ANALYSIS: City Again Kicks State Street Solutions Down the Road

Kick the can down the road. 

That’s exactly what Santa Barbara city government has done once again with the issues that plague the county’s most visible commercial corridor: State Street, specifically the 10 blocks north of the beach. 

At the July 25 special meeting on the $85,000 consultant’s report, the upshot of the four-hour session was mainly two items: 1.) hire a State Street “czar;” and 2.) wait until next year for staff to come up with yet another bunch of recommendations on what to do about the same problems that have been kicking around for a decade or so. 

In other words, hurry up and wait and throw more money at the problems. This brings to mind what has to be swept up after the Old Spanish Days parade: confetti and horse manure. 

Wait and other year? Hire yet another staff person? Really? Haven’t the issues been talked to death? Where is the leadership to be decisive and not just let a consultant and city staff lead elected officials by the nose? 

And, why do elected officials pay token attention to the attitude of the community development director who won’t deny his department is “unfriendly to business.” He claims he’s doing a “work-flow revamp” so that emails and phone calls from building permit applicants can be answered more quickly. 

Wait a minute. Something might be wrong here.  

The city is driving away new State Street businesses by letting a department try to protect its “integrity, efficiency and excellence,” by being unfriendly to commerce at a time when about three dozen storefronts are vacant and more than 400,000 square feet of commercial space might remain empty indefinitely. 

Meanwhile, city officials continue to toy with ideas to sometimes close sections of State Street to bring more people downtown. But bring them to what? More empty commercial space that remains that way because city staff is too picky about permits? 

The city already has tried once to speed up the permit process, basically by throwing more money at it, and many agree that was a dismal failure. 

Getting back to hiring more and more staff, the notion of just making Nina Johnson, now assistant to the city administrator, into the economic development director, or State Street “czar” if you will, may not be a bad idea in many people’s eyes.  

Afterall, it was Johnson who summarized the consultant’s report to the city council, which included recommending the hiring of an economic development chief and coming back in six months with yet more recommendations. Why not? 

The chronic, unsolved homeless problem is the most visible issue that business leaders point at on State Street. Mitigation efforts have achieved some degree of success, but several homeless men and women in wheelchairs can be seen most days in front of places such as Marshall’s with an open alcohol container near where they went to sleep the previous night. 

Consensus is more police are needed on State Street. This is yet another money issue that needs more tax revenue that the city is losing by scaring away business.

The marathon meeting last week did yield some interesting discussion about more workforce housing going in behind businesses that take over now-empty storefronts. However, this is not a new idea.

It did appear, however, that many or any of the some 80 State Street property owners attended the meeting. Most live elsewhere.

Not to ignore some bright spots this year on State Street, the Amazon tech center at Carrillo Boulevard is coming along nicely. And, a new creole restaurant, Embermill, may open soon where Aldo’s once was on State near Figueroa Street. 

And so it goes, as retail sets in the Santa Barbara sunset for at least another year and the confetti and manure continue to pile up, we hurry up and wait for the next round of talks. 

Oh, and by way, four city council seats are up for grabs in the November election, but none of the incumbents or appointed incumbents face any serious challenge at the moment.

And all of this in the calm before the storm of another looming recession, which a growing number of analysts say is coming soon or is already here.

Posted July 31, 2019.

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