Wednesday, February 10 , 2016, 3:37 am | Fair 48º

Developer Michael Towbes Shows No Sign of Slowing Down

Businessman and philanthropist talks about where he has been, where he’s going and his proudest achievements

Michael Towbes, sitting in the conference room at The Towbes Group, has had a major influence on development through Santa Barbara County. “I love what I do,” the 83-year-old says. “I’m in good health, and no one’s forcing me to retire, so I’m still doing it.”
Michael Towbes, sitting in the conference room at The Towbes Group, has had a major influence on development through Santa Barbara County. “I love what I do,” the 83-year-old says. “I’m in good health, and no one’s forcing me to retire, so I’m still doing it.”  (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

By Lara Cooper, Noozhawk Staff Writer | @laraanncooper | updated logo |

Sitting in a conference room in his Santa Barbara office, surrounded by construction drawings of projects in the works and still to come, developer Michael Towbes talks about what keeps the work exciting for him.

The answer can be distilled into two words: the process.

“The idea of starting out with a piece of property, generally undeveloped, and sort of dreaming about what can be and what would work ... then seeing the finished product, and how happy people generally are living and working in those places, brings me a lot of satisfaction,” he said.

Towbes is the real-estate tycoon behind The Towbes Group, which has spawned thousands of housing units and commercial properties across the region. He’s also a founding member and chairman of the board of Montecito Bank & Trust, and a philanthropic powerhouse in the nonprofit world.

Noozhawk sat down with the 83-year-old to find out where he has been and where he’s going.

Originally from Washington, D.C., Towbes studied civil engineering at Princeton University and MIT before joining the Navy Civil Engineer Corps, where he served for three years during the Korean War.

“They sent me to Point Mugu, and I had never been west of Detroit before,” he said. “I thought it was wonderful.”

While he was there, he met his first wife, Gail, who was from Los Angeles. The couple moved back to Washington, D.C., so he could finish his Navy service there, and eventually moved back to California. Gail Towbes died in 1996.

After his service, Towbes connected with a friend of the family, Eli Luria, who was working in Southern California at the time as a contractor.

“He was a successful builder in Washington, but he had graduated from UCLA, so he had some experience in California,” Towbes said. “We met and developed a rich friendship and became business partners.”

The pair started building in Los Angeles until they learned there was a big housing boom happening in Santa Barbara County. Camp Cooke was reopened as Vandenberg Air Force Base, and housing was in demand, so Towbes and Luria moved into the area.

When asked what the area looked like then, Towbes said that “Santa Barbara has changed less than most places.”

“There were four traffic signals on Highway 101,” he said, “but the major landmarks were all here.”

Goleta, where Towbes has had a major influence on development, “was mostly orange and lemon groves,” he said. “It was quite rural.”

The North County has changed dramatically as Santa Maria has grown as well, he said.

Going forward, Towbes said, some of the projects he’s most excited about include the Sansum Clinic medical complex at Foothill and Cieneguitas roads, and a couple of apartment projects in Santa Maria that will add almost 500 units to the area’s housing stock.

Although Towbes has a track record now, he said building hasn’t gotten easier in some ways.

“Even though I’m more experienced and well-known, it doesn’t make it easier,” he said with a laugh.

When asked what he’s most proud of, Towbes said it’s the establishment of the rebuilt Granada Theatre and the success of Montecito Bank & Trust and its Community Dividends Program.

“It’s the philanthropic things that I think I take the greatest pride in,” he said. “I like to say the only thing that’s more fun than making money is giving it away.”

Towbes said he also feels like it gives the bank employees pride to see that the company does so much community-oriented outreach.

Around 1973, Towbes said, he was approached by a group of people who wanted to start a savings and loan in Santa Barbara. The bank was given a charter, and opened in 1975 on Coast Village Road “in a trailer,” Towbes said.

He credits the bank’s enduring success to conservative, organic growth.

“We haven’t had growth for growth’s sake,” he said.

The bank has offices from Westlake Village to Solvang, and its footprint is the same as Towbes’ construction business.

“I think staying close to home has helped us,” he said.

Another highpoint for Towbes was watching the Granada reopen in 2008.

“It was a big thrill for me, and to see where we ended up, it was really something,” he said, adding that he and his wife, Anne, are huge fans of the performing arts.

When asked for the last good show he has been to, Towbes laughed and said he had seen his 16-year-old granddaughter singing with his 13-year-old grandson playing guitar at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club, sharing a picture of the event on his BlackBerry

At 83, Towbes doesn’t show any sign of slowing down — and no will to, either.

“I love what I do,” he said. “I’m in good health, and no one’s forcing me to retire, so I’m still doing it.”

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

» on 11.30.12 @ 12:01 PM

Hmmmm….. What about the “happy people” who enjoyed the fruit of those orange and lemon trees before they were clear-cut for the houses made-of ticky-tack that now blanket the south coast between goleta and santa barbara….that was Mr. towbes’ “canvas”.

» on 11.30.12 @ 12:34 PM

A life lived incredibly well. A treasure for the community. Hopefully he keeps working well past 100 years old!

» on 11.30.12 @ 12:53 PM

@SBLOGIC. Wherever you live was at one point covered with vegetation and maybe fruit trees. Curse that damn person who built the your house. I don’t know about you, but if I want an orange, I can find one rather easily…

» on 11.30.12 @ 01:20 PM

Not Newsworthy for Santa Barbara…LHCDC received more than $29M in financing for projects

newer loans were refinancings of existing loans. In some cases, the refinancing of the older loans allowed LHCDC to take cash equity out of the properties by adding new debt. The report notes that terms of some of the refinancings were not included in the city’s records.

The consultant’s report discloses that the majority of LHCDC’s properties have been noncompliant for extended periods of time and in some cases the city’s records contain no documentation for monitoring compliance with federal regulations governing rent limits, tenant income eligibility, and affordability covenants attached to the funds…

» on 11.30.12 @ 01:23 PM

City’s failures detailed in consultant’s report

The consultants’ report identified nearly $30 million in financing given to LHCDC over the years. Operational grants and homeless services funds were not included in the total. Of the $4.9 million in city funds awarded to LHCDC, the nonprofit has repaid only $1.7 million, the report noted.

At Martner’s request, the council voted to contact the county, the auditor/controller and the district attorney in writing to offer the city’s “full support, assistance and documentation” to aid their investigation into LHCDC’s use of public funds and agreed that Martner and Mayor John Linn would review the letter before it was sent. The letter will also state the city’s desire to have city funds included in the forensic audit.

» on 11.30.12 @ 01:25 PM

There have been 2 investigations and a third in process:

1. Civil Grand Jury released an equally scathing report on the county’s oversight of housing funds awarded to Lompoc Housing and Community Development Corporation entitled “A Failure of Oversight.” The Grand Jury criticized both the county and the city of Lompoc for failing to enforce LHCDC’s compliance with regulations and contracts. LHCDC announced its intent to dissolve in September 2011.

2. The county is still compiling documentation to respond to the HUD audit findings that were released in August. That process is not expected to be completed until early 2013 — resulting in a freeze of HOME housing funds in the interim — and those records are in addition to the records requested by the OIG auditors.
However, according to the HUD spokeswoman, LHDCD housing projects were not selected for previous HOME audits conducted by Los Angeles HUD staff in 2004, 2007, and 2010, in addition to their omission from the 2012 audit

3. The Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has begun an in-depth review of Santa Barbara County’s administration of the federal Home Investment Partnership Act (HOME) housing program.

The Inspector General’s office is an independent agency within HUD that is charged with detecting fraud, waste and abuse, as well as investigating allegations of misconduct by HUD employees. The investigative OIG agency reports directly to the Secretary of HUD and to Congress

Seems that all investigations are steered away from the LHCDC. The politically connected appear to be well contected.

» on 11.30.12 @ 02:30 PM

An amazing person,  in the tradition of Bernhard and Irene Hoffman

» on 11.30.12 @ 06:14 PM

Always a class act. A great example of someone doing well by doing good.

Besides his family, Mr. Towbes has created:

jobs, homes, business opportunities, while supporting re-investment in the community, not only for arts and entrepreneurship, but also for charities and non-profits helping those in need.

He’s got land, development, property management, contracting, banking, and his family foundation. Plus, his various business units contribute on their own
to the public good.

All of it carefully structured, grounded on quality, reliability, integrity.

Thanks for sharing his story.

» on 12.02.12 @ 01:23 AM

Mike is a great citizen and we are fortunate to have him living in our community. I think the planning department and Board of supervisors should let him have his way and save a lot of money which I am sure he will find a way to give it back to the community. It is not the planning which needs to be watched but those who always try to take advantage of everybody. Mike is not that kind of guy and therefore should be given more leeway by those who make the decisions on what is best for us.For those of you who think all developers are bad are truly Chauvinistic and should be treated accordingly

» on 12.02.12 @ 02:11 PM

I would like to shout so everyone can hear. There is are negative opiinions out there that influence the way things turn out. Negative opinions have more to do with negative results than positive opinions. I would recommend that all the negative opinion writers watch the film in the ad regarding the Page youth center and ask themselves how much they contributed to the center. Mr Page the founder and owner of Mission Linen gave a huge amount and he based the success of his firm on his positive outlet in life not thinking the worst about every situation. Still don’t believe me. Look at the beautiful fountain that Eli Luria and Michael Towbes funded at City College. It would have been two feet larger if it wasn’t for the negative complainers that the world renown sculpture wanted to please

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