The Transformation of State Street

Santa Barbara’s downtown area was radically changed during the pandemic. Plans are now in the works to keep it that way.
By Katherine McMahon

It’s difficult to imagine anything positive could have resulted from the Covid-19 pandemic, but something has happened in Santa Barbara that could be classified as such — the transformation of State Street from being congested with cars to being a kind of community open space.

Palm trees and picture-perfect sunsets are staples of State Street.

State Street has been the spine of Santa Barbara for more than 150 years. It was the first paved road in Santa Barbara, and runs from the beach at historic Stearns Wharf up through the center of the city. The 10 or so blocks north of Highway 101 are considered Downtown Santa Barbara. It grew fast after the California gold rush, the coming of the railroad, and the early movie industry. But then the massive 1925 earthquake hit, and most of downtown was destroyed. After that, the city created new guidelines for rebuilding that required the Spanish mission style you see now in the buildings along State Street. The difference is really obvious with one of the few buildings that didn’t come crashing down during the 1925 earthquake: the Granada Theatre. It sticks out with its height and style amid the lower white plaster and red roof-tile buildings all around it.

State Street has continued to change every few decades. In 1964, the city called for narrowing State Street to two lanes from four and creating parking lots and garages in the blocks off the street to give more space for sidewalks and trees. To make the new parking concept work, paseos were created, with attractive courtyards and retail nooks that you can still see today. It was also suggested at that time that a few blocks be closed to cars, but this was ignored — at least, for a while.

In the 1980s, the two blocks between Ortega Street and Canon Perdido Street on the west side of the street were transformed into the Paseo Nuevo, an innovative (at the time) open air shopping mall which elevated the retail experience along State Street. But the changes in how we shop and the effect of the pandemic has caused problems. Its future is up in the air with the two anchor stores — once a Macys and a Nordstrom — both gone. There is talk of office space and housing.

The charming La Arcada Plaza is a must-see on your way up State Street.

During the height of the pandemic, the State of California put restrictions on indoor dining. Since restaurants needed more outdoor space to accommodate enough seats to keep the restaurants going, the City of Santa Barbara temporarily closed State Street to vehicle traffic from Haley Street to Victoria Street, and allowed restaurants to create seating areas in what had been the road.

This eight-block stretch is less than a mile long, but contains an incredible array of activity: historic sites, art galleries and museums, theaters and cinemas, restaurants, pubs and wineries, hotels, and shopping of all types. It’s a place I love to spend the afternoon on a day trip or make a base for a weekend getaway.

“I think that the atmosphere nowadays is much more inviting, and it really feels like a community gathering place,” said Tim Persson, of the Downtown Organization of Santa Barbara. “The limit on car traffic has obviously made it a more pedestrian-friendly place, making it a lot easier to stroll down the street, window shop, and enjoy al fresco dining.”

The first couple of blocks north of California 101 are known as Lower State, though the city has labeled this area as the Entertainment District. It is busy with casual eateries like The Habit Burger Grill and Joe’s Cafe, which is the oldest restaurant in Santa Barbara. It also has trendy shops like Urban Outfitters, Starbucks, and Vans. At night it gets lively, with bars like O’Malley’s and The Red Piano, which feature live music, and British-themed pubs like Old Kings Road and The Press Room. The breweries here are innovative: Night Lizard Brewing Company names its beers after endangered species from the Central Coast, like its Gnatcatcher IPA, and Institution Ale Co. has won awards for its European-style lagers.

The middle blocks of State are dominated on the west side by the Paseo Nuevo, which features a number of great eateries like the Pickles & Swiss sandwich shop and Eureka!, but my favorite spot in this area is on the opposite side of the street. The El Paseo is a passageway that opens onto courtyards and connects State Street to Anacapa Street. Along it are Grassini Family Vineyards and Au Bon Climat wines, among other wineries. It provides a relaxing oasis to enjoy some of the best of wine country right off State Street. It is also the location of Casa de La Guerra, the 200-year-old house of the Spanish colonial commander. It was renovated in the 1990s and is now a museum for local history.

The Paseo Nuevo at night.

The northern blocks feature a number of cultural destinations. There is the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the Granada Theatre, The Arlington Theatre and the New Vic Theatre, which together show off the lively arts scene in Santa Barbara. To be honest, I’m more into the lively coffee scene, which includes Dune Coffee Roasters, a cool café at the corner of State and Figueroa Streets, and Cajé Coffee Roasters at State Street and Arlington, which has taken coffee to a whole new level. These are no ordinary coffee drinks. I tried a latte with bourbon pecan syrup and activated charcoal that was garnished with ginger salt, candied ginger, and a blackberry. It’s like elevated cocktails, but for coffee.

At the Kimpton Hotel on Cabrillo Street is Finch & Fork, which has one of the best brunches in Santa Barbara. And on Victoria Street next to the New Vic Theatre is Scarlett Begonia, which is famous for their pancakes. Just south of the art museum is Mizza, which I found to be a great place to sit outside and have artisanal pizza and other amazing dishes like prosciutto, burrata, and peaches. Mizza sits right at the entrance to La Arcada Plaza, which is a charming courtyard from the 1920s. There are whimsical statues of people and dolphins, a fountain with turtles, and several stores and eateries. But my favorite place to eat in Santa Barbara is  Milk & Honey Tapas on Anapamu Street, just off State. The menu is primarily small bites, like the delicious bacon-wrapped dates, amazing street corn, and the best sliders I have ever had. Milk & Honey also has great cocktails, but after dinner I recommend a walk to The Good Lion, which is in the corner of the Granada Theatre building.

In the past, I had felt that the busy traffic on State Street divided one side from the other and busy activity crowded the sidewalks, even though they were already wide by most city standards. Sure, you could always cross at the intersections, but the two sides didn’t feel connected.  And when I had a destination in mind like Grassini Wines or Eureka!, I would aim to arrive from cross streets to avoid the congestion. But when State Street was closed to vehicle traffic, the space seemed to breathe. Casually walking across mid-block from, say, Dune to Mizza felt natural and didn’t involve dodging cars. Because the city has provided plenty of parking behind the blocks and because the residential neighborhoods and hotels are close by, the closure didn’t keep people away. So I began to notice more social activity — visiting families walking together, locals strolling with their dogs, friend groups hanging out on the temporary street furniture the city had installed. What had been State Street became a kind of public open space and it didn’t feel as compressed as when all the pedestrians had to fit on the sidewalk. My sense is that restaurants have benefitted from it, as well. Santa Barbara is blessed with the best of California weather, and there is nothing like sitting outside for dinner on a mild evening.

“The majority of businesses are positive about the changes to State Street,” said Persson. “Many of them have reported increased sales and foot traffic since the limit on car traffic was implemented. The outdoor seating areas has led to a more vibrant and livelier feel, so it has been a positive for both restaurants and the neighboring merchants.”

The pandemic is thankfully over, yet the city has kept these blocks of State Street closed to vehicles, and is moving forward with a plan to make permanent changes in the design and feel. The city has created a task force and is holding community meetings on a plan called Create State. They hope to reveal the plan for what to do with the area by the end of the year. There are different concepts being proposed, some that allow some car movement, some that include a bike path, and others that are more limited. The community response so far has been overwhelmingly in favor of keeping the restriction on cars. Whatever the city ultimately decides, State Street is an incredible place to visit, and I’m excited to see it become even better in the future.

Follow more of my adventures at or on Instagram at @vineyardsandvoyages.