Downtown Santa Barbara’s State Street has long been a destination for visitors and locals alike, but is struggling with higher-than-normal vacancies and competition from its neighbors and online shopping. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

[Noozhawk’s note: Third in 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.]

Santa Barbara has its icons: The Mission, the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, Stearns Wharf.

But the backbone of the city has always been State Street.

More so than any elected official or celebrity who calls Santa Barbara home, State Street is synonymous with the city, the place that every tourist, from San Francisco to Sweden, wants to visit.

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The street is also a destination for locals. For teens, it’s a rite of passage; to go downtown alone with your friends and walk up and down State has always been a little symbol of maturity.

Not too long ago, before the car became a dirty environmental word, State Street was also a place to cruise in your vehicle, a chance to see and be seen. If you weren’t riding on State Street, you weren’t cool.

In recent decades, Paseo Nuevo has anchored the shopping area, the mall within the State Street mall, that attracted visitors.

The Granada Theatre hosts performances that include opera, symphony and musical theater shows, and finished a major restoration project in 2008.

The Granada Theatre hosts performances that include opera, symphony and musical theater shows, and finished a major restoration project in 2008. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

The Arlington and Granada theaters, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the Santa Barbara International Film Festival have all served as pillars of the cultural community and have shaped downtown.

While the South Coast has always had its natural economic and geographic segregation — the Eastside, Westside, San Roque, the Mesa, the Riviera are all distinct areas — State Street was where everyone came together, where residents experienced a common joy, passion and, most important, a sense of shared ownership of the city.

From Old Spanish Days-Fiesta and the farmers market, to drinking and dining, nearly everyone has a memory of State Street.

Changing Times

But without attention, all things fade. And State Street, the shining star of Santa Barbara, appears to be dimming.

“Downtown is the historic, social and economic heart of our community,” said Dave Davis, an economist and Santa Barbara’s former Community Development Department director.

“We can look back and try to hang on to a past that is changing beneath our feet, or come together as this community always has and boldly reach for the future. I strongly believe we need to seize the opportunity and remake downtown for local citizens and visitors alike.”

A variety of factors have severely altered the State Street experience. The Internet is thrashing the world of retail, sending many State Streets stores packing.

In recent years, State Street has lost Macy’s, Barnes & Noble, Borders and Saks Fifth Avenue, partly because people are shopping online with Amazon, instead of at stores.

State Street currently has nearly two dozen commercial vacancies, many of them storefronts, a sign that tells any tourist or local that the downtown isn’t as cool as it once was.

Business owners say chronic and aggressive panhandling make it difficult to attract customers, particularly on the 400 block of State Street, between Haley and Gutierrez streets.

While Santa Barbara has always had its fair share of homeless people, there’s a perception the problem is getting worse.

With a wide spectrum of people who live on the streets, from the mentally ill to those who choose a transient lifestyle, the answer to the homeless problem is perhaps even more elusive than how to revive retail.

Like so many problems in the world, the retail and homeless problems that hinder State Street are greatly politicized. In an election year, the candidates for mayor and the City Council are all making promises about how to fix State Street and return the area to its luster.

Government planners are also talking about some dramatic changes to State Street.

Santa Barbara’s Redevelopment Agency worked to establish Paseo Nuevo, the downtown outdoor mall, to revitalize State Street retail. It opened in 1991.

Santa Barbara’s Redevelopment Agency worked to establish Paseo Nuevo, the downtown outdoor mall, to revitalize State Street retail. It opened in 1991. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

The catchphrase of the day is “we need to move housing into the downtown,” an action that many believe will bring a natural shopping constituency to the area, which will lift businesses.

While Santa Barbara is facing pressure from Sacramento to increase affordable housing opportunities, planners believe the answer might be to create a housing overlay on State Street, relieving pressure on the neighborhoods and creating small apartments in the downtown area.

There’s no doubt that Santa Barbara has wrestled with these issues before. In the 1980s, State Street had slipped into a state of low-end retail experiences, with surf and T-shirt shops and adult bookstores occupying prime real estate.

Using Redevelopment Agency money, the city built Paseo Nuevo, installed red brick sidewalks, and slowly redesigned the area into a more pleasant shopping experience.

The Funk Zone

But there’s a new factor in the discussion: Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone. There was a time when State Street owned the market on shopping and dining and downtown fun, regardless of whether they shared the space with homeless panhandlers.

In recent years, however, the Funk Zone, an industrial area a block east of State Street near the waterfront, has organically emerged as a new tourist and local destination.

There are no wide, red brick sidewalks that are regularly spray-washed, or manicured planters with a rotating sign program. It’s not a place to cruise in your car; in fact, it’s best to not even take your car into the Funk Zone because there’s no place to park.

Instead, the Funk Zone offers wine and beer, cafés and boutiques. There are trendy restaurants, gyms and the Impact HUB co-working space for entrepreneurs.

The Funk Zone is a haven for millennials who use Uber or Lyft and want to buy expensive, unique clothes that you can’t find on State Street.

“The city needs to promote Santa Barbara as a family-friendly, clean, safe place to visit,” said Michael Martz, a partner and commercial real estate broker with Hayes Commercial Group.

“The community needs to get involved and demand more of the city leaders and elect people with vision and business backgrounds to tackle these difficult problems.”

City Administrator Paul Casey says that, despite its challenges, State Street has not lost its magic.

“State Street and Santa Barbara are still a highly desirable tourist attraction,” he said.

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.

Joshua Molina

Joshua Molina, Noozhawk Staff Writer

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at