Reimagine: Santa Barbara – PART 1
Presented By: Noozhawk

The city has a slew of initiatives focused on “downtown concerns,” and putting more authority figures and outreach workers on State Street is a major push right now. Current and former employees with the city and business owners have said that the issues of homelessness and aggressive panhandling have been around since the 1980s. A lot of the nuisance crimes and inappropriate behavior downtown is linked to alcohol consumption and people trying to get money, Santa Barbara police Lt. Dan McGrew said.

Common crimes and citations include drinking in public, being drunk in public, stealing liquor bottles from stores, aggressive panhandling, disturbing the peace and urinating in public. Inappropriate street behavior is a longtime grievance voiced by business owners, and the top weakness pointed out in a 2017 retail study commissioned by Downtown Santa Barbara. “The No. 1 observation from our retail consultants was you have a huge problem with street behavior,” said Maggie Campbell, Downtown Santa Barbara’s executive director. “You better get that under control because that will be an impediment to retail recruitment and retention.”

Street behavior is usually the euphemism for individuals loitering, drinking, yelling, panhandling and camped out on State Street’s benches and planters. Some are homeless and some are not, but in Santa Barbara’s main commercial corridor, what matters most is the impact of their behavior. “We expect that a downtown that’s welcoming and is a place where everybody can come together, that there’s a degree of civility and expected behavior that we want all people to uphold, regardless of where they live,” Campbell told Noozhawk.

Business owners have individually and collectively asked the city to remove State Street benches from in front of their storefronts, which are frequent hangouts for many homeless and transients, including those who ask passersby for money. “Our organization has been advocating and talking to the city about the impacts of the benches for years,” Campbell said “It’s not a new debate. “I think at the crux of it, and not even to focus on the benches, but at the crux of it, we are in terms of the regulatory environment and El Pueblo Viejo that we operate in, we seem to be much more interested in form over function. How it looks is much more important than whether it’s working for us.”

Santa Barbara police Lt. Dan McGrew and Police Chief Lori Luhnow talk about downtown staffing during an Oct. 3 City Council meeting. City Administrator Paul Casey is at right. “One of the things we’re trying to accomplish is having a good coordinated response to downtown,” McGrew says. “You can throw a lot of resources at any problem but if you don’t have proper coordination, it doesn’t work great.” (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

Campbell remembers the five-year fight to get the bench-like sculpture removed from the sidewalk near The Habit at 628 State St., where it was the frequent lounging area for young transients — often with dogs — who would ask for money and pull drinking cups out of the trash to use the restaurant’s soda machine.

The city surrounded the Crescent Crossing sculpture with orange traffic cones and caution tape to keep people from sitting on it, and then installed a short, chain-link fence around it before eventually moving it to the Santa Barbara train station. Reviewing the number or location of benches is not on the city’s list of initiatives in response to “downtown concerns.” The city doesn’t have a “grand bench scheme” but will assess hot spots and see if a particular bench needs to be moved, Mayor Helene Schneider explained.

“The focus has more been on creating a strong presence on State Street,” she said. “There are quite a few more boots on the ground than the beginning of the year and that should really help encourage people to shop and do appropriate things on State Street.”

Schneider noted that the Hotel Californian opened on Lower State Street with a “very robust presence of their security,” to set the tone that they would not tolerate any inappropriate behavior. The business community is reportedly working on a panhandling awareness campaign to encourage tourists not to give money, she added.

Removing some of the city’s public benches could help deal with the amount of inappropriate behavior reported on State Street, according to Maggie Campbell, executive director of Downtown Santa Barbara. “We expect that a downtown that’s welcoming and is a place where everybody can come together, that there’s a degree of civility and expected behavior that we want all people to uphold, regardless of where they live,” she says. “Residents understand and most, I would say, would choose not to give money to panhandlers, they know there are a lot of services available for people who need them,” she said.

“Because we get a lot of tourists, they don’t hear that. They’re here for a day or a weekend. Panhandlers panhandle because they get money; if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be panhandling.”

Initiatives the city launched in response to downtown issues include implementing a citywide lighting plan to replace streetlights with LED fixtures; installing new wayfinding signage all over town; adopting smoke-free outdoor public areas rules; installing more public art, including at the Highway 101 underpass at Lower State Street; streamlining the permit program for downtown commercial space; and changing the city’s alcohol policy.

“Since easy access to alcohol contributes to public intoxication and inappropriate behavior on our streets, the city is drafting a policy that restricts off-premise alcohol sales in gas stations and convenience stores where an individual can buy single-serve bottles,” the city outlined on its website.

Campbell is encouraged that the city is allocating more people to create a consistent presence on State Street. “I’m excited because it doesn’t matter where I go and who I talk to in Santa Barbara, this seems to be the thing that people care most about,” she said of the challenges facing State Street.

“There’s a direct connection between the health of this downtown and the reputation of Santa Barbara to the rest of the world and whether the city has the money to continue to fund the quality of life for its citizens over the next 10 years. This is the golden goose.”

About This Series:
Stories are exploring the challenges and opportunities in downtown today and will be working with you, our readers, to identify priorities and form a vision for State Street’s future.It’s not just about shopping or dining but finding out what locals want for the next generation of State Street and the downtown experience.

Should the city incentivize more housing projects in the downtown core, or get into the development business itself? Should business organizations work with property owners to curate more locally owned stores? How can stakeholders work together to come up with innovative solutions for large properties like Macy’s in Paseo Nuevo and Saks OFF 5TH, which is vacating its store on State and Carrillo streets when its lease is up in the spring?

Lee & Associates is a proud Sponsor of Noozhawk’s Reimagine: Santa Barbara project.