Santa Maria makes headway on the decades-long Downtown Specific Plan, but residents are concerned about impacts on current neighborhoods and businesses

Rendering courtesy of The Vernon Group
REDEVELOPING AND REPURPOSING: This rendering shows what the new loft-style apartments would look like after The Vernon Group repurposes the old Fallas Building on West Broadway and Main Street.

After waiting for years for Santa Maria to develop its downtown, Ed Carcarey said he’s excited to finally see some investment and promise for more housing, restaurants, and businesses in the city. 

“I’ve been involved with the downtown [area] since I’ve owned a business in the city for 25 years now, located on the northern part of Santa Maria, so the downtown to me is important,” Carcarey said. 

Carcarey runs Santa Maria’s Downtown Fridays: a family-friendly event that happens every Friday until the last week in September, drawing in more than 2,500 people. 

Now, Carcarey will have to look for a new location for Downtown Fridays. This year, the Santa Maria City Council approved converting the old Fallas building into 104 loft-style apartments as part of the city’s Downtown Specific Plan—which aims to help make downtown a more pedestrian-friendly environment that brings vibrancy to the area with commercial and residential uses, open spaces, and plazas. 

While some residents are concerned about what this might do to Downtown Fridays, and the community in general, Carcarey, along with city officials and the developer, said that it would only benefit the city. 

“I truly believe it’s only going to help Downtown Fridays because it brings more people to the downtown,” Carcarey said. “It’s going to bring more challenges. Eventually we are going to have to find a new location. We’ve been doing it in the same spot for eight years.”

But the challenges, he said, will be worth it if it means the decades-long Downtown Specific Plan finally comes to fruition, giving Santa Maria a pedestrian friendly, more vibrant downtown area. 

“We can debate how it looks, how many floors there are, and parking, but bottom line: we have to do something because we don’t have a downtown and the presentation is terrible,” Carcarey said. “We’ll figure it out as we go, but sitting back and continuing to debate it for a couple of more decades—that doesn’t work.” 

In 2020, the city issued a request for proposal focused on underused, city-owned lots for potential redevelopment downtown. Community Development Director Chuen Wu—who recently legally changed his last name from Ng—said Santa Maria accepted proposals from Santa Barbara-based construction company The Vernon Group, which kickstarted new downtown development plans. 

“We’re in the middle of the process where we have drawings, we have one development agreement for one of the parcels,” Wu said. “Ultimately, the city would dispose of these properties and the developer would develop a project that meets the city’s goal.” 

The Vernon Group got Santa Maria City Council’s approval to build the 104-unit apartment complex in the old Fallas Building during its March 7 meeting. Another proposal to convert the old Bradley Hotel into a mixed-use building with 80 apartments and a ground floor retail space is scheduled to go before the Planning Commission later this year, Wu said. About 25 percent of the units for the two projects will be for affordable housing with the rest at market rate. 

Another mixed use development project, proposed by Mark Fugate, aims to develop 104 apartments on Cook Street with ground floor commercial. In April, it went before the Planning Commission for a study session. 

“Downtown redevelopment takes a lot of focus, energy, and effort. We’re trying to facilitate change that otherwise probably wouldn’t occur if nobody took initiative,” Wu said. “Even if we do nothing, something happens. If we do nothing, it will continue to decline. This is a proactive effort to reverse those trends and to not just reverse economic trends, but literally transform the area.” 

Downtown’s evolution came in three phases, Wu said. The first was the original downtown that established a city center and a grid layout more than 100 years ago. That remained until the Santa Maria Mall opened in 1975, introducing “Santa Maria 2.0,” Wu said. 

“Now, it’s been 30 to 40 years past that time frame and we’re really looking at the third evolution of downtown, and it includes the mall, Main Street and Broadway, and in some ways it’s an attempt to bring everything together,” he said. 

In 2004 and again in 2015, the city conducted public outreach for the Downtown Specific Plan to define a vision and create a road map to achieve those goals. 

“It doesn’t dictate what it should look like, but there are some overarching goals for people to talk and gather in an environment that is going to feel comfortable, that would attract additional destinations like restaurants and bars and places that people can go on a weekend. That’s really the larger vision,” Wu said. “I understand there’s a lot of housing proposed and people may feel it’s too dense or too congested, but you have to look at congestion as an indicator of success.”

Orcutt resident Cliff Solomon said that he isn’t sure who will be filling these new spaces.

“I think Santa Maria has a real problem having work for professionals. Certainly we support agriculture and do a good job with that, but I’m not sure where all of these people are going to be working,” Solomon said. 

While Solomon may live in Orcutt, he shops, works with nonprofits, and attends a local Methodist church in Santa Maria. He said he has a stake in what happens to the city. While he’s voiced concerns during public comment at City Council meetings about parking at the Methodist church during construction and when the units are occupied, Solomon said the city also needs to address the bigger picture of the jobs-housing balance.

“There wasn’t a lot of work for me as an educated professional so that’s one of the dilemmas Santa Maria has,” he said. “There’s this division of North County and South County, it is there. Can we get work for professionals not associated with agriculture?” 

In his own experience looking to move to and find employment in Santa Maria after working at the University of Washington, Solomon had difficulty finding a job as an educator who taught clinicians how to use a computer program. 

When he and his wife moved, he interviewed at Cottage Hospital but didn’t get an offer, and looked at Allan Hancock College but couldn’t find a job due to low turnover rates at the school, he said. Eventually, he found a job at Vandenberg Space Force Base and a hospital in Lompoc. 

“Is this work, is this revitalization going to draw those people, those young professionals? Is that who they are targeting? Who is going to be living in those lofts? Who is going to pay market rate for the lofts? Where are those people going to be employed?” he asked. 

David Alpern, a partner at The Vernon Group, said that the Fallas loft style apartments cater to a variety of people who are looking for a turnkey lifestyle that allows them to leave on a weekend and gives them an abundance of amenities. 

“I tend to think it’s people that want a specific lifestyle and there can be a bunch of different demographics that want a similar lifestyle,” Alpern said. “Everything from recent grads to empty nesters … active military, teachers, first responders. We want to provide housing that will cater to a wide mix of people.” 

Along with the the Fallas building and the Bradley Hotel, The Vernon Group acquired two additional city-owned parcels and three other privately owned properties within Santa Maria’s Downtown Specific Plan area. 

“Change can be extremely scary—the fear of the unknown that can grip locals when development is coming and I strongly encourage them to reach out, to go on the internet and read the specific plan. It’s been a document that’s been there for a long time,” Alpern said. “It’s the unknown that can be scary, the good news is the framework is there.”

Reach Staff Writer Taylor O’Connor at [email protected].

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