After an extensive disaster hiatus, Noozhawk is relaunching our Reimagine: Santa Barbara project exploring the challenges, opportunities and future of downtown Santa Barbara.

Longtime readers will recall that we started the project last fall, with our reporters digging into the history, development and contemporary issues of downtown, which has had to confront a monumnental series of difficulties over the last couple of years.

Little did any of us know that we were about to be engulfed by twin disasters that would make many of those difficulties pale by comparison.

First, the Thomas Fire sparked near Santa Paula the evening of Dec. 4 and quickly plunged the South Coast into absolute darkness with a nearly five-hour blackout. Within days, the wildfire had blanketed the region with thick, choking smoke and a heavy snowfall of ash. That was all before the flames marched out of Ventura County and across our frontcountry range, denuding the entire mountainsides above Carpinteria and Montecito.

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On Jan. 9, things went from bad to worse, with flash flooding raging out of Montecito’s canyons, building massive walls of mud and debris as the flows hurtled down the mountain. The carnage killed 23 people, destroyed hundreds of homes, and cut off Santa Barbara by turning Highway 101 into an impassable sea of mud for nearly two weeks.

Aside from the human and emotional toll of the cataclysmic events, the economic impacts have been profound — for Carpinteria, for Montecito, for the South Coast and for Santa Barbara County. Downtown Santa Barbara took another blow.

But the challenges Noozhawk had just begun to highlight and explain last year have not gone away. If anything, they’ve been exacerbated by the still-modest recovery and the business community’s increasing frustration over a litany of longtime complaints, foremost among them the prevalence of vagrants and the city’s nonchalant permit-approval process.

The public has its own concerns, including the aforementioned vagrants, a dispiriting number of vacant storefronts and even talk of more housing downtown.

So, here we are. Venturing back into the void, Noozhawk will be spending the next couple of weeks completing the segment involving current issues, before we take a look at other business districts around the county.

After that, we’ll be reporting on the thriving downtowns in San Luis Obispo and Boulder, Colo., hoping to identify a few ideas that might be replicated here. And then we’ll circle back to the surprising number of innovative concepts that already have been proposed to help revitalize the heart of Santa Barbara.

We expect our project will lead to a larger community-wide discussion and reimagination about what the future of Santa Barbara could be 10, 50, or even 100, years from now.

Click here for the first story in the rest of our series.

— Bill Macfadyen is Noozhawk’s founder and publisher. Contact him at, follow him on Twitter: @noozhawk and Instagram: @bill.macfadyen, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

Bill Macfadyen

William M. Macfadyen, Noozhawk Publisher

Bill Macfadyen is Noozhawk’s founder and publisher. Contact him at, and follow him on Instagram: @bill.macfadyen. The opinions expressed are his own.