[Noozhawk’s note: Part of 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.]
If Santa Barbara’s infrastructure is going to be saved, it will be one cent at a time.
The city relies on sales tax revenues for downtown improvements, but those monies have not been enough since California eliminated municipal redevelopment agencies in 2013.
Santa Barbara’s Redevelopment Agency used dedicated tax dollars to pay for renovation and infrastructure improvement projects, and provided $20 million in funding each year for the downtown area.
The 1-percent rate increase would bring in an estimated $22 million a year, roughly the same amount as the RDA, according to the city.
Supporters of the sales-tax increase are framing it as a way to pour more money into Santa Barbara’s mounting costs for infrastructure maintenance, and some are promoting it as a Redevelopment Agency replacement to fund downtown improvements.
The RDA paid for new sidewalks every 10 years, new street furniture, trash cans, benches, fountains, “many of the things we walk by and take for granted,” said Nina Johnson, who coordinates downtown efforts as senior assistant to City Administrator Paul Casey.
“That’s $20 million a year we no longer have,” she told Noozhawk. “We have been limping along without any of those capital improvements and affordable housing funds.”
In losing the RDA, Santa Barbara lost millions of dollars in dedicated revenue for affordable housing and downtown revitalization within the project boundaries, which included the downtown core from Highway 101 to the west, Santa Barbara Street to the east, Valerio Street to the north and the ocean to the south.
The project area also included the Santa Barbara Harbor and waterfront area along Cabrillo Boulevard.
“I think it’s kind of linked to the whole State Street corridor,” Mayor Helene Schneider said of the loss of the RDA funding.
“It doesn’t feel polished, it feels kind of run down a bit. When you don’t have $20 million a year for maintenance, upkeep and redevelopment in the area, over five years, it’s $100 million — and it shows.”
One accomplishment of the RDA was to expand downtown parking by 1,000 parking spaces.
That was a boon for restaurants and tourist-serving businesses on Lower State Street, said John Bridley, the city’s housing and redevelopment director from 1981 to 1996.
“It allowed them to change and grow and upgrade,” he said.
Had the city been forced to sell the parking lots, as many cities did during the RDA dissolution, patronizing downtown businesses would likely cost consumers more than it does today.
“There wouldn’t be 75 minutes free (parking), that’s for darn sure,” said Brian Bosse, the city’s waterfront business manager who oversaw the dissolution of the RDA.
Beyond redeveloping infrastructure, the RDA allowed the city to support arts and cultural arts activity by bringing people downtown, Johnson said.
“The RDA was a critical funding tool to keep downtown vibrant,” she noted.
The city is still doing what it can to promote public art and museums, helping MOXI – The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation and the Community Arts Workshop by leasing land to those organizations for one dollar.
In the absence of city funding, downtown redevelopment efforts are falling to the private sector.
The Santa Barbara chapter of the American Institute of Architects recently hosted a design charrette to offer ideas for how downtown property owners can address storefront vacancies by redeveloping the buildings as smaller retail spaces, mixed-use housing or cultural hubs that ultimately benefit the community.
The AIA held another design charrette on Oct. 21, titled Make State Street Work. Click here for Noozhawk’s coverage of that event.
“Until the property owners downtown realize that the ground is shifting beneath them and there is opportunity to be had rather than some kind of challenge, we can’t get there from here,” said Dave Davis, who was head of the Santa Barbara RDA from 1988 to 2002 and currently is board chairman of the Santa Barbara Metropolitan Transit District.
“We really need them, and part of the charrette is trying to show the property owners the potential that is out there.”
Whether public or private, redevelopment is essential to the future of downtown Santa Barbara.
“It’s circular,” Bosse said. “You create activity in the downtown area, it gets more lively, businesses thrive, people thrive, the arts thrive, you don’t end up with vacancies and folks you don’t want hanging around downtown.
“Activity creates more activity.”
The Push for Measure C
Santa Barbara currently has a 7.75-percent sales tax rate, and the city’s campaign to increase it follows the trend of municipalities raising their sales tax specifically to address infrastructure needs after Sacramento eliminated redevelopment agencies.
An 8.75-percent sales tax would put Santa Barbara at the same rate as Monterey, and lower than Santa Cruz, which has a 9-percent rate, and Long Beach and Santa Monica, which both have 10.25-percent rates.
Within Santa Barbara County, all cities and unincorporated areas currently have a 7.75-percent sales tax rate except Guadalupe and Santa Maria, which have an 8-percent rate. Santa Barbara’s 8.75-percent rate would make it the highest in the county, according to the State Board of Equalization.
According to Johnson, the city doesn’t have another funding option available if the sales-tax increase measure doesn’t pass.
City Council members have said the top priorities for the sales tax revenue would be road maintenance and building a new police station, which is expected to cost at least $80 million with annual debt service payments in the area of $8 million.
Measure C is supported by public safety union groups, The Chamber of the Santa Barbara Region and Downtown Santa Barbara. Arguments in favor of the sales tax increase have been signed by Schneider; former Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif.; Geoff Green, CEO of the Foundation for Santa Barbara City College; and Councilman Randy Rowse, who previously voted against putting it on the ballot.
Downtown Santa Barbara’s board of directors voted to endorse Measure C in the hopes that more money will be invested in the downtown core, executive director Maggie Campbell said.
“We know better than anyone how reliant the city has been on the RDA for building everything downtown, fixing everything downtown, repairing everything downtown,” she said.
“Since the RDA went out of business there has been a noticeable, visible gap, and in the absence of the sales tax passing we would expect infrastructure downtown to continue to deteriorate.”
Measure C’s proposed sales tax increase is a general tax, meaning a simple majority of voters is needed to approve it instead of the two-thirds threshold for a specific tax.
Also unlike a specific tax measure, this initiative carries no restrictions for the uses of the sales tax revenue. Although the City Council, and the ballot language used, has prioritized public safety and roads maintenance, the money actually could be used for any general government services.
That open-endedness is one of the key arguments against the measure included in the ballot arguments written by Joe Armendariz, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association, and Councilman Frank Hotchkiss, who voted against putting the measure on the ballot and is running for mayor.
Critics of Measure C also point to the lack of a sunset clause, meaning the sales tax increase will not expire at any point in the future.
The ballot argument against Measure C reads: “I urge you to vote ‘No’ on this measure. Then in the future we can bring forward another initiative that will ensure the proceeds will be spent for what we need, better streets and a new police station.”
About This Series
Noozhawk’s Reimagine: Santa Barbara project is exploring the challenges and opportunities in downtown today, and will be working with you, our readers, to identify priorities and form a vision for State Street’s future.
It’s not just about shopping or dining, but finding out what locals want for the next generation of State Street and the downtown experience.
Should the city incentivize more housing projects in the downtown core, or get into the development business itself? Should business organizations work with property owners to curate more locally owned stores?
How can stakeholders work together to come up with innovative solutions for large properties like Macy’s in Paseo Nuevo and Saks OFF 5TH, which is vacating its store on State and Carrillo streets when its lease is up in the spring?
Have an idea? Have questions? Join the conversation in our reader-engagement platform, Noozhawk Asks.
— This article includes reporting from Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli. Noozhawk contributing writer Jessica Haro can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkSociety, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.