidated-looking outdoor seating space.
    Put it back the way it was and if it does not “work” for the downtown businesses, THEN decide on a different configuration. What is there now is NOT/NOT working….as Mr. Salomon has perfectly stated.

  20. Public safety was high priority just a few years ago on State, enforcing all vehicles using the Street and pedestrians promenading on Sidewalks enhanced by a few outdoor dining tables. Now cars are banned in favor of high speed electric vehicles, bikes, etc. on ALL surfaces with little or no consistent enforcement. Oxford: “Promenade (noun) a paved public walk…” Santa Barbara no longer has a promenade.

    • high speed electric vehicles? sounds like someone doesn’t know a thing about those “electric vehicles”. Class 2. Class 2 vehicles which are the ebikes have a set speed on them. Care to guess what that is? 19.5 mph. Rad Runners as well. 19.5 mph. That is max cruising speed. My human powered mountain bike, powered by my legs and feet will go around 25mpg and I can hold that speed for a solid mile. So, sorry to burst your collective bubbles hating on green technology, but if you’re in fair shape, a standard bike will get you moving faster than an ebike. In fact, i’ve been passed dozens of times by roadies on their $9000 road bikes, while riding my ebike. Sorry again, but green technology isn’t the devil.

  21. It seems like the Santa Barbara community writ large has not planned appropriately for shifting tourist centers and consumer behavior. Like many aspects of the city, citizens have just assumed that its natural beauty, moneyed residents, and tourists would be enough. Planning and collaboration has been half-assed because it wasn’t all that necessary. One would think the mid-2000s recession would have been a wake up call, but Santa Barbara’s recovery from that has been painfully slow and ill-advised. Everyone wants to “fix” State Street, but how many iterations have there already been? What are we trying to return to? More importantly, how long do we think that would last? I don’t have all solutions, but three come to mind:
    1. I thought the Haley corridor would become what the Funk Zone now is. I thought this because it is an easy walk off of State. Instead, the now “vibrant” Funk Zone is separated by an otherwise uneasy stretch of road which likely feels seedy and unsafe to walk for those who do not know the area. This bifurcates consumers into those who patronize the Funk Zone and those who patronize State. The Funk Zone is winning. I think this should be addressed.
    2. There are a whole lot of families who live and work in Goleta/Santa Barbara who would really welcome a few more stores to buy clothes/items for their children as well as some kind of recreational activities for everyone to enjoy. I’m still pretty bummed about the roller skating rink that was slated to go into the old Macy’s. Instead, I have to drive to Ventura or go to Ice in Paradise which is not a full substitute. If the city wants residents to enjoy State Street again, support businesses that residents will actually enjoy.
    3. Establish housing. We are so married to the American idea of separating residential from business districts, and it clearly has been one of the reasons why our business districts struggle during lean times. If people permanently reside in an area, they will shop in that area. Case in point: I live within walking distance to a restaurant. I don’t love the restaurant, but I go there because I can walk there. All the other similarly mediocre restaurants and businesses on State should take note.

  22. Just my thoughts, obersvations and opinions. I agree downtown State street is in need of SERIOUS AND CREATIVE reinvention. I think is an embarassement to the city, however over the last three years most of the businesses did what they had to do to survive with some help from the city. The majority of this help went to restaurants, bars and entainment. Does anyone have the facts and figures of how many businesses failed? I also think some one at the city needs to investigage how many of the empty storefronts are owned by big business out of towners and how many are owned locally. Many big corporations want tax write offs so empty storefronts work for them. The city needs to find a way to fine or tax them. The other stubling block is the exorbitant rents being charged. I don’t know for sure but I imagine many of the long time businesses either own the building or have a long term reasonable lease. So the city needs to know who exactly they are dealing with.
    I also think the parklets need to go. There is no consistancy and they are unattractive. Also are probably accidents waiting to happen. People tripping, bikes crashing into them etc. They are also a haven for out famous downtown rat population. The restaurants can still claim their space (another issue all together what happened to public right of way?) by creating division lines with (a consistant) moveable array of plants and hedges. Attractive umbrellas and seating areas. This done all over Europe. In popular places like infront of the cathedral in Florence. They put the chairs out every morning and stack them away, out of foot traffice every night. Another issue is encouraging work/live zoning/architecture/remodle what ever you want to call it. This is done all over Europe where the business functions at ground level and the proprietor lives above or behind the business.
    I enjoy going to downtown Ventura and San Luis Obispo they certainly are doing better than the City of Santa Barbara. I have more to say but will stop here. I realize I do not have all the answers or maybe any of the answers but there has to be some solution(s) to revitalize out donwtown corridor.
    Thank you if you read this whole thing!

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