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Santa Maria City Council approves plan to remodel old Fallas department store into apartment building

Old Fallas buillding
The site of the former Fallas/Mervyn's departments stores sits unoccupied in the Santa Maria Town Center West shopping center on March 7, 2023. (Dave Alley/KEYT)

SANTA MARIA, Calif. -- The Santa Maria City Council voted on Tuesday night to approve a proposal to remodel the former Fallas/Mervyn's department store into a potentially transformational apartment building.

According to city staff, if the project could be the catalyst to help begin the long-planned revitalization of the downtown area.

Known as Heritage Walk Lofts, the project is being proposed by Santa Barbara-based developer The Vernon Group.

Plans for the building include 104 loft-style apartments in the nearly 86,000 square foot building that is located in Town Center West shopping center along Broadway, between Main and Cook streets.

The project was first proposed by The Vernon Group last year and has gone through months of review by city staff.

On February 15, 2023, the Santa Maria Planning Commission gave unanimous approval of the project, while giving positive comments on the potential redevelopment.

"We're really excited about it," said The Vernon Group President Brett Vernon. "We've had really good support and good feedback from both the Planning Commission and City Council and we can wait to see how things go tonight."

Current design plans show the building will feature 98 studio housing units, as well as six one-bedroom housing units, with an average size of approximately 680 square feet.

"We really believe that housing is something that we need there and adaptive reuse is something that's happening with a lot of these big box stores because retail has been having some hard hits," said Vernon. "The whole idea is to bring in apartments, bring people into the area, use those people to activate the commercial, make it very walkable and very friendly."

Since the building was originally designed to be used as a department store, the redevelopment is known as "adaptive reuse."

The original box-shaped building is set to be significantly modified that will include a grand entrance paseo that will lead to an open, landscaped central courtyard.

In addition, walls would be replaced by windows, to allow for natural light to enter the new apartments. Other plans include private patios and second-floor decks that will allow for views of downtown or the central courtyard.

A community rooftop gathering place with tree planters, seating and fire pits is also in the proposal, as are two ground-floor community rooms, bike storage and elevators.

The proposal fits inline with Santa Maria's long desire to revitalize the downtown core. City leaders have worked decades to reimagine the downtown area, located around the busy intersection of Broadway and Main Street.

"We've been talking about downtown for a long time," said Santa Maria Community Development Direct Chuen Ng. "We have high hopes for downtown, and so, the different pieces are coming together. This is one part of the overall downtown revitalization, As you might have seen, the northwest corner, that's under construction. We hope this will be under construction soon, but it's one of several pieces that's part of the revitalization."

Ng, as well as Vernon, both emphasized the goal is to bring more people into the downtown area, especially those that would live within the important economic center.

"We do expect for there for more people to live in downtown," said Ng. "I think that adds to pedestrian activity, the economic activity and more customers for the local restaurants and for the shops that are here."

With tonight's approval, The Vernon Group is now hoping to start construction sometime later this year, with an eye towards a grand opening within two years.

"We're really looking forward to downtown Santa Maria being a destination again, something that you can put on a postcard," said Ng. "A place that the local residents can be proud of, but also attracts people from out of the area as well."

Article Topic Follows: Local Politics

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Dave Alley

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