Santa Maria's downtown revitalization will breathe new life into the city

Downtown redevelopment in Santa Maria is proceeding with very exciting revitalization projects that will be transformative. Three developers are working with the city on projects to bring in new housing, businesses, entertainment, and restaurants, sparking more life to the area.

I will summarize the vision, each project, and as always, invite the public to continue sharing opinions as we strive to build the exciting downtown with vitality we want.

The city continues taking a leadership role toward this new iteration of downtown. Call it Downtown 3.0—the original being the grid block pattern pre-1970, downtown 2.0 being the big-box Mervyn’s store (then Fallas) and the Santa Maria Town Center (the mall). Downtown 3.0 will build upon what is existing, and in some cases, utilize adaptive reuse concepts to convert older buildings to meet today’s community needs and market trends.

Much of Downtown 3.0 will be in between the new buildings. The common spaces, plazas, fountains where people gather, drink and eat, and congregate for entertainment.

Rejuvenating downtown was discussed for decades. The city listened to the community’s input, adopted environmental impact reports, and approved the Downtown Specific Plan. Now we are at actual implementation. Here is a summary:

The Vernon Group is in a development agreement with the city to reimagine and redefine several key city-owned downtown parcels. The vision includes more than 600 multifamily apartments, retail spaces, restaurants and other casual eateries, a hotel, and recreational spaces. 

The former Mervyn’s department store is to become 104 loft apartments. On Feb. 15, this was unanimously approved by the Planning Commission, and its recommendation next goes to the City Council. The surrounding parking lot along Broadway will see new buildings; the Boot Barn building will be replaced; and the plaza at the southwest corner of Main Street and Broadway is proposed to become a five-story, mixed-use building with ground-floor commercial, 88 apartments, and a reimagined memorial plaza with a mosaic mural and flag honoring fallen firefighter Alvin Newton and the firefighting community of Santa Maria.  

Developer Ben Nikfarjam is building a three-story, mixed-use building with 18 apartment units and ground-floor retail at the northwest corner of Main and Broadway. This building is expected to be completed first, before the end of 2023, as part of this next evolution of downtown and will provide the community a renewed sense of the exciting developments to come.

Developer Mark Fugate proposes the six-story, 104-unit Cook Street Apartments with a restaurant at the northeast corner of Cook Street and South McClelland Streets, near the mall and City Hall.

The new design for downtown is not just retail shopping but is planned with the human experience in mind: connecting with others in our plazas and open spaces, dining with family and friends, enjoying an outdoor festival or farmers’ market.

The Chamber of Commerce provided coordination early in the process with its joint effort on the city’s request for proposals on city-owned land. This effort stimulated renewed development interest for the best possible economic development and revitalization outcome.

Downtown is different than big-box or commercial strip shopping centers off the freeway. Commercial developments near the freeway are designed for vehicle access and convenience. Downtown developments are intentionally pedestrian-oriented. Parking may not be directly adjacent, but that trade-off allows for the creation of pedestrian plazas, paseos, and gathering spaces.

The retail landscape has changed. Online shopping reduced the need for large retail footprints. However, community residents still look for active recreational, entertainment, and dining. A revitalized, pedestrian-friendly downtown will bring in more sit-down restaurant venues.

Housing is important for downtown revitalization. New residents contribute to downtown vibrancy, patronizing new businesses along with visitors. New housing will add architecture that will color our city center with a greater sense of place and characteristics unique to Santa Maria.

The city is applying for grants to update older infrastructure, such as water and sewer pipes—a necessity to handle the projected downtown construction.

Looking ahead, we all should be optimistic for the future of Santa Maria’s downtown.

Alice Patino is the mayor of Santa Maria. Send a letter for publication to [email protected].

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