Santa Maria, Vernon Group negotiate development agreement for downtown

Santa Maria city staff is working on an agreement with the Vernon Group to move forward with developing four city-owned parcels, a big step toward realizing the city’s Downtown Revitalization Plan

click to enlarge Santa Maria, Vernon Group negotiate development agreement for downtown
Rendering courtesy of the Vernon Group
DEVELOPMENT AGREEMENT: The Vernon Group and city staff will return to the Santa Maria City Council in the next few months with a development agreement for the four city-owned parcels in the Main and Broadway corridor.

“This is the hardest part. This is moving beyond the planning efforts into implementation and getting stuff built,” Assistant City Manager Chuen Wu told the Sun. “This part of the effort requires a lot of attention to detail and working out the kinks, but we’re motivated, we’re excited and I think we’re eager for this next phase of downtown.” 

Wu and representatives from the Vernon Group—a Santa Barbara-based real estate development company—presented an update to the Santa Maria City Council on May 7 for the parcels along the Main and Broadway corridor, which includes the old Fallas/Mervyn’s building (Lot 1), the northeast and southeast corners of Main and Broadway (Lots 2 and 3), and the parking lot east of the Ruffoni building adjacent to Lincoln (Lot 4), according to the staff report. During the meeting, the City Council brought up concerns about parking, impacts to local businesses, and safety and security, but Wu said that the city is working with the Vernon Group to mitigate any impacts. 

“This is a public-private partnership. The Vernon Group’s proposals are for land owned by the city. For the city to transfer the land to the Vernon Group, the city wants to ensure that the city gets a project that benefits the overall community,” Wu said. 

A development agreement for all four parcels is needed in order to move forward with mixed residential and commercial developments on the 4 acres in Santa Maria’s downtown so the developer is including features the city wants to see and meets state-required affordable housing numbers, Wu said. 

“There was some preference for separate development agreements for each parcel because we want to make sure that our development partner meets certain timelines and schedules and other expectations one by one for each parcel,” Wu said. 

The two parties decided against that so Santa Maria could meet the state Surplus Lands Act, which requires at least 25 percent of the units developed on that land be income-restricted, affordable housing, Wu said. The Vernon Group wanted to develop all of its affordable housing on Lot 2 in order to provide additional services and amenities needed—like after-school programs, and career training—all in one site, said Scott Martin, a principal architect with RRM Design Group who works with the developer. 

“We’re excited about some of these projects going through. They’re really about being rooted in place … yet being accommodating for a need that’s out there,” Martin said. 

While residents and several council members shared concerns about increased traffic and parking challenges with more housing downtown, Martin said that the real challenge is there’s a bunch of empty parking downtown with no housing.

“The goal was to bring people to the parking, to the services, there’s a great synergy of mixed-use parking,” Martin said. “The people who park during the day aren’t the same who park at night. If you live where you work and eat and dine, you use the car less and less. We don’t have a lot of examples of that here yet.” 

With new buildings meeting certain architectural standards, Councilmember Gloria Soto asked if there would be incentives or assistance programs for existing local businesses to get a “facelift.” 

“Part of the concerns I’ve heard from residents have been the potential of some of the current businesses getting pushed out because of the type of new development going in,” Soto said. “I’d be interested also to have more of a dialogue with city staff and the dais to protect current businesses on West Main Street, and they are also able to thrive as these new developments are taking place downtown.” 

Wu told the Sun that the city will be exploring a facade improvement program where funding could be available for existing businesses to get fresh paint, new signage, or new landscaping, and to establish a downtown business improvement district that would create another future funding mechanism. 

“We absolutely want to provide our best efforts in enhancing what’s existing; we know there are many existing businesses along Main and Broadway corridors, some have been there a long time,” Wu said. “We want to address all of their concerns, whether it’s access, parking, loading. The intention is to enhance the area and help existing businesses be more successful.”  

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