[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.]
There is not enough of a police presence downtown, aggressive panhandling and inappropriate street behavior is out of control, and the infrastructure is in desperate need of an upgrade: these are some of the longtime complaints about public safety-related issues on Santa Barbara’s State Street, known for its wide, red-bricked sidewalks and Spanish-style architecture.
City officials, businesses and the community at large have their eyes on the commercial core, which seems less vibrant and has a noticeable number of storefront vacancies.
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The city has a slew of initiatives focused on “downtown concerns,” and putting more authority figures and outreach workers on State Street is a major push right now.
Current and former employees with the city and business owners have said that the issues of homelessness and aggressive panhandling have been around since the 1980s.
A lot of the nuisance crimes and inappropriate behavior downtown is linked to alcohol consumption and people trying to get money, Santa Barbara police Lt. Dan McGrew said.
Common crimes and citations include drinking in public, being drunk in public, stealing liquor bottles from stores, aggressive panhandling, disturbing the peace and urinating in public.
Inappropriate street behavior is a longtime grievance voiced by business owners, and the top weakness pointed out in a 2017 retail study commissioned by Downtown Santa Barbara.
“The No. 1 observation from our retail consultants was you have a huge problem with street behavior,” said Maggie Campbell, Downtown Santa Barbara’s executive director.
“You better get that under control because that will be an impediment to retail recruitment and retention.”
Street behavior is usually the euphemism for individuals loitering, drinking, yelling, panhandling and camped out on State Street’s benches and planters.
Some are homeless and some are not, but in Santa Barbara’s main commercial corridor, what matters most is the impact of their behavior.
“We expect that a downtown that’s welcoming and is a place where everybody can come together, that there’s a degree of civility and expected behavior that we want all people to uphold, regardless of where they live,” Campbell told Noozhawk.
Business owners have individually and collectively asked the city to remove State Street benches from in front of their storefronts, which are frequent hangouts for many homeless and transients, including those who ask passersby for money.
“Our organization has been advocating and talking to the city about the impacts of the benches for years,” Campbell said “It’s not a new debate.
“I think at the crux of it, and not even to focus on the benches, but at the crux of it, we are in terms of the regulatory environment and El Pueblo Viejo that we operate in, we seem to be much more interested in form over function. How it looks is much more important than whether it’s working for us.”
Campbell remembers the five-year fight to get the bench-like sculpture removed from the sidewalk near The Habit at 628 State St., where it was the frequent lounging area for young transients — often with dogs — who would ask for money and pull drinking cups out of the trash to use the restaurant’s soda machine.
The city surrounded the Crescent Crossing sculpture with orange traffic cones and caution tape to keep people from sitting on it, and then installed a short, chain-link fence around it before eventually moving it to the Santa Barbara train station.
Reviewing the number or location of benches is not on the city’s list of initiatives in response to “downtown concerns.”
The city doesn’t have a “grand bench scheme” but will assess hot spots and see if a particular bench needs to be moved, Mayor Helene Schneider explained.
“The focus has more been on creating a strong presence on State Street,” she said. “There are quite a few more boots on the ground than the beginning of the year and that should really help encourage people to shop and do appropriate things on State Street.”
Schneider noted that the Hotel Californian opened on Lower State Street with a “very robust presence of their security,” to set the tone that they would not tolerate any inappropriate behavior.
The business community is reportedly working on a panhandling awareness campaign to encourage tourists not to give money, she added.
“Residents understand and most, I would say, would choose not to give money to panhandlers, they know there are a lot of services available for people who need them,” she said.
“Because we get a lot of tourists, they don’t hear that. They’re here for a day or a weekend. Panhandlers panhandle because they get money; if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be panhandling.”
Initiatives the city launched in response to downtown issues include implementing a citywide lighting plan to replace streetlights with LED fixtures; installing new wayfinding signage all over town; adopting smoke-free outdoor public areas rules; installing more public art, including at the Highway 101 underpass at Lower State Street; streamlining the permit program for downtown commercial space; and changing the city’s alcohol policy.
“Since easy access to alcohol contributes to public intoxication and inappropriate behavior on our streets, the city is drafting a policy that restricts off-premise alcohol sales in gas stations and convenience stores where an individual can buy single-serve bottles,” the city outlined on its website.
Campbell is encouraged that the city is allocating more people to create a consistent presence on State Street.
“I’m excited because it doesn’t matter where I go and who I talk to in Santa Barbara, this seems to be the thing that people care most about,” she said of the challenges facing State Street.
“There’s a direct connection between the health of this downtown and the reputation of Santa Barbara to the rest of the world and whether the city has the money to continue to fund the quality of life for its citizens over the next 10 years. This is the golden goose.”
Law Enforcement Presence on State Street
Police have more of a visible presence, doubling foot patrol hours and supplementing sworn officers with volunteers, said McGrew, who heads SBPD’s Neighborhood Policing Unit.
“One of the things we’re trying to accomplish is having a good coordinated response to downtown,” he said. “You can throw a lot of resources at any problem but if you don’t have proper coordination, it doesn’t work great.”
McGrew’s unit also includes the special enforcement team, restorative policing officers who work directly with the homeless population, and nightlife enforcement.
SBPD hopes to expand its new volunteer program, which currently has 11 people working as greeters in the station lobby and walking downtown, and establish a training manual, he said.
The police department talked internally about starting a volunteer program for years, but Chief Lori Luhnow made it happen, McGrew said.
The San Diego Police Department, where Luhnow worked previously, has an extensive volunteer program and she knew how successful it could be, he added.
“She was like, hey, the sky’s the limit, let’s see what they can help us do,” McGrew said.
SBPD also experimented with a seven-week transportation program — from mid-August to Sept. 30 — to have dedicated staff take in-custody suspects to the Santa Barbara County Jail so officers stay downtown.
The city also started a Downtown Ambassador program, also called State Street ambassadors, which launched Sept. 18 and aims to put more eyes and ears downtown.
The SBPD couldn’t recruit enough people for its community service officer program, partly because of the background checks employees had to pass to become police employees.
So, the city moved the program to the Downtown Parking Department under Victor Garza, who has a reputation for training super-friendly parking lot kiosk attendants.
The red-shirted Downtown Ambassadors have no enforcement authority and are meant to take that kiosk customer service attitude to State Street, Garza said.
They walk in pairs on State Street from Sola Street to Cabrillo Boulevard, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.
Ambassadors will be points of contact for business owners, help tourists, report necessary infrastructure repairs to the city, and have referral information for transients and homeless residents on State Street, Garza said. Another goal is to reduce calls to the police.
In the first week, at least, Garza said many people were voluntarily complying when ambassadors asked them not to skateboard or lie down on a sidewalk.
“When I walked with (the ambassadors), if people were sitting on the sidewalk they straightened up because they don’t want it to go to the next level,” he said.
People will “get accustomed to the fact that they’re getting held accountable on a regular basis,” McGrew added.
There are also new AmeriCorps homeless outreach workers walking State Street (coordinated by the Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness and the United Way of Santa Barbara County) and the SBPD restorative policing team, which works to get people into programs, housing and reunited with family and friends.
“We don’t do anything alone, we can’t do anything alone,” McGrew said of the restorative program at the Oct. 3 City Council meeting.
Council members heaped praise on the SBPD and the ambassador program at the meeting. Luhnow also noted the department has filled nearly all of its budgeted positions after years of struggling to recruit new officers and staff a full police force.
Councilman Randy Rowse, who owns the Paradise Café at 702 Anacapa St., said he is downtown every day and the results are “absolutely fabulous” with the presence of more authority figures on the street.
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.
— Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.