SANTA BARBARA, Calif. >> IF YOU haven’t seen State Street in Santa Barbara lately, brace yourself. It’s gone car-less. The empty lanes are filled with young and old people eating, drinking or wandering on foot, on cycles, on scooters. Expect a big, happy crowd on a Saturday night.
And maybe mask up.
“It’s so wonderful, isn’t it?” said Ruth Marshall, who was walking her dog and wearing a face mask with a wide smile printed on it. “It’s like one big party.”
For decades, Santa Barbara’s main commercial artery has been pretty but problematic — a handsome street, full of tall trees, Spanish Revival architecture, stylish restaurants and boutiques, its sidewalk sometimes blocked by people in need of homes or mental health services or both.
For years, many Santa Barbarans have suggested that banning cars might help. It would create more room for foot traffic and outdoor dining, they said, and add a European feel.
“I have been asking since 2000, 2001,” said bar owner Dan Baham. “But they rejected the idea, saying it would be Mardi Gras.”
The city did try a three-block, two-day test in 2019, but officials weren’t ready to make a bigger move.
Then in late May, after two months of pandemic and restrictions threatening to drive many restaurants, bars and shops out of business, the Santa Barbara City Council voted unanimously to make about a mile of State Street into a pedestrian promenade.
The experiment allows restaurants and bars to add seats and tables on the sidewalk and in streets and parking lots, reclaiming some of the capacity lost when social distancing requirements were imposed. The new move also takes advantage of rules loosened by the state’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
The change began May 22. City workers added barricades and planters, liberating eight blocks from automobile rule, except for intersections. The number of restaurants with sidewalk seating has jumped from 15 to about 30. On June 12, bars without food service reopened, as did many major downtown hotels, whose guests can walk to the new promenade.
“They’ve been trying to liven up State Street, and this does it,” Marshall said.
The second weekend in June was the experiment’s busiest so far, surpassing Memorial Day weekend.
City officials say this is a work in progress and acknowledge that they may need additional steps to safely accommodate both cyclists and pedestrians.
But the result is a street scene that may remind some of the car-less portions of Calle Sierpes in Seville, Spain, or Las Ramblas in Barcelona.
In a full day of interviewing Santa Barbara locals and visitors on the blocks between Haley and Sola streets, I couldn’t find anyone who didn’t love it. Everyone wanted to make it permanent — a dramatic change for a thoroughfare that got its name in 1850.
For a city that has always prized its indoor-outdoor living, “this is a logical next step,” said Nina Johnson, senior assistant to city administrator Paul Casey. “But it took the urgency of the public health measure to make it happen.”
But will success spoil State Street?
People aren’t wearing masks. In a few minutes at State and Haley at 6 p.m. on a recent Sunday, I counted 69 adult pedestrians and cyclists without masks, 25 with them.
There was nothing illegal about that; Santa Barbara County’s health order requires that you wear a face covering when entering a restaurant or other business, but not while on the street. Rules are stricter in Los Angeles County, which requires face coverings whenever people are interacting with others who are not members of their household.
Health officials say they are still discouraging leisure travel, but state and local leaders throughout California have permitted the reopening of hundreds of hotels. This leaves Californians to sort out for themselves what they can do and what they should do.
The many bare-faced people on State Street “is a problem. It’s hard to figure that out,” said Johnson. “We are trying to monitor and make observations. We can send more messages to hotel guests or residents to encourage them to wear masks.” However, she noted, “we don’t have a technical method to measure mask-wearing.”
On the 500 block of State Street, where the greatest number of bars and restaurants is concentrated, music leaked from the Red Piano and O’Malley’s bar.
Farther up the street, near the Lobero Theatre (on “intermission” since March), folk musicians had settled in to play some Irish music. All wore masks.
“We’re kind of old, some of us,” explained fiddler Eliot Jacobson, 62, drawing a laugh from Richard Ellsworth, also a fiddler, age 25.
As for the car-lessness, “we’ve been wishing for this for decades,” said Diane Soini, 55, holding a modified mandolin.
The city is still far from its old self. Many of State Street’s prime attractions, including several theaters and museums, are still closed. So are playgrounds, nightclubs and spas. So is the Mission Santa Barbara. The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is open only to members with reservations.
“It’s amazing how much you can cut through the red tape right now,” said Daryl Takehara, general manager of the popular sushi restaurant Arigato.
Nearby strolled Leila Avant (no mask) with her young son and husband (masked). They were from San Bernardino and had come to stroll and browse for a restaurant.
“I’ve been off and on” with the mask, Avant said. “I’m kind of living dangerously right now. He’s better than me.”
Her husband, who is in the military and declined to give his name, said he’s afraid the pandemic will worsen in fall. But in the meantime, he said, “this is a spectacular place.”
The promenade will stay car-less until at least Sept. 8, Johnson said. Then it’s up to the City Council.
As Johnson and others acknowledge, the promenade doesn’t fill retail vacancies, nor does it solve housing or mental health issues. But it does keep more money and people in motion.
And the city continues to get busier. The Santa Barbara Zoo opened Tuesday (reservations required).
At O’Malley’s, Dan Baham was about to open for the day.
“Look,” he said, pointing out the young and old passersby. “There are strollers on the street. … I know you’ve already got this in Santa Monica. But you’re going to start seeing these pop up in a lot of cities.”