Business

Santa Barbara tries to help more stores open in ailing downtown

A vacant commercial storefront on the 400 block of State Street in Santa Barbara. The City Council approved a pilot program Tuesday to expedite plan review for downtown businesses.
A vacant commercial storefront on the 400 block of State Street in Santa Barbara. The City Council approved a pilot program Tuesday to expedite plan review for downtown businesses.

To deal with an increasing number of storefront vacancies on State Street, the Santa Barbara City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to try making it easier for businesses to open there.

Among the changes: It will speed up the permitting and review process for prospective commercial tenants, and it will dedicate a city phone line for individuals with questions about State Street-area commercial tenant space.

The city's planning staff will also designate two members to guide downtown business owners and commercial real estate brokers through the discretionary review processes.In addition, applications within the pilot program area will receive priority placement on design review board agendas.

Implementing the changes will cost the city about $82,000 in contract staffing for a 6-month pilot period that will cover businesses looking to open on State Street between Cabrillo Boulevard to the south and Sola Street to the north.

“Whatever we can do as a city to expedite, to facilitate, to allow the private sector to flourish and do better, is better for all of us,” Councilman Randy Rowse said.

The move comes as Santa Barbara is facing a retail crisis on State Street. With more than 30 storefront vacancies, business owners, investors and developers are demanding that City Hall do more to infuse economic life into the downtown core.

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The council agreed to a 6-month pilot program for the expedited planning process for downtown commercial applicants. After a status check, the city could extend the pilot program longer.

Community Development Director George Buell said turning the pilot project into a year-long program will likely take additional financial investment from the council.

Ray Mahboob, an investor who owns multiple large properties in downtown Santa Barbara, said the pilot program should last at least a year.

“Six months, I don’t think is enough time,” said Mahboob, who has been one of the driving forces behind approaching City Hall to create a retail plan.

“It’s going to take at least two or three months to secure a lease on a site, and it will take time for an architect to implement plans. I really think realistically we should shoot for one year and see how it goes for a one-year period.”

City planning staff had proposed that the pilot project area only extend between Sola and Gutierrez streets, but Mahboob persuaded the City Council to extend it down to Cabrillo Boulevard to help the commercial tenants inside the La Entrada project.

Attorney Doug Fell, who represents the La Entrada project, said there are six retail spaces in the development that remain to be filled.

“It would feel better to know we are part of that process down to Cabrillo Boulevard,” Fell said.

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