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One of Santa Barbara's oldest streets is suddenly so popular it's scary

Christopher Reynolds, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Travel News

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- If you haven't seen State Street in Santa Barbara lately, brace yourself. It's gone car-less. The empty lanes are filled with young and old people eating, drinking or wandering on foot, on cycles, on scooters. Expect a big, happy crowd on a Saturday night.

And maybe mask up.

"It's so wonderful, isn't it?" said Ruth Marshall, who was walking her dog and wearing a face mask with a wide smile printed on it. "It's like one big party."

For decades, Santa Barbara's main commercial artery has been pretty but problematic -- a handsome street, full of tall trees, Spanish Revival architecture, stylish restaurants and boutiques, its sidewalk sometimes blocked by people in need of homes or mental health services or both.

For years, many Santa Barbarans have suggested that banning cars might help. It would create more room for foot traffic and outdoor dining, they said, and add a European feel.

"I have been asking since 2000, 2001," said bar owner Dan Baha. "But they rejected the idea, saying it would be Mardi Gras."

 

The city did try a three-block, two-day test in 2019, but officials weren't ready to make a bigger move.

Then in late May, after two months of pandemic and restrictions threatening to drive many restaurants, bars and shops out of business, the Santa Barbara City Council voted unanimously to make about a mile of State Street into a pedestrian promenade.

The experiment allows restaurants and bars to add seats and tables on the sidewalk and in streets and parking lots, reclaiming some of the capacity lost when social distancing requirements were imposed. The new move also takes advantage of rules loosened by the state's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

The change began May 22. City workers added barricades and planters, liberating eight blocks from automobile rule, except for intersections. The number of restaurants with sidewalk seating has jumped from 15 to about 30. Last Friday, bars without food service reopened, as did many major downtown hotels, whose guests can walk to the new promenade.

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