State Street feels empty and different with retail apocalypse

The Channels Opinion Pages | STAFF COLUMN

Gerardo Zavala, Associate Editor

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Walking down State Street and enjoying its many shops and beautiful aesthetics has always been a great past time for Santa Barbarians.

However, walking down State Street has taken a very different meaning in recent years.

Today, walking down State Street feels almost empty. Every block is plagued with vacant stores that have diverted locals and tourists alike from one of Santa Barbara’s greatest sources of revenue.

High rent prices and competition from online shopping have put many locations on State Street out of business and made prime real estate hard to keep hold of.

Even the mighty Macy’s store that replaced JC Penny’s years ago has finally closed up shop on State Street after it announced it would close 68 stores nationwide because of disappointing holiday sales.

A recent survey done by Bob Tuler, a head manager with Radius who has been leasing commercial real estate in Santa Barbara for 40 years, found that there were 45 vacant locations on State Street, not including Paseo Nuevo.

State street has roughly 240 shops not including restaurants. The vacant locations could potentially increase State Street revenue by 20 percent if they were up and running. But more and more business owners reasonably refuse to pay the extreme rent prices.

According to an article from the Santa Barbara Independent, Santa Barbara has more empty storefronts now than it’s ever had since the 1991 recession, even though the economy is booming.

Downtown business owners alarmed by this met at City Hall to discuss the situation. They concluded that rents were too high, online shopping was killing them and that homeless people were chasing customers and investors away.

Gene Montesano, owner of Lucky Brand Jeans, proposed closing off State Street to traffic two weekends a month so business owners could set up shop on the sidewalks just like the weekly farmers market does on Tuesdays.

This could work, but weekends are busy and people will not appreciate having to take a three or four-block detour just to get to the other side of State Street.

This would also impact food delivery services such as SBmenus because many of the restaurants they pick up from are located in downtown State Street. Drivers get paid by the order, not the hour and time added from taking detours means they’d get paid less.

Business owners could instead coordinate with the farmer’s market and set up shop on the same day to avoid causing more blockage on State Street than necessary.

However, the real issue that should be dealt with are the high rent prices pushing small businesses away. This doesn’t help any running businesses either since people are less inclined to walk down State Street now that there are less attractions.

Little can be done to stop people from shopping online, but filling these locations back up and making State Street the vibrant place it used to be should be the sole focus.

Many people are quick to blame the homeless who roam State Street causing trouble and the panhandlers constantly asking passersby for money, but they are only a small part of the issue.

La Cumbre Plaza, for instance, does not have an issue with homeless people. In fact, their issue is that they don’t have any people at all. The lack of homeless people there hasn’t caused people to flock to its stores and it remains a ghost mall for most of the time it’s open.

The real issue is the high rent prices that greedy landlords refuse to lower. Nothing can be done about online competition and the homeless issue isn’t going away anytime soon.

Landlords can and should lessen the negative effects business owners are taking by lowering tenants’ rents and giving these businesses a fighting chance.