Artist rendition of an 84-unit, 52-foot-tall apartment project proposed for the 400 block of State Street in downtown Santa Barbara.
A prominent property owner has proposed an 84-unit, 52-foot-tall apartment project for the 400 block of State Street in downtown Santa Barbara. (Image courtesy of Cearnal Collective)

In what would likely be a transformative housing development for downtown Santa Barbara, a prominent property owner has proposed an 84-unit, 52-foot-tall apartment project for the 400 block of State Street.

Peter Lewis, who owns the Cost Plus World Market building downtown and 415-419 State St., which houses software company Invoca, wants to build a garage on the parking lot behind the former Staples building, and housing on top.

Lewis and his development team, which includes architectural firm Cearnal Collective, submitted a pre-application to the city of Santa Barbara on April 7.

It proposes 21 studios, 51 one-bedroom units and 12 two-bedroom units. The parking would include a combination of surface parking and stacked parking lifts.

Lewis has a long-term ground lease on the proposed site over three parcels at 410 State St., 27 E. Gutierrez St. and 409 Anacapa St.

The project would sit between the old Staples building and Reid’s Appliances. Lewis said the project is what Santa Barbara needs.

“Downtown needs customers and traffic to revitalize,” Lewis told Noozhawk. “Santa Barbara just needs activity. We need to repurpose all of that excess retail space into lifestyle and office use, and bring as much housing as we can within easy walking distance so that people live, work and play downtown.

“We need to create more of an urban core to the town that will generate the activity.”

He said there’s much demand for a new urban living experience in Santa Barbara. Housing people downtown will also help fix some of the strip’s other problems. 

“There is nothing worse than empty space, whether it is office or retail,” Lewis said. 

However, the project would require some concessions from the city. The city’s municipal code allows for rental housing as tall as 60 feet, but the Planning Commission must make special findings to allow the project to exceed 45 feet. 

The parking lot behind the former Staples building on State Street in downtown Santa Barbara.

The project is proposed for the parking lot behind to former Staples building. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

It also only calls for 102 parking spaces, when 113 are required. A reduction in the required amount of open yard space is also proposed. 

The proposal comes at a time when there’s a growing movement in Santa Barbara to build housing in the downtown core, as one possible remedy to the stagnation on State Street.

Just Tuesday, the City Council voted to fast-track housing changes that would allow and encourage developers to build housing downtown.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, State Street was suffering from a swath of vacant retail storefronts exacerbated by the rise of online retail. Now an unknown number of businesses that shut their doors during the pandemic might never re-open.

The average size of the units would be about 655 square feet. The apartments would rent for the market rate.

“Small, so they are not too expensive,” Lewis said. “It is obviously expensive to build in this town, so nothing is affordable. It will meet the purpose of providing housing stock for our young professionals who want to be in or near a downtown environment.”

Marck Aguilar, business liaison and project planner, said the city has a lot of optimism about the project, in these early stages.

“This is a potentially a significant step toward revitalizing our downtown core and Central Business District,” Aguilar said. “What’s not to like about this building.”

The city is reviewing the pre-application and will send a letter back to the development team to give it a general sense of the city’s reaction.

It’s an opportunity for the developer to decide to move forward and start investing money in the planning and permitting process or go in a different direction.

The appliance store would remain, and Lewis said the Staples store would eventually be repurposed into creative office space, with some retail.

“I am hoping to find a good coffee shop and diner kind of tenant to interface on State Street and reopen that building back to the public,” Lewis said.

Santa Barbara City Councilwoman Meagan Harmon said she’s “incredibly excited” about what she’s hearing about the project. 

“I’m thrilled about what this project might mean for our downtown, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it evolves,” Harmon said. “A project like the one proposed makes creative use of space, it is innovative, and it will bring life to State Street.

“Downtown residents will use State Street as their ‘living room’ and dine, shop, and recreate there.”

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.