Santa Barbara Restaurant Owners Weigh In On Their Next Desired Dish For Outdoor Dining Local News
The worst of the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be over. So what’s going to happen now on Santa Barbara’s most important boulevard?
On Tuesday, Santa Barbara City Council is expected to seek to clean up the mess along State Street and side streets, without enraging businesses.
The council is expected to vote on whether to stop all sidewalk meals that were not approved before the pandemic and to ban any new fixed outdoor dining venues along State Street. New parklets would not be allowed either.
Council is to discuss the issue as part of a comprehensive program that also includes a mixed-use development call for 825 De la Vina Street, approval of the city’s $ 370 million budget and an appeal. refusal of a development agreement for Paseo Nuevo.
For restaurateurs who celebrated Santa Barbara’s rapid response to the pandemic a year ago by allowing al fresco dining, the mood has changed. Now is not the time, some say, to try to put genius back in the bottle.
“Patrons of the outdoor restaurants love it,” said Laura Knight, owner of Pascucci in the 500 block of State Street. “The city would be making a huge mistake in removing this. “
A year ago, the city of Santa Barbara closed State Street to vehicles on seven blocks and allowed restaurants to set up alfresco dining in an effort to help them survive the shutdown. economy by Governor Gavin Newsom amid the confusion and escalation of COVID-19 cases across California.
Before the pandemic, closing off part of State Street to vehicles seemed like a fantasy of alternative transportation activists and some transportation planners at City Hall. For decades, State Street has been a place of cruising, both by car and on foot, a place to be seen and to be seen by others. This is where people could show off a freshly washed car, shiny hubcaps and the latest threads, along one of California’s most recognized stripes. In the midst of the great retail boom of the 1990s and after the construction of the Paseo Nuevo shopping center, it was a hangout for teens and twenties, and locals of all ages came to walk and watch. .
It seemed to be working, but with the 2008 recession Amazon rose to prominence and the next generation went from interacting with people in real life to doing it virtually, and in-person shopping became a time-consuming chore and outdated.
Soon after, Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone began to commercially catch fire, and big box retail stores that once proudly gave up their flags were replaced with “experiential” destinations, such as tastings. of beer and wine, and fine dining experiences through shared tables.
So as State Street began its slide, everyone from the sixth generation of Santa Barbaran to the newly arrived UCSB graduate student had an opinion on what to do with State Street. The pandemic, for some, came just in time because it provided cover for those who pushed and promoted an alternative transportation program, a desire to close State Street to vehicles, and a legitimate reason to act quickly.
Unable to serve customers inside restaurants due to government warrants, the pressure to close State Street to vehicles suddenly mingled with an effort to save the restaurants.
The sidewalk space along the 500 block of State Street in Santa Barbara can become tight for passers-by and diners. (Photo by Joshua Molina / Noozhawk)
Just like that, on a Tuesday in May 2020, city council closed seven traffic blocks, opening the flood gates to a State Street that largely looks like a towel-bottom rendering of someone’s vision. of what State Street might look like. like a day. Restaurants have invested tens of thousands of dollars, roughly six figures, to create lavish outdoor dining spaces on State Street.
The move, intentionally or unintentionally, brought a significant advantage to State Street restaurants, allowing for the creation of street parklets for more al fresco dining. However, not all blocks and streets were closed to traffic, so diners ate alongside MTD buses and other passing vehicles.
So the decision to help businesses was swift, but by no means easy, and now, with COVID-19 numbers dropping rapidly and months of people posting their immunization photos on social media, things are. more or less returned to normal.
Except that State Street is in a state of urban dysmorphia.
“I hear there will be more design and material guidelines,” Knight said. “Honestly, the city has a terrible reputation for being too tough on new businesses. This was determined by hired consultants, and their onerous design requirements prevented new tenants from signing leases, so with the large number of vacant units, I hope they don’t go too far on this. no more.”
The city charges $ 275 per year for each outdoor chair on the sidewalk of State Street. One of the ideas on the table is to demand that companies that set up tables and chairs during the pandemic, but had not paid the city before, to cut their alfresco dining. Sidewalks on weekends are now often crowded with pedestrians, and it can be difficult to squeeze around tables, outdoor dining areas, and other people.
Knight, whose restaurant is on the 500 block of State Street, doesn’t want the city to change things now that restaurants are booming.
“We are seeing downtown residents who haven’t been to downtown for years,” Knight said. “It’s a great social energy on State Street. And when you think about it, most countries, Mexico and Europe, all have a central neighborhood, an area of the city where locals can get together and see friends. , for many years. The United States has There were just malls, which aren’t the gathering places they used to be. So now State Street has a real, energetic social vibe, which has been very well received. by people of all ages. “
Knight praised the city for doing “an incredible job in approving outdoor seating very quickly” that saved the city center, adding that she hopes that won’t undo it soon.
The city is not yet looking to stop the program, but smaller but still significant changes are coming.
For Aron Ashland, owner of The Cruisery in the 500 block of State Street, alfresco dining must stay, and now is not the time for the city to make drastic changes.
“It would be the biggest mistake they could make,” Ashland said.
In addition to concerns about outdoor dining, parklets and sidewalk tables, restaurants have also been in competition with market forces and have had difficulty hiring new employees. Nothing was predictable for the industry. Ashland said he could see the city enforcing sidewalk eating rules, especially since the sidewalk is 25 feet wide on the mountain side and 15 feet wide on the west side.
Ashland said he did a lot of the work himself to create his successful outdoor food court, but it could have cost around $ 85,000 if he had it outsourced. He had recently taken over the plaza at the corner of Haley and State streets from the Santa Barbara Brewing Co. His business was growing about 60% before the pandemic hit. The alfresco dining room, he said, saved the street.
“I didn’t realize how much I missed seeing people’s smiles,” Ashland said.
One of the issues Ashland lobbied for before the pandemic was a bigger app on State Street regarding theft and roaming. He still hopes to see increased application. The city, he said, must protect the dynamism of the city center. He sees and hears stories of people with guns.
“It’s our problem whether we like it or not,” Ashland said.
Warren Butler, chief executive of The Chase, said he welcomes the recent reopening and the ability to seat people inside at full capacity.
Butler and some other restaurant owners and managers have noted that the demand for food delivery services has slowed as hiring increases and the ability to sit has returned.
“We will retain delivery services as much as possible to serve our guests who are not ready to go out,” said Butler.
He said whatever the city has in store for businesses and al fresco dining, it shouldn’t mean tweaking things too much.
“People love to eat on the sidewalk and be outside,” Butler said. “It’s the best time in the country.”
Butler said a hands-off approach at this point would do wonders for the city.
“I think they absolutely need to keep cars off State Street and make it friendly for pedestrians, bikes and roller skates,” Butler said. “Make it the State Street boulevard that powers the whole city. Bring a smaller shuttle back from the beach to Victoria Street. It would be great to find the parades too. This will become the boulevard of dreams.”