Giving the downtown area an identity

This "Looking Forward" op-ed piece by Jeanne Sparks was published in the Santa Maria Times on April 9, 2015:

The city of Santa Maria is trying to create a more attractive downtown. Let’s create something that will draw people in — a water feature with a tower and artwork to attract residents and tourists. Perhaps we could daylight a creek.

According to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, “Creek daylighting refers to projects that uncover and restore creeks, streams, and rivers previously buried in underground pipes and culverts, covered by decks, or otherwise removed from view.”

We don’t think of our city as having creeks, because the natural waterways have been diverted, but it could.

Daylighting has been happening a lot around the country and the world. The city of San Luis Obispo restored San Luis Obispo Creek near the mission in the 1970s. A culvert was taken out, the creek widened, and native trees were planted to provide shade, food and habitat.

Part of busy Monterey Street was closed to create a walkable, park-like setting. Art, decorative lighting and places to gather created an identity. Residents engaged with the city’s natural riparian heritage.

The creek as a focal point and the walkable plaza turned around the city’s downtown, taking it from a 60-percent vacancy rate to no vacancies, according to former SLO Chamber of Commerce President Dave Garth.

Let’s look into doing that in Santa Maria, perhaps on McClelland Street where efforts have already begun, or in Town Center West, or in another area of downtown.

Daylighting a creek would create a natural feature that could attract a lot of people while providing a water recharge benefit. It could have a pond or two, river rocks to climb on and native plants and trees to attract wildlife. Even when dry, the creek bed could be an attraction.

If not daylighting, let’s put in an artificial pond or other water structure. Closing part of a street, with plenty of parking on the periphery, can create unique opportunities. Walkability is integral to the success of the effort.

The tower would attract residents and tourists to get an awesome view of our beautiful valley. It would change how people see us, even how we see ourselves. It could help Santa Maria to become known as the “City of Towers” envisioned by former Planning Director Bill Orndorff.

This project is not something I’d expect to happen right away, but let’s start a discussion on it. The city could solicit public input, offer stipends to students to come up with designs, and study what it would take to make it happen. Perhaps it could be integrated not only into the city’s efforts to improve downtown, but also its effort to improve water quality.

The city recently held a community meeting on its developing an integrated plan, a watershed-based approach to protect water resources. The EPA chose Santa Maria as one of five communities to develop a plan that could be used as an example to others. It would include comprehensive planning, green infrastructure and environmental and public health benefits.

I applaud the city for the integrated approach. The city plans another community meeting in August. Information is at Let them know what you would like.

Jeanne Sparks is associate director of Santa Barbara County Action Network (SB CAN). She can be reached at [email protected]. Looking Forward runs every Friday in the Santa Maria Times, providing a progressive viewpoint on local issues.