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Reimagine: Santa Barbara
A Noozhawk Partnership with Shared Mission Santa Barbara, KYET News Channel 3, Montecito Bank and Trust, SIMA, and Community West Bank

The State of Downtown Santa Barbara Marked by Distinctive Eras, But Remains True to Roots

1925 earthquake made its mark but various points along historical arc have been surprisingly consistent

 

[Noozhawk’s note: First in a series called Reimagine: Santa Barbara, a Noozhawk special report produced in partnership with Shared Mission Santa Barbara and KEYT News. Over the next several weeks, the series will trace the founding and evolution of downtown Santa Barbara, dive into the challenges we’re confronting today, explore the exciting opportunities in front of us, and take a look at what’s happening with downtowns in other communities. Throughout the series, we’ll be asking you to help us identify priorities and form a vision for State Street’s future. Click here for a related article.]

Santa Barbara is approaching the 100-year anniversary of the 1925 earthquake, a seminal moment in the city’s history and downtown development.

The rebuilding effort was transformative, and it gave the city its now-iconic Spanish style in the State Street core while promoting the commitment to historic preservation that remains to this day.

| Reimagine: Santa Barbara | Complete Series Index |

Santa Barbara was one of the first U.S. cities — if not the first — to create an architectural review board, institute a zoning ordinance and establish a General Plan outlining its future.

The city’s development past, as land passed from the native Chumash tribes to Spain to Mexico to the United States, is revealed in the preservation of historic sites and the architectural style of new construction, including the iconic red-tiled roofs.

The Mission and Presidio Years

Explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo famously sailed up the Santa Barbara Channel and discovered Chumash living in the area in 1542.

More than two centuries later, the Santa Barbara Royal Presidio and the Santa Barbara Mission were established, setting off the development of what is now the city of Santa Barbara and its downtown.

El Presidio de Santa Bárbara, a fort for the Spanish military, was founded on April 21, 1782, and its center was at the intersection of Canon Perdido and Santa Barbara streets.

A view of the Santa Barbara Mission, as seen in a stenograph picture taken around 1875. Click to view larger
A view of the Santa Barbara Mission, as seen in a stenograph picture taken around 1875. (New York Public Library photo)

From that corner, the fort’s footprint extended about a block in each direction, said Jerry Jackman, retired director of the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation.

El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park, at 123 E. Canon Perdido, preserves the site of the fort, which was the last one founded in California.

Two of the Presidio’s original buildings still exist, El Cuartel and the Cañedo Adobe, and there are reconstructions of the rooms that housed officers, soldiers and their families.

The Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation spearheaded the archaeological research, preservation and reconstruction efforts of the Presidio, and the nonprofit organization owns many of the nearby buildings, including those occupied by Playa Azul Café, Panino, Zaytoon, Three Pickles and Pickle Room restaurants.

The Presidio, Jackman says, “is the only site where Spanish nonmission history in California is really being interpreted, so it’s important in itself.”

Soldiers came to the Presidio, he explained, but were assigned to the missions of the Santa Barbara district: San Fernando Rey de España in Mission Hills; San Buenaventura in Ventura; Santa Barbara; Santa Inés in Solvang; and La Purísima Concepción near Lompoc.

The military district covered more than 7,000 square miles — about the size of New Jersey — and stretched from the San Fernando Valley through Santa Barbara County and from the ocean to the San Joaquin Valley.

The Presidio was “kind of a quiet place” with soldiers tending to agriculture and livestock, trading with local Native Americans, and mostly firing the fort’s cannons and muskets on holidays, Jackman said.

Jerry Jackman, former head of the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, at El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park, 123 E. Canon Perdido. Santa Barbara’s roots trace to the site. Click to view larger
Jerry Jackman, former head of the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, at El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park, 123 E. Canon Perdido. Santa Barbara’s roots trace to the site. (J.C. Corliss / Noozhawk photo)

“It was almost attacked once,” he told Noozhawk, “but it was not really a fortress in the sense that you might think, with various attacks by foreign powers.

“It was a pretty rudimentary, simple life, and really at the beginning of Santa Barbara and the end of the Spanish empire.”

Nearby Casa de la Guerra, at 15 E. De la Guerra St., was built as a residence for José de la Guerra y Noriega, the fifth commander of the Presidio, between 1818 and 1828.

“In addition to his military post, de la Guerra acquired four large ranchos, ran an active commercial trade enterprise and served as the patriarch for the local community. His home was the social, political and cultural center of Santa Barbara during the Mexican period,” according to the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, which purchased and restored the building in the 1990s.

The Santa Barbara Mission was built in the 1780s, as one of the 21 missions in California that stretched from San Diego to the San Francisco Bay Area.

It was founded on Dec. 4, 1786, on the day of the Feast of Saint Barbara, which gave its name to the mission, the town and the county.

Spanish Franciscan friars established Catholic churches and a community of people who lived and worked at the mission.

The land became a Mexican territory after the country won independence from Spain, and California became American territory after the Mexican-American War and the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. After Mexico secularized mission properties in the 1830s, swaths of land became ranchos.

A Russell Ruiz drawing of the Santa Barbara Presidio, which was built in 1782. Click to view larger
A Russell Ruiz drawing of the Santa Barbara Presidio, which was built in 1782. (Contributed photo)

The original Presidio gate, located near what is now Anacapa School at 814 Santa Barbara St., was essentially the front door to the city in those days, Jackman said.

Cityhood for Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara became a city on April 9, 1850, and California became the 31st state on Sept. 9 of that year.

California’s population was booming because of the Gold Rush, and California held a constitutional election in 1849, “when the population of the whole state was less than the whole county now,” said Sheila Lodge, a longtime Santa Barbara mayor and councilwoman who currently sits on the Planning Commission.

“As more and more Americans came here, and the area was promoted for the good agricultural land and great climate and all of that, they brought with them the planning or town development they were used to, and they brought Victorian style where there had been charming adobes before,” she said.

“And so the City Council hired a surveyor in 1850 to lay out the whole town,” she said. “Never mind if there were creeks here or there, he just plopped down a grid. It was what the Romans did.”

The city’s original settlement spread out from the Presidio, she noted, focused on the area that is now downtown.

Lodge said “strip zoning,” with one lot-wide commercial zoning, was in vogue in the city’s early days.

“It’s a terrible way to plan,” she said. “It creates issues by stringing everything out so you have to get in your car to get from one part to another, instead of being focused on a shorter length.”

Today, Santa Barbara’s downtown commercial core is 2 miles long and concentrated on State Street, so it is one long, narrow strip instead of a compact layout.

The city’s downtown addresses are all centered on State Street, the official line of demarcation, with the 100 blocks of cross streets beginning on the east side of Anacapa Street one block to the east and the west side of Chapala Street one block to the west.

A bird’s eye view of Santa Barbara in 1877. Click to view larger
A bird’s eye view of Santa Barbara in 1877. (New York Public Library photo)

Stearns Wharf, at the base of State Street, was finished in 1872 and that made it easier to deliver lumber, Lodge said. Lots of development and industry was concentrated on the waterfront since most travel to and from Santa Barbara was by boat.

In the 1880s, State Street was the first street paved, from Sola Street to the beach, because Walter Hawley wanted to make it easier to reach the ocean for guests staying at his Arlington Hotel, which was located in the 1300 block of State Street where the Arlington Theatre now stands.

Essential buildings were constructed in the downtown core and on State Street. Some are still standing, including the Santa Barbara Central Library, built in 1917, and the former post office, which is now home to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, built three years before.

Spanish-style architecture was common in the early 20th century — but nothing like the widespread, almost compulsory level it reached after the 1925 earthquake devastated the State Street corridor.

1925 Earthquake

On the morning of June 29, 1925, a 6.3-magnitude earthquake shook Santa Barbara and changed its look forever.

The quake caused 13 deaths, a reservoir spill and major damage to hundreds of buildings, including the Santa Barbara Mission towers.

Sheffield Dam, northeast of the city, gave way and flooded the Eastside with more than 40 million gallons of water from the reservoir behind it.

Hundreds of aftershocks rattled the area and caused major damage to the downtown core, including 85 percent of its commercial buildings, according to the Santa Barbara Historical Museum.

A view of Santa Barbara, circa 1870s. Click to view larger
A view of Santa Barbara, circa 1870s. (New York Public Library photo)

Before the earthquake, civic leader Pearl Chase and others had organized a Plans and Planting Committee that was working on, essentially, a master plan for the future of the city, said Dave Davis, Santa Barbara’s former community development director.

Santa Barbara had a Victorian, Midwestern-style downtown at the time, and committee members wanted to return to the town’s roots and pursue a Spanish architectural style.

“And then, boom, the earthquake happens and buildings are leveled along State Street,” Davis said.

Confronted with a massive rebuilding effort, he said, Santa Barbara leaders decided to rebuild downtown in the Spanish Colonial Revival style and invited architects and planners to a drawing room to develop plans.

The city Planning Commission and Architectural Board of Review were created in the mid-1920s and worked with developers and property owners to rebuild downtown in the Spanish style, which is how it switched from the Victorian style, he added.

“The Plans and Planting Committee, then the earthquake and architectural drawing room, and then ABR — that’s how we made the goal to be Spanish Colonial Revival,” Davis said.

Starting in the 1860s, meanwhile, vibrant Chinatown and Japantown communities were established as immigrants settled in the city, near the Presidio.

None of those buildings exist today.

Sheila Lodge, a longtime Santa Barbara mayor and city councilwoman, now serves on the city’s Planning Commission. Click to view larger
Sheila Lodge, a longtime Santa Barbara mayor and city councilwoman, now serves on the city’s Planning Commission. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

“During the rebuilding that took place after the 1925 Santa Barbara earthquake, prominent local property owners dismantled old Chinatown in the attempt to create a cohesive Spanish Colonial Revival look for the city’s downtown commercial district,” according to the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation.

The Trust hosts an annual Asian American Neighborhood Festival at the Presidio to celebrate the history of the communities in that area. In 2007, it purchased the 1940s-era building that houses Three Pickles and the Pickle Room, which was the longtime home to Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens, a famed Chinese restaurant at 126 E. Canon Perdido.

1964 General Plan

The city’s 1964 General Plan called for the city to narrow State Street to two lanes from four, create a parking district and close a few blocks of the roadway to cars entirely, in the De la Guerra Street area, said Davis, who was the city’s community development director for almost 25 years before heading up the Community Environmental Council in 2005. He retired as CEO of the CEC in 2015.

State Street was narrowed and the parking district was formed, leading to many of today’s public parking lots and garages.

“Without that I’m sure it would have really been a retail desert,” said Lodge, who served on the City Council and as mayor from 1975 to 1993.

The paseo streetscaping effect, with widened sidewalks for pedestrians, was implemented along the State Street corridor and later expanded down to Cabrillo Boulevard, she said.

Closing parts of State Street to cars never happened, but the idea has persisted, Davis said.

“I tried in the 1980s to get the City Council to agree, as an experiment, to closing down just two blocks of State Street, leaving all cross traffic,” Lodge recalled. “Like the farmers market does, but farther up — the Santa Barbara Museum of Art block and the block below.

“Within one of the blocks is La Arcada, which at the time was owned by Hugh Petersen, who was a wonderful person and supportive of everything, but this.

The San Marcos Building, at 1129 State St., was badly damaged in the 1925 Santa Barbara earthquake. Click to view larger
The San Marcos Building, at 1129 State St., was badly damaged in the 1925 Santa Barbara earthquake. (Edson Smith Collection photo via Santa Barbara Public Library)

“And I nearly got hung from a lamppost in La Arcada for suggesting this,” she laughed.

Downtown Organization Forms in 1967

Downtown Santa Barbara is celebrating 50 years, during which business owners have banded together to form business improvement districts, promote the downtown area and present community events, including 1st Thursday attractions and the Downtown Holiday Parade.

The city also contracts with the organization for some landscape maintenance and sidewalk cleaning along the State Street corridor.

Downtown business owners have been involved in streetscape maintenance, public safety initiatives and community promotion projects over the years.

The organization recently commissioned a retail study to analyze the current business mix and find strategies to improve the downtown experience.

(Downtown Santa Barbara video)

Redevelopment Agency Established

Santa Barbara’s Redevelopment Agency was created in 1972 to eliminate blight and revitalize the downtown core and the waterfront.

It operated using a portion of local tax dollars, which provided about $20 million a year toward projects before it was eliminated by the state (along with all the other redevelopment agencies) as a budget move by Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature in 2012.

State Street in Santa Barbara, shown before 1968 with the San Marcos Building in the foreground. At that time, major downtown retailers included Woolworth’s and Newberry’s. Click to view larger
State Street in Santa Barbara, shown before 1968 with the San Marcos Building in the foreground. At that time, major downtown retailers included Woolworth’s and Newberry’s. (City of Santa Barbara file photo)

The project area generally included downtown and the waterfront along Cabrillo Boulevard.

Once the RDAs were dissolved, the tax money was redistributed to schools and other local government agencies, and the city lost a valuable funding source.

Santa Barbara’s RDA funded numerous affordable housing projects and public infrastructure improvements, including parking structures and sidewalks. It was set to expire in 2018.

RDA funding was essential to building Paseo Nuevo, and it contributed to, or completely paid for, renovation projects at the Carrillo Recreation Center, 100 E. Carrillo St.; Los Baños Del Mar Pool, 401 Shoreline Drive at the marina; the Santa Barbara Train Station, 209 State St.; Santa Barbara Fire Department headquarters, 121 W. Carrillo St.; The Granada Theatre, 1214 State St.; and the expansion of Chase Palm Park, in the 300 block of East Cabrillo Boulevard.

One of the RDA’s goals was to maintain a vibrant retail environment downtown, as shopping centers and interior malls threatened State Street’s department stores and smaller shops, said Davis, who currently is a board member of Santa Barbara MTD, the UCSB Economic Forecast Project and the city’s Water Commission.

Davis and Lodge vividly remember the years it took to build Paseo Nuevo: the 462,000-square-foot hub of retail shops, restaurants and parking structures occupying the 700 and 800 blocks of State Street, between Canon Perdido, Chapala and Ortega streets.

La Cumbre Plaza opened on Upper State Street in 1967, which was seen as a threat to downtown retail, Davis said.

In the 1970s, Santa Barbara also worried about a shopping plaza or interior mall being built in Goleta at the Girsh property, where Girsh Park and Camino Real Marketplace are today, he added.

The Santa Barbara County Courthouse, at 1120 Anacapa St., was built in 1927-1929 and features Spanish and Moorish design elements. It “acknowledges its 1870s predecessor through the suggestion of the foundation of the older building in the sunken north courtyard, and the retention of the earlier sandstone walls adjacent to the public sidewalks,” the City of Santa Barbara notes in El Pueblo Viejo guidelines. Click to view larger
The Santa Barbara County Courthouse, at 1120 Anacapa St., was built in 1927-1929 and features Spanish and Moorish design elements. It “acknowledges its 1870s predecessor through the suggestion of the foundation of the older building in the sunken north courtyard, and the retention of the earlier sandstone walls adjacent to the public sidewalks,” the City of Santa Barbara notes in El Pueblo Viejo guidelines. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

The Santa Barbara Redevelopment Agency was leading the charge to build two freestanding anchor department stores, a Macy’s in the 700 block (where Macy’s was until it closed earlier this year), and a Bullock’s on the 1200 block (where Chicken Little children’s boutique is now).

“The idea was that if they came in, there’d be anchor stores and the existing stores would be the subsidiary mall shops,” Lodge said.

The plan prompted major pushback from the community, particularly the owners of the Earthling Bookstore, which was on the proposed Bullock’s site at State and Victoria streets, Davis said.

“And there was a lot of, shall we say, misinformation,” Lodge added.

There was an advisory ballot measure — Measure D — in 1983, and the initiative asked voters: To help revitalize downtown Santa Barbara as the area’s retail shopping center and to increase city sales tax revenues to support city services, do you favor the issuance of Redevelopment Agency bonds to acquire downtown property for lease to a major department store — provided no tax increase of any kind would be required?

Scroll down to read the sample ballot for Measure D from the 1983 ballot.

Santa Barbara Sample Ballot 1983 Measure D

“Across the country downtowns are dying. Vital retail sales dollars are being lost to suburban shopping malls,” started the argument in favor of Measure D, which was signed by Lodge, among others.

The argument against the measure, signed by Earthling Bookstore co-owner Terence Davies among others, named Bullock’s directly and argued, “Locally owned businesses will be forced to relocate. Downtown rents will increase dramatically, forcing other locally owned businesses out. State Street will be lined with national chain stores.”

Measure D failed, with about 57 percent of voters opposing it.

Opponents of the plan argued that the RDA was taking money from schools, Davis remembered.

Dave Davis served as Santa Barbara’s community development director during many of the major Redevelopment Agency projects in the 1980s, including building Paseo Nuevo. Click to view larger
Dave Davis served as Santa Barbara’s community development director during many of the major Redevelopment Agency projects in the 1980s, including building Paseo Nuevo. (J.C. Corliss / Noozhawk photo)

People also argued that the 1000-1300 area of State Street, which was the center of retail at the time, wasn’t the area that needed blight eliminated. Lower State Street was, he said.

“There were porno shops and secondhand shops,” he said. “It was pretty seedy.”

Then, the plan for an open mall went forward. Santa Barbara pushed for an open mall, and not an enclosed one, so customers would patronize the existing local shops, Lodge said.

Paseo Nuevo was developed in a private-public partnership and opened in 1990 with two department store anchors, more than 80 smaller retail spaces, and parking structures.

“We got Nordstrom to anchor, which was the gold standard of downtown retail at the time,” Davis said. “Everybody in the world wanted Nordstrom.”

High sales tax revenues became even more important to municipalities after voters in 1978 passed Proposition 13, which limited property taxes. Prior to that, retail and car sales were the heavy hitters.

“Paseo Nuevo opened, and immediately the center of gravity of retailing shifted down there,” Davis said.

The center of retail stretched between the 800 and 1200 blocks with the addition of the mall, he added.

Lower State Street underwent another major change in the early 1990s when the four traffic lights along Highway 101 through the city were removed, and the underpass at State Street was constructed.

Santa Barbara for decades had the only traffic signals along Highway 101 between Los Angeles and San Francisco, which divided the city and caused major traffic backups in every direction.

Downtown Today, and Tomorrow

In 1983, Santa Barbara voters rejected a proposal to build a department store on the corner of State and Victoria streets. Click to view larger
In 1983, Santa Barbara voters rejected a proposal to build a department store on the corner of State and Victoria streets. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

The Redevelopment Agency and Paseo Nuevo hugely influenced the downtown core of today, and the end of the RDA signals the need for a fresh vision, and new funding approaches to implement it.

“We know that all California cities lost redevelopment, and our city relied on redevelopment heavily for investing in our downtown corridor and taking care of replacing infrastructure,” said Maggie Campbell, executive director of Downtown Santa Barbara.

State Street is physically showing the effects of the end of the Redevelopment Agency, she noted.

The city and Downtown Santa Barbara are among the supporters of a sales tax increase on the Nov. 7 ballot, which they argue will help fund infrastructure maintenance in the downtown core, including streets.

The tax initiative — Measure C — is expected to bring in $22 million a year, about the same amount as the RDA, but it can be spent on any governmental services, not just infrastructure and not just on the State Street corridor.

And downtown’s current challenges go beyond peeling paint and loose red bricks on the sidewalks.

Downtown business owners have for years voiced their concerns about an uptick in storefront vacancies and inappropriate street behavior, including aggressive panhandling and drinking in public.

“Existing businesses are telling us that they are measuring significant declines in sales and foot traffic (compared to) last summer, so these vacancies are having an impact on the businesses that are still here,” Campbell said.

Paseo Nuevo, seen from the entryway in the 800 block of State Street, opened in 1990 with Macy’s and Nordstrom as anchors, more than 80 smaller retail spaces, and parking structures. Click to view larger
Paseo Nuevo, seen from the entryway in the 800 block of State Street, opened in 1990 with Macy’s and Nordstrom as anchors, more than 80 smaller retail spaces, and parking structures. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

“There’s a direct connection between the health of this downtown and the reputation of Santa Barbara to the rest of the world, and whether the city has the money to continue to fund the quality of life for its citizens over the next 10 years. This is the golden goose.”

Earlier this year, Downtown Santa Barbara commissioned a retail study to get at the heart of State Street’s challenges. The out-of-town consultants pinpointed the following weaknesses:

» The concentration, visibility and behavior of loiterers, panhandlers and homeless people is a “GIGANTIC issue.”

» The mix of businesses on State Street is not unique, with many mall-like (read: chain) stores.

» State Street is very long with lots of retail, maybe more than the area can support.

» There is a perception that landlords charge high rents and are not flexible in making deals.

» There is not much residential in the commercial core.

» There is not a property-based business improvement district. (There is a Downtown BID and Old Town BID, in which businesses pay a fee that goes to Downtown Santa Barbara to fund promotional and marketing efforts. PBIDS levy assessments on the property owners, not the business owners.)

For some good news, Santa Barbara’s downtown was deemed to be well-known and has authentic and beautiful buildings, an inviting pedestrian environment, “fairly easy” parking, cultural institutions, some “high-quality independent operators,” and the nearby Funk Zone, with interesting and unique businesses, the consultants concluded.

Next Up: The 1925 Earthquake Shakes Up the Future

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli 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.

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