I really like the Funk Zone. It’s hip, scruffy, avant, counter-culturesque, Cannery Row-ish. A refuge for the young and creative. The City has established a Design Overlay for the area. It, along with rising real estate values could be the kiss of death for the Funk Zone. I wish they would just leave it alone and let creative entrepreneurs do their magic.

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August 11, 2013

I like the Funk Zone. I mean I really like the Funk Zone. It’s hip, scruffy, avant, counter-culturesque, Cannery Row-ish. A refuge for the young and creative. Yeah, it’s getting prettied up a bit, but it’s a nice remnant of Old Santa Barbara. By Old Santa Barbara, I mean that time before the Grand Redevelopment which resulted in Paseo Nuevo which opened in 1990. Some folks, certainly not me, refer to this redevelopment as the Grand Pasteurization of Santa Barbara. Paseo Nuevo was done beautifully, but we are now privileged to have the same outlets as every other city in America. That’s OK, but, ah, progress?

Cities always change and Santa Barbara is no exception. The Anglos tore down most of what the Californios built. Pearl Chase wished to recapture this earlier time in history back in the 1920s when she pushed for the creation of El Pueblo Viejo, a zoning district which is most of downtown and which mandates its Mediterranean-Spanish architectural theme. The best example of this, in my opinion, is El Paseo which opened in 1922 and is the gem of downtown.

But as found in every town there were less than desirable areas which housed commercial and industrial activities. Most of those areas have been torn down and replaced with condos and office buildings meeting Santa Barbara’s strict design criteria. Old neighborhoods with funky (cute) bungalows now mix with Spanish-Mediterranean-Tuscan-style condos. The industrial spots are mostly gone, now limited to the areas near the Funk Zone, below East Haley Street, and behind Fess Parker’s Doubletree hotel.

Most of this newer development is a direct response to Santa Barbara’s limitation on new construction which elevated property values even higher than most California coastal cities. As a libertarian curmudgeon, I can complain ad nauseam about the heavy hand of government, but for the sake of argument, it has resulted in a beautiful city. But, the result is very expensive property. Riff-raff, be warned.

Is change good? Yes, for the most part. We can’t keep things the same forever or we would be a moribund theme park. Every generation gets to put its stamp on the city. I think Santa Barbara has improved over the years and I have the benefit of time on my side to be able to make that judgment, having arrived here in the early ‘60s to go to college. To prove my longevity and qualifications to judge change, I can say that I watched Willy Mays play at Laguna Park which was the home of our former minor league baseball team back then. In a sold-out exhibition game between the Dodgers and Giants, I hung on the backfield fence right behind Willy. Laguna Park was where the City Yards are now located on Laguna Street. Is the loss of the baseball park progress? The Foresters champs do have a venue … so all is good.

Which gets me to the point of my essay, which is redevelopment. To those of you who aren’t tapped into the collective unconscious, back in the day, good intentioned reformers in government sought to alleviate “blight” (read, “slums”) from our cities. This gained federal traction with the National Housing Act of 1949 which created a federal Urban Renewal Administration which brought federal money into cities. Starting in the 1950s and continuing through the 1960s federal guarantees and other aid started pumping money into massive redevelopment projects by cities.

Urban renewal has a controversial history. Often run by corrupt politicians for their cronies, private property was condemned, destroyed, and sold off to crony developers for a song. New York City’s urban renewal under Robert Moses was a good example.

Massive destruction of poor neighborhoods in our major cities resulted in the displacement of millions of people by the end in 1972. But replacement housing was not to come. According to Professor Martin Anderson who wrote The Federal Bulldozer, an exposé of the program, from 1950 to 1960 126,000 housing units were destroyed but only 28,000 were built. Since about half of those affected were black, author James Baldwin referred to the program as “Negro Removal”. Catch the You Tube video on New York City’s W. 99th St. tragedy.

What was the result? Often cronies of those in charge of redevelopment got the land cheap and built private projects, or the city built housing projects. Built in the 1940s and 1950s, Chicago’s infamous Cabrini-Green project became a slum in itself, ultimately riddled with gangs, crime, drugs, and destruction. The last building was torn down in 2011. And what of the city’s promises to replace housing for the project’s 15,000 residents? Hopelessly behind. Nothing much has changed.

We don’t want slums but my point is that we citizens do a better job at “redevelopment” than does government. What we have seen in most cases of big city urban renewal was colossal misery for the poor, a result of the failure of government planning. As most displaced residents would attest: they didn’t want it. The record is depressing.

If cities can’t do a good job of urban planning, then who should?

I don’t wish to venture into a discussion of the benefits or failures of zoning and building codes. I will say that Santa Barbara’s planning process has become quite heavy handed and intrusive. It is easy to say that but for that process Santa Barbara would have become just another Ventura or Santa Maria. But it isn’t that simple. We have a beautiful downtown and I would concede that the Process has done much to make it so. But the fact is that we citizens and property owners and developers are the ones who have made Santa Barbara what it is. The City can plan, but it is we who do the work. That is, we bring the capital, entrepreneurial vision, and aesthetics to projects, not the City.

Which brings me back to the Funk Zone. It just happened. It happened because it was pretty much neglected by the City. It was also neglected for economic reasons in that it was seen by developers and capitalists (investors) as an undesirable place to put their funds and effort. The area was considered unsightly but kind of out of the way of tourists so it was not seen as a blight our otherwise beautiful downtown.

But then came the young entrepreneurs who were attracted by its low rents and funkiness. It’s like this in many cities, but for the most part cities are keen to un-funk these areas. Right now the Zone is zoned as Ocean- Related Commercial (OC), which is “primarily ocean dependent and ocean oriented uses, commercial recreational uses, arts and related uses, restaurants, and small stores.”

But that is what it already is. In other words, the City planners didn’t create it, we did. They just came along and at one of their endless planning sessions for a better tomorrow, designated it as O-C. Now that doesn’t mean that the Zone is frozen in time. Acting within our zoning and planning guidelines, someone could tear down old buildings and build new buildings. It’s already been done as evidenced by the Zone’s shrinking area.

More disturbing is that our City has earmarked the Funk Zone for a potential Design Overlay area. This is described as requirements for, “Floor Area Ratios (FARs), building setbacks, landscaping and open space requirements, and design guidelines. Commercial areas, historic districts, streets, or a single block with unique qualities can be evaluated for improved guidance to ensure compatibility in scale, bulk and size.”

That would be the kiss of death of the Funk Zone. What makes it funky is that none of those things were done when the existing structures were built way back when. It’s unplanned, jury-rigged, un-aesthetic, and even make-shift. That is its charm. But our City Mothers and Fathers always know what’s best for us. I’m sure they will have some hearings at which locals will rant for or against whatever is proposed and then the City will do whatever they want.

Folks, the Funk Zone is great as is. But be aware that it won’t last. The pressures of rising land values in Ocean Commercial zoned property and the City’s nosy do-goodism will roll over the Zone and change will come. If you think it can be stopped, you would be wrong. You think special zoning or landmarking of the area would stop it? No. It’s going to change, in my opinion for the worse. Pleasant, perhaps, but definitely not funky.

So what is the lesson of my screed? Nothing is permanent but change. Nothing can be cast in stone forever. Zoning changes happen and you can’t count on today’s zoning to exist tomorrow. Remember, political landscapes change too. Whatever the City does today can be reversed by future politicians. And, rising land values are sure to attract developers.

What we have today is something rare in Santa Barbara and we need to enjoy and appreciate it while it lasts. We should thank the Zone’s entrepreneurs for their energy and vision. They are the ones who breathed life into it. And that is the best kind of urban renewal there is.

[When I wrote this in 2013 I thought the City would change the Funk Zone and pasteurize it. So far, so good. I hope this article helped persuade them to tread lightly there. As a result money poured in to the Zone, seeing opportunity in funkiness. It’s thriving. I’m sure the City is happy they didn’t interfere as they now reap the benefit of rising sales and property taxes. JH- 10-26-2021]