[Noozhawk’s note: Part of a series called Reimagine: Santa Barbara, a Noozhawk special report on downtown Santa Barbara, its challenges and opportunities. Throughout the series, we’ll be asking you to help us identify priorities and form a vision for downtown’s future.]
A weekly street fair to boost the number of people in downtown Santa Maria and a brand-new, mixed-use building mark steps toward what some hope will spur the transformation of the city’s core.
The revitalization of downtown Santa Maria gained a big boost with a proposed building to house commercial and residential uses at the northwest corner of Main Street and Broadway. The project would mark the first new development in the city’s downtown in many years.
“There is real interest in downtown Santa Maria,” Community Development Director Chuen Ng told Noozhawk. “We are talking to people who want to do something different in the center of our city.”
The Planning Commission recommended that the City Council approve the building, but council members initially balked because of limited on-site parking. Instead of rejecting the plan, the council took no action so the city staff and the applicant could meet.
A revised project, providing more parking, won council approval in January.
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The revival of downtown Santa Maria remains a key focus among city staff and other city leaders, Ng said.
“I think everyone’s eager to see something get off the ground,” Ng added.
While Santa Barbarans look to reimagine their downtown, Santa Maria now twice has launched efforts to revive its seemingly abandoned city core that starts at the corner of Broadway (Highway 135) and Main Street (Highway 166) and radiates outward encompassing 50 square blocks.
Downtown Santa Maria has languished, victim to the much-criticized action to tear down buildings to make way for the Santa Maria Town Center mall in a move to attract regional shoppers in the 1970s.
Then malls fell out of favor, leaving Santa Maria’s downtown core, and its Santa Maria Town Center, in decline while others flourished with businesses and visitors by comparison.
Critics cited Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo downtowns as examples of what Santa Maria’s needs to be.
Efforts to spark activity in downtown Santa Maria took root with the 2015 adoption of a revised Downtown Specific Plan, a blueprint for the transformation.
“We want downtown to be a place where people can go to dinner on a Friday night, spend money and bring economic activity back to the center of city,” Ng said.
The plan that went into effect in 2016 included a checklist of implementation items, with the city on target to meet the tasks, Ng told the City Council at the Aug. 1, 2017, meeting.
“I would say the adoption of the plan has stimulated interest in development within the area,” Ng said.
So what is a downtown? Historically, downtowns have been identified as the original center of a city, Ng said. Culturally, downtowns have been defined as the gathering place for a city. For many cities, downtown includes government offices and entertainment venues.
To help spur activity in the area and with the encouragement of the city, Emerald Wave Media’s Ed Carcarey and Sofia Lariz launched Downtown Fridays, a farmers market and street fair with food trucks, other vendors and live entertainment in the Santa Maria Town Center West parking lot.
“So far I love it,” Carcarey said, estimating crowds of 3,000 weekly, sometimes higher, with warm weather boosting turnout.
Now in its third season, Downtown Fridays runs roughly from the last Friday of March to the last Friday of September, Carcarey said.
People who have attended give the event positive reviews, he said.
“It shocks some people,” Carcarey said, adding that some Santa Maria Valley residents perceive downtown as filled with hoodlums and find Downtown Fridays isn’t what they expected.
“It’s friendly, it’s safe and it’s clean,” he said, adding most vendors are mom-and-pop operations.
Carcarey, a champion for downtown’s revival, said he often speaks to community groups, only to hear complaints that Downtown Fridays should be held in Orcutt.
“I challenge all of them to come out,” he said.
While talking up plans to transform downtown, Ng still sees a role for the Santa Maria Town Center indoor mall, believing it’s a chance for creativity.
“I actually believe a revitalized downtown can co-exist with the mall,” Ng said. “I don’t discount the mall whatsoever.”
One key challenge to downtown plans through the years is the fact that Main Street is Highway 166 and a designated truck route. Likewise, Broadway is state Highway 135, bringing another layer of bureaucracy.
But Caltrans has provided a $300,000 grant for the creation of a streetscape plan spelling out traffic calming and pedestrian improvements such as corner bulb-outs, street trees and median refuge islands.
The city launched the public input process with two workshops in late October to solicit opinions about the type of pavers, furniture, lighting and other features people want to see in the downtown area.
A draft streetscape plan is expected to go to the Planning Commission later this summer.
For Ng, one barometer to measure the success of transforming downtown sits on the southwest corner of Main Street and Broadway, where Boot Barn has locked front doors with customers entering from the rear of the building after arriving by car.
“It’s locked because we don’t have a lot of pedestrians, but I hope that one day in the future those doors will open again because there will be just as much foot traffic on sidewalks as there would be customers arriving by vehicle,” Ng said.
— Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.