By Eva Inbar
There is much discussion currently about the state of State Street, the beloved heart of Santa Barbara. Businesses are struggling, and too many storefronts are vacant. Iconic stores, like Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue, are closing. What to do?
On November 15th, the City of Santa Barbara held a workshop on how to “revitalize” the State Street underpass at Highway 101. Most tourists stay in hotels near the beach, but the city’s business district is located on the other side of Highway 101. How do we make the freeway less of a barrier than it naturally is? It’s an interesting question that drew a large crowd of almost 100 people, but it does not deal with State Street itself.
The American Institute of Architects (AIA) held a workshop on Saturday, October 21st, to explore options to revitalize State Street. The workshop, or “charrette,” displayed an impressive amount of talent and creativity. Santa Barbara can be proud of its architects! One idea the architects proposed was adding housing to the State Street corridor. The ground level would still be stores, restaurants and other businesses, but the floors above could be apartments. Some people could live above their shops, as they did in the old days. There could also be live-work spaces for small entrepreneurs. The architects were also intrigued with Santa Barbara’s unique paseo system that allows walkers to get inside a block and would like to develop it more. Some of the groups even mentioned creating a car free zone on State Street.
State Street was a major topic in Santa Barbara’s recent city council elections. You can read an op-ed piece by one of the candidates here: “A modest Proposal to Revive State Street” by making it a place for people.
Let’s check out this idea: How about making a stretch of State Street a place for walking, biking and meeting people in a car free plaza? The larger paseo would connect with the existing smaller ones that are so popular. People of all ages and abilities could move about freely. Stores could spread out and restaurants would have more opportunity to set up tables outside. There would be musicians and artists’ booths, dance troupes and exercise classes for people to participate in. Car free zones are successful the world over in all the places we love to visit. They are also successful in this country, with Boulder’s Pearl Street, Denver’s Sixteenth Street Mall and Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade being prime examples. Even New York City is experimenting with Shared Streets. You can read an article from the New York Times here.
People love the experience and businesses are thriving. A study done in New York City documents the economic benefits of sustainable streets. The study includes Willoughby Plaza in Brooklyn, a newly created pedestrian paseo. People living on State Street would have the advantage of living on a street with no cars – no noise, no fumes, no traffic danger. They could just step out their front door and stroll with other people. They would be a built-in customer base for State Street businesses. Young people these days are more interested in experiences than in accumulating stuff. They like to live in an urban environment. State Street as a car free plaza could be an exciting urban experience for residents and tourists alike. New housing downtown combined with a car free plaza could be a winning combination. We believe a State Street Promenade is an idea whose time has come.
We are planning a forum in January to brainstorm what it could be like. Please visit our website for the date and location.