SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - More stores are closing for good on State Street in downtown Santa Barbara as the coronavirus pandemic pummels the economy. And the city could soon be making big changes in order to help some businesses survive a slow economic recovery.
“It’s saddening to envision the possibility of a greater amount of business closures and vacancies," new City Economic Development Manager Jason Harris said Wednesday.
Harris, who has experience in rejuvenating downtowns in Phoenix and Santa Monica, has a new challenge in Santa Barbara. That challenge, Harris says, will require creative thinking and eased regulations.
“This pandemic is really forcing the issue, and really expediting the need to expand our thinking,” Harris said.
When businesses can reopen, Harris says, one option is to more creatively use space along the downtown corridor to encourage people to return while being able to physically distance and feel safe.
“Small gatherings, or gatherings where we can socially distance, I think is going to be the new norm, for at least the time being,” he said. “And the city is exploring all the possibilities of how we can use city-controlled right-of-ways, streets, sidewalks to allow for that.”
Downtown Santa Barbara Board Director Bob Stout said discussions about those potential new steps are ongoing.
Without saying exactly what changes the public could see, Stout said that some downtown streets could be closed off to cars, and sidewalk space could be opened up to retailers and restaurant seating.
“As much as folks see closing State Street [to cars], using some of the streets [for pedestrians], as—in the past—controversial, I’d like to think that during this emergency time, it might be a great chance to sort of experiment with some of the ideas we’ve had in the past,” Stout said Wednesday.
Stout said that while “excited” may not be the right word to use during the ongoing crisis, he feels encouraged by the discussions city leaders are having with his organization. Stout also thinks that, given the urgency of current talks, changes will happen “sooner than later.”
“We can focus on bringing the locals back downtown,” Stout said. “And maybe that’s just simply the idea that they can walk more safely down the street and the sidewalks and feel like they’ve got space between them and the next people… They can eat in a restaurant, have more space, maybe be outside and enjoy the good spring and summer weather. I think there’s a lot of possibility there.”
In talking about the future of State Street, Harris said that not only will returning businesses potentially look different, but new types of businesses for downtown could emerge to fill vacancies.
He says those businesses could potentially include day care sites, remote classroom settings and telework locations for people to work remotely in a workplace other than their own homes.