Situated between two of the Central Coast’s most storied cities and beloved downtowns – Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo – the City of Santa Maria has remained a bit behind the times. Its largely agricultural economic base and lack of tourism, combined with development of suburban-style malls in the 1970s and 1980s, resulted in a moribund downtown.
The city council wants to change that and is starting small. On Jan. 15 the Santa Maria City Council unanimously adopted a plan set to kick off the revitalization of downtown Santa Maria.
The Downtown Multimodal Streetscape Concept Plan, which has been in development for two years, is intended to boost activities, foster partnerships among businesses, and renovate the city’s downtown area. The plan is set to create a safer, more pedestrian-friendly area using an array of traffic-calming methods. The study area included five distinct districts across an area of about 20 blocks, but the adopted plan covers a four-block “focus area.”
“The overarching goals were to enhance and beautify the area, make downtown more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly, and catalyze economic development in Santa Maria’s core,” said Neda Zayer, principal city planner. “The plan will try to equalize transportation equity on those streets.”
The concept plan focuses mainly on key sections of Main Street and Broadway, which intersect in the heart of downtown. The proposal recommends narrowing and merging traffic lanes to create space for protected bicycle lanes, on-street parking, revamped crosswalks, and larger sidewalks. One of the plan’s main goals is to counteract the deadening effect that the Town Center Mall—a typical indoor mall that demolished two blocks in the heart of the city—had on its surroundings.
The Santa Maria Community Development Department and Department of Public Works conducted multiple outreach efforts to create a cohesive vision for the concept plan. The city’s incentive resulted in outreach to over 2,000 people before city planners finalized the plan.
“The residents that I have come in contact with are eager to see the changes proposed in the plan, as part of a more vibrant downtown,” said Director of Community Development Chuen Ng. “They are supportive of designs that enhance pedestrian safety, promote additional modes of transportation, and that may lead to revitalization of downtown properties.”
In December 2017 city planners created a survey to give residents an opportunity to voice their thoughts about the future of the downtown area.
Of the 781 survey respondents, over 92 percent answered that they would visit Downtown Santa Maria more often if the streets were safer, more pedestrian-friendly, and attractive. Survey responders also wanted downtown to have trendier buildings and storefronts, be safe from crime, and remain clean.
“When people in the community, both employers and general citizens, hear about this plan, we have found almost universal support for the objectives and goals of the plan,” said Glenn Morris, president and CEO of the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce.
The concept was revealed last April, and the city held several community meetings to invite public opinion. City planners and an outside consultant subsequently developed the streetscape plan.
On the first meeting of the year, the City Council approved the concept plan with a 4 – 0 vote. Caltrans awarded Santa Maria a $300,000 grant for the DMS work and the Santa Barbara Foundation gave a $20,000 grant for the Downtown Framework Plan. Following the approval of the Downtown Multimodal Streetscape Concept Plan, the city is currently conducting a traffic study and analysis to determine the impact and viability of the concept designs.
“We hope that the objectives of the Streetscape Plan will remain intact, toward achieving a more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly downtown,” said Ng.
However, business owners are concerned that all the pedestrian improvements in the world will not help a downtown environment that lost its charm long ago.
“In my personal opinion, we don’t have any historical buildings left in downtown,” said Brooke Bradley, board president of the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society and business owner. “There is a huge mall, but it will be decades before the mall would ever become a historical building – if ever.”
In 1904 the city of Santa Maria was founded on four estates, and the city maintains a rich history as one of the most productive agricultural industries in California. The industrial revolution and subsequent technological advances in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries led to increased popularity of car ownership, which correlated with new types of retail ventures such as the suburban shopping mall.
By the mid- to late-1970s, however, multiple shopping malls, including the Town Center mall, replaced much of the “historic fabric” and street grid. Newer property developments changed the historic importance of Main Street and Broadway. Wider streets and roadways designed to accommodate higher volumes of car traffic hindered other kinds of transportation, such as walking or bicycling. Meanwhile, retail centers on the city’s fringes pulled shoppers away from downtown.
In the effort to undo the damage of the 1970s, Zayer described the concept plan as a “long-ranging document,” noting that implementing the plan may take 10 to 15 years.
And yet, Santa Maria’s downtown revitalization is already 10 to 15 years behind that of many other cities in coastal California. The city’s delay in improving its downtown area may be a function of the city’s lower property value, lower median income, and isolation relative to nearby cities.
Neighboring towns have also successfully adopted revitalization plans without compromising their historic roots. “Little towns that haven’t lost their historical buildings have been able to keep the ‘old’ charm and revitalize to not only attract their residents, but tourists as well,” said Bradley. “Old is the new cool.”
Contacts & Resources
Neda Zayer, Principal Planner, City of Santa Maria, email@example.com.
Chuen Ng, Director of Community Development, City of Santa Maria, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Glenn Morris, President & CEO, Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce, email@example.com.
Image Credit: Downtown Multimodal Streetscape Concept Plan