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Two more larger downtown buildings vacant as Santa Barbara looks to revitalize the core district

Two large buildings are now on the list of vacant sites for lease on State Street in the heart of Santa Barbara’s distressed downtown.

The famous and colorfully scenic destination street for shopping, restaurants and offices, along with nearby side streets, now have more than 30 retail addresses open over a 14 block area.

Some are leased and in the process of transforming into new businesses. 5 are breweries, two are wine tasting locations, one is a home furnishing store and several new food locations are opening.

“It’s disappointment this is a fabulous city,” said downtown resident Suzanne Oliver.

She was standing outside of Aaron Brothers which goes dark this weekend. Close out sales are 80 percent off. Fixtures and racks are available too at the prime corner location in the 600 block.

Aaron Brothers is closing as part of a consolidation by the Michaels craft store chain, the owner.

“Downtown is the old town and is the life and should be continued as the life of Santa Barbara,” said Oliver.

Nearby, Staples has shut down, making 17,000 square feet available near Gutierrez Street. Next door, the Habitat Home and Garden store is opening. Crews are demolishing the interior and working on the remodel project. A similar store is in San Luis Obispo. A commercial realtor says the price per square foot at this location was much cheaper than other prices for retail space.

In the meantime, the Staples and Aaron Brothers stores make up about 22- thousand square feet of open space. What’s particularly visually hard is the 400 block, one of the main gateway strolls for shoppers, has several vacancies, adding to the lack of vibrancy the downtown business district has been looking for. Some see this as an opportunity to reinvent State Street downtown, either overall or block by block with new shopping, housing options, combined tech startups and landscaping. A meeting recently to add improvements to the State Street underpass with options such as art, creative lighting and music drew a large crowd with suggestions. “(It’s not just) for tourists and one more bar and beer garden opening but you need things for people that really live here,” said Oliver.
A downtown worker coming away with an armful of close-out deals at Aaron Brothers said new innovative technology businesses and incubator multi-use buildings for small operators can create a quick jump start for the local economy. That brings in fresh energy and in some cases, people and employees coming and going 24 hours a day.

“When we first moved into our building, even some of the restaurants they said ‘oh hey you are from Sonos’ they immediately knew us and it was a nice thing,” said Sonos worker Hassan Rogers. He lives outside of the city and commutes about 35 minutes to and from his office daily. Rogers points out the downtown does get a positive benefit by having such a solid employer with many workers in need of hitting the local businesses for food and shopping needs during their breaks. A mixed use food and retail site is in the conversion stage between Haley and Gutierrez and that concept has worked well in other areas looking to stir recurring visits from customers with varied tastes. Despite city efforts to fast track permits and inspections, there’s grumbling by owners about delays and lost revenue opportunities they stay still exist. One business owner caught a city leader at a local reception to give him a real time update about the hurdles he faces and the money the city is losing by the process. It’s unclear if that will lead to changes.
Some business owners say the city’s review timeline and scrutiny is too tough. In watching some of the city meetings you could easily see it’s not just a tedious review on private business owners over everything from tree placement to railings and fountains. The city’s own No Smoking sign plan was shot down hard, in part because of the color, in an exchange that was viewed by observers as harshly lopsided. It showed however, the passion city staff and planners have for traditions and its specific guidelines for the area that have held its character without rebranding into a cookie cutter shopping district often seen in other cities.

“We have extensive guidelines as to what signs are supposed to look like, we have no control over the content,” said William La Voie in a June hearing of the Historic Landmarks Commission. “We are the El Pueblo Viejo, we are not Los Angeles. We are not Beverly Hills. We are Santa Barbara. We are recreating old Spain in America. That sign didn’t even begin to belong in El Pueblo Viejo.” While this topic isn’t going to jump start an economic turnaround, it is part of a list of issues to make the experience on State Street more welcoming. That includes more community service liaisons, and ambassadors to deal with nuisance problems. Hiring is currently underway for more members of the Volunteers in Policing (VIP) program. Recently newly sworn in city councilmember Oscar Gutierrez told NewsChannel 3 he was surprised the downtown area did not have more creative solutions to make it appealing. He cited Storke Placita, the walkway between State Street and De La Guerra Plaza. During Old Spanish Days he said it has a marketplace of small vendors. Gutierrez said he would like to see that more often during the year on a pop up basis featuring hand crafted and local products. As for the plaza itself, reviewed for design changes from time to time, Gutierrez stood on dead grass, without benches or shade and said the area could be a signature site in downtown if it were improved. From August 1- 4 it will be a mercado with music, food and vendors for Fiesta 2018, but aside from Old Spanish Days the location is mainly a gathering place for demonstrations and transients. With the opening of the Hotel Californian project on lower State Street there has been a new vibrancy in the waterfront and Funk Zone district. Last week, there was a line out the door at the second McConnell’s Ice Cream with hundreds of scoops served up for free. It also helped that there was a heat wave coming through with the long summer nights. Nearby Finney’s Crafthouse and Kitchen at 35 State Street has opened with a solid flow of customers nightly. A block away Due Lune is opening on State and Cabrillo, as an offshoot from Tre Lune on Coast Village Road. And nearby two more restaurants are opening where El Torito closed. What’s left to be seen is, when the new businesses open, will there be enough of an interest in downtown to drawn local residents back in.

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