Arlington Village, an apartment complex under construction on the north side of the historic Arlington Theatre on the corner of Sola and Chapala streets, will add nearly three dozen rental units in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

[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.]

Housing has emerged as a popular possible solution to the problems facing Santa Barbara’s beleaguered downtown.

State Street, one of the city’s most popular destinations for tourists and locals, has regressed in recent years. The rise of online shopping, the continual presence of homeless, and the success of the nearby Funk Zone have all contributed to State Street’s decline.

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In light of this, many of the city’s leaders and decision-makers have aired a chorus of suggestions to bring housing to the downtown core. It was a popular talking point for candidates during the recent election, and 2018 is likely to be the year when Santa Barbara decides whether to make a full-force effort to bring housing to State Street.

The idea is that if State Street restaurant and retail locales are fading, building rental housing downtown will bring a natural client base to the urban core, lifting businesses while providing new housing.

You can’t, for example, buy a latte or a glass of wine, while appreciating art murals, through an online shopping experience. At least not until augmented and virtual reality really takes off.

Can a marriage of housing and retail downtown be the answer?

The cost of land downtown is undoubtedly high, so the city would be looking at building smaller units, including studios and one- and two-bedroom apartments.

Santa Barbara has experimented with this type of high-density housing in recent years through its average unit-sized density incentive program. Despite some of the fandom around high-density rental housing downtown, city officials don’t necessarily see it as panacea.

“Allowing housing on State Street is certainly something worth discussing, however I would view this as one of many options in addressing the revitalization of downtown, not the one and only option,” Mayor Helene Schneider told Noozhawk.

“The key toward both downtown revitalization and providing additional workforce housing is diversification.”

Among the most talked about sites for housing at the moment is the abandoned Macy’s building at Paseo Nuevo, on the corner of State and Ortega streets. Some architects and developers believe the building would serve as a perfect site for mixed use, including retail and housing.

Typically, housing developments are constrained by parking requirements, as well as fears of neighborhood congestion. But downtown, tenants could park in the existing municipal lots, which would also eliminate some traffic congestion from people driving to get home or to shop.

Michael Martz, a real estate broker and partner at Hayes Commercial Group, believes the city needs to seek a new, creative option to repurposing the former department store.

“Split up the building with retail on the first floor and housing and office on the upper floors,” he said. “We need more housing downtown. The future of shared cars, driverless cars, electric bikes, etc. is going to dramatically change the need for parking in our society.

“Cities need to be forward thinking and start to change the way they look at parking requirements and adapt to this new reality. Lack of parking is a big roadblock to most properties’ ability to add housing elements downtown.”

The Santa Barbara chapter of the American Institute of Architects last month hosted a design charrette at which leading architects, planners and stakeholders discussed ways to redesign State Street, including bringing more housing to and near downtown.

The standing room-only event got the ball rolling on thinking differently. Big mall ideas may have worked in the 1990s, but now smart cities all over the nation are looking at creating downtowns that are experience driven, whether it’s via food, drinks or art, rather than purchasing merchandise.

“My hope is that some combination of public-oriented uses — retail, for example — will occupy the ground floor, with upper floors turned into housing,” Ken Oplinger, president of The Chamber of the Santa Barbara Region, said of the Macy’s building.

“We are open to working with anyone on this, knowing that there are many ideas floating around out there about the building’s future use.”

City Administrator Paul Casey said housing is an option that is on the table.

“The city is already looking at more housing options on State Street through the Housing Task Force,” he said.

Casey noted the city is already making progress.

“A number of the vacancies are in transition — new leases being negotiated, building plans developed, construction underway,” he said.

City Councilman Gregg Hart said Santa Barbara must be experimental, but also smart and cautious in its approach.

“I’m excited about the community interest in exploring new housing opportunities downtown,” he said. “The council should carefully evaluate all options to provide new rental housing throughout the city.

“The city’s design review process and community discussion will help determine the best locations and plans.”

Schneider said revitalizing State Street, and increasing affordable housing, will take multiple solutions.

“There is no one size-fits-all strategy,” she said. “ADUs, mixed use, inclusionary rental housing — they are all part of finishing the jigsaw puzzle.”

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