[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. ]
Like Santa Barbara’s State Street core, other city commercial districts work to serve local clientele and tourist traffic alike.
Businesses were thriving before the entire region took an economic hit with the Thomas Fire and Montecito debris flow, and while recovery is not a quick process, what made each district a draw to customers – longtime, locally-owned shops, walkable restaurants, convenient services – hasn’t changed.
The commercial hot spots of the city, outside downtown, are designated by Santa Barbara’s zoning: Upper State Street, the Milpas Street corridor, the Mesa intersection of Meigs Road and Cliff Drive, and Coast Village Road on the eastern edge of the city, at the entrance to Montecito.
Each neighborhood and commercial area has its own character, but none has as many architectural design guidelines as the El Pueblo Viejo core downtown.
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State Street gets more attention from the city than other commercial corridors – the ACCELERATE pilot program puts those businesses at the front of the line for permit applications – which can be a cause of frustration for business owners and landlords elsewhere.
The downtown area is the only one with business improvement districts – although it has been debated by associations in other areas.
Upper State Street
State Street winds from Stearns Wharf all the way to unincorporated “Noleta,” but Upper State Street (or Outer State) is entirely different from the narrow, tourist-heavy downtown core of the city.
From De la Vina Street to the east and State Route 154 to the west, businesses are strung along State Street, with neighborhoods of mostly single-family homes clustered behind them.
It’s a mix of local businesses and national chains, with many storefronts located in shopping centers, including Loreto Plaza, Ontare Plaza, San Roque Plaza and the Five Points Shopping Center.
There are grocery stores, banks, post offices, car washes, pet supply stores, salons, restaurants and a few of the rare drive-thrus, which were grandfathered in before the city banned them.
La Cumbre Plaza mall, with dozens of stores surrounded by ample parking, was the reason State Street changed. To compete with La Cumbre, Santa Barbara narrowed the stretch of downtown State Street from four lanes to two lanes, added parking lots and garages, and used Redevelopment Agency funding and partnerships to build the Paseo Nuevo mall.
New housing projects are storming into the area, many built under the city’s controversial Average-Unit Density Incentive Program.
Some of those include: The Marc, an 89-apartment complex with street-level retail spaces, is leasing units at 3885 State St.; the 57-unit Grace Village Apartments for seniors at 3869 State St., on the site of the former Grace Lutheran Church; and the under-construction Estancia Santa Barbara housing development at 3714 State St., which will have 72 townhouses and condos at the site of the former Sandman Inn.
What perhaps has people most abuzz is the small-format Target store going in at the corner of La Cumbre Road and State Street.
Milpas Street commercial space, like Upper State Street, faces a four-lane roadway, but its businesses and neighborhoods are more involved as a community.
The Milpas Community Association throws an annual holiday parade and trick-or-treat event, and has been politically active over the years advocating for street improvements, more lighting and a business improvement district (which didn’t form).
Milpas Street is home to a community of locally owned, longtime businesses that are patronized by the residents of the high-density neighborhoods nearby, including more than a dozen buzzing restaurants.
Most of the area’s concerns have been long-term issues: homelessness, aging infrastructure, pedestrian and bicyclist safety, and traffic, says Bea Molina, president of the MCA.
Last year, the MCA focused more on residents and special events, and now plans to ramp up its advocacy and outreach to businesses. The MCA has also been helping businesses and residents connect with disaster recovery resources after the Thomas Fire and Montecito debris flow, Molina said.
Businesses took a hit during the disasters and she guessed that almost 30 percent of Milpas-area residents work in the Montecito area as cooks, housekeepers, babysitters, gardeners, or other jobs.
“A good percentage of those people are out of work because those homes are gone, or people moved away,” after the Jan. 9 debris flow, she added.
“Overall as a community, they’ve taken a big hit, and it will take a long time to get through recovery mode and get people back to work.”
She and the MCA board plan more outreach to the city this year to get attention on Milpas-specific issues, such as the increase they’re seeing in homelessness and air quality issues from nearby industrial areas.
Another hot topic in the coming year will be the new hotel on South Milpas Street, near The Habit and the East Beach Batting Cages, at 926 Indio Muerto St., Molina said.
Residents and business owners in the area have mixed feelings about it – traffic could get worse and it could prompt gentrification of the area, she said, but “new people coming in could really help us.”
The Santa Barbara Planning Commission has approved the 111-room hotel project.
There are not many vacancies on Milpas Street, but the MCA hopes to attract a business into the vacated Trader Joe’s space in the Santa Barbara Plaza. The store moved three blocks away to 222 N. Milpas St.
The intersection of Meigs Road and Cliff Drive serves as the commercial hub for the sprawling single-family residences of the Mesa's neighborhoods, with grocery stores, restaurants and shops catering to local customers.
The Mesa Business Association and Mesa Paper keep the community involved and informed of neighborhood happenings.
It’s an active community and a stable commercial market, with very few vacancies, said Trey Pinner of Santa Barbara Property Group, whose office is on the Mesa.
The Mesa Architects, a neighborhood volunteer group, sees the Mesa as a village within the city of Santa Barbara and has pushed for pedestrian improvements on the busy roadways, among other things.
Mesa groups were intensely involved in the city’s decision in 2012 to take over jurisdiction of Highway 225 from Caltrans, which stretches from the intersection of Castillo and Montecito streets, around Santa Barbara City College, along Cliff Drive, and north on Las Positas Road to Highway 101.
Coast Village Road
“The sun is shining and we are open for business!” reads the homepage of the Coast Village Association website.
Before the deadly debris flow that destroyed hundreds of homes and flooded Coast Village Road, the stretch of Santa Barbara shops that is the western gateway to Montecito was home to many boutiques and restaurants.
At least 90-percent of the businesses were local, according to Bob Ludwick, president of the Coast Village Association.
A lot has changed in the Montecito community since Jan. 9, but not that: the area is known for local businesses and local landlords, who work to offer customers a unique shopping experience.
The business association has seen a big spike in membership since January, starting when people worked together to get Coast Village Road shops open before the rest of Montecito repopulated, to welcome the community home, said Sharon Byrne, executive director of the CVA.
“I sometimes try to remember what the world was like back in December and how we thought medians were a big deal,” she said.
Now, CVA members are focused on planning events to draw in people from all over, like the April Spring Fling that raised money for the Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade and the Amgen Tour of California viewing party in May.
The street will host the Montecito Motor Classic in September, and the first-ever Taste of Coast Village restaurant and wine crawl in October, Byrne said.
“I would say we’re rebounding pretty strong,” she said, adding that foot traffic should get a boost now that the Four Seasons The Biltmore reopened.
Vehicle traffic on Coast Village Road backs up badly enough that some call it “the third lane of Highway 101,” and CVA members have worked with the city to improve circulation, through the installation of stop signs and blocking drivers from using the parking lanes as shortcuts to the freeway.
CVA members are also working on “beautification” efforts and considering a property-based business improvement district, Byrne noted.
New restaurants, or ones on the way, include a Renaud’s Patisserie & Bistro location, a standalone Empty Bowl Gourmet Noodle Bar (which is also a tenant in the Santa Barbara Public Market), and a concept eatery at the Montecito Inn, Frankland’s Crab & Co.
— Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.