Thursday, October 30, 2008

Shop baby shop: Wrong place, wrong message

After several mini-makeovers over the years, La Cumbre Plaza is now undergoing a dramatic facelift transforming it into something unrecognizable for many long-time Santa Barbarans.
The shopping center, once loaded with locally owned shops and affordable chains—where the middle class purchased practical items and might even have splurged once in a while—is now streamlined and spare, luxury and lifestyle.

The Plaza’s directory of stores equates consumers with their goods with its “The Life of Style” theme. Under the photo of a model sporting an emerald-hued top the copy reads, “I am smooth, and completely flattering. I am your fall jacket, and I am proof that envy comes in all shades of green.” Under the photo of a woman’s torso clad in a tight black dress and two thick ropes of pearls, the type states, “I am adored. I am priceless. I am your cherished necklace, and I show the world how precious you are.”
One little wrinkle remains: who will actually have the inclination—or the money—to buy anything there?
Fashnionistas like Sarah Palin and her pals wouldn’t bat an eyelash shopping for conspicuous consumables at Coach, Tiffany, or Louis Vuitton. The recent, extravagantly catered grand opening event for the luxury leather boutique featured champagne, silver and attracted guests who arrived in limousines. One of the newer shop windows touts its jewelry collection with the reassuring words, “…extreme elegance, detailed by hand…worth every penny.”
But the average Joe probably wouldn’t feel at home here anymore, unless he takes the family out for dinner at Pizza Mizza, or shops at the longtime anchor store Sears, the homegrown Outfooters or the packed-to-the-rafters toy outlet known as Kay*Bee. The humble part of the plaza is tucked away, and the shops are all clustered at the far end, away from where the chichi—or are expected to.
On two different occasions when I visited last week, I counted more fitness walkers and coffee drinkers than shoppers populating the ever-more-elegant emporium. In fact, during those two weekday visits, the place was as deserted as a schoolyard on a Saturday. To be sure, some of the emptiness might be attributed to the massive construction going on, transforming the last recent renovation from a warmer arts-and-crafts style to a sleek version of ubiquitous Southern California mall architecture reminiscent of Orange County’s Fashion Island in Newport Beach.
The plaza still hosts the Wednesday Farmers Market from 1 to 5; signs featuring sumptuous produce encourage shoppers to “think global, buy local and support local growers at the indelible Farmers Market.” The description of the event as “indelible” is puzzling, but perhaps a reassurance that it will not suffer the same fate as the long-running Art Walk—that was, in fact, removed from here, and has relocated to the Marketplace in Goleta.
Fifteen years ago, during the last economic downturn, I wrote a story for the Los Angeles Times about factory outlet shopping in Santa Barbara. The piece was so popular I expanded it into, “The Santa Barbara Bargain Book.” It was a slim, lighthearted volume dedicated to “the Santa Barbara shopkeepers and restaurateurs who strive to provide an alternative to Anywhere, U.S.A.” Every consignment shop, factory outlet, vintage clothing retailer, house and garden shop, eatery and entertainment venue listed was a locally owned business that offered good value for the money spent. Each was a distinctive part of a unique city where mom-and-pop could still pursue their dreams, and bargain hunters could stretch a dollar, meet some interesting entrepreneurs, and purchase some unique, distinctively Santa Barbara items unavailable anywhere else. The thrill of the hunt, in discovering out-of-the-way places and people, was part of the fun.
Today that out-of-print book reads like a catalog of broken dreams of the middle class.
Most of those establishments—and many of those who contributed to the book—are now long-gone. With rents too high and business too slow, they’ve given way to a collection of corporate-owned retailers, indistinguishable from one another, wherever they’re located.
This is a time when former shopaholics now proudly call themselves “recessionistas,” and adopt shopping habits to match. Financial guru Suze Orman counsels against the purchase of unnecessary luxuries, particularly expensive designer handbags. And local realtors send e-mail blasts about investing in foreclosed properties.
At a time when substance matters more than ever, the “Life of Style” currently promoted by La Cumbre Plaza is a classic case of misunderestimation, so to speak, of what most Santa Barbarans can afford. And can afford to do without.


Anonymous said...

What a sad place La Cumbre Plaza has become .... the good old days when that place was hopping in the 1980's and early 1990's when I was young and people were waddling to their cars filled with loads of gifts only to return for another round of shopping. It was a good place to go to find that perfect birthday gift. To the stores that USED to inhabit the plaza ... I am sad you no longer are around. So long hometown shopping =(

Anonymous said...

It's probably planned to put in these high-end stores that will inevitably fail so that three or four years down the road when the economy recovers at least somewhat the Plaza owners can turn around and put forth a plan for more "affordable" condo housing for those making $100,000+/year. It would be interesting to know exactly how many would fit there, probably a thousand or more.

The state is pushing for more housing here - and the front part, now parking, could be converted to mini open space or astro turf or some other water saving landscaping.

Anonymous said...

"Fashnionistas (sp) like Sarah Palin and her pals wouldn’t bat an eyelash shopping for conspicuous consumables at Coach, Tiffany, or Louis Vuitton."

What a snide small minded ad hominem to an otherwise valid article. Too bad that politics blinds your perception such.

Anonymous said...

Yes I agree. La Cumbre mall has lost it's lust. State street is following. I must say I laugh about it though. I think it's a slap in the face waiting to happen to all the commercial property owners charging hi rents. Over the last year 25 percent of the local stores on state street have closed due to increased rents. Now the econmy has turned and the stores are empty. And the landlords are eating their mistakes. Maybe they'll learn to be fair instead of greedy!

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I disagree. Look around Santa Barbara. It has become a playground for the young and wealthy.Some where LUCKY TO BUY PROPERTY MANY MANY YEARS AGO. The only people who can afford to move here now a day are the rich, and they adore the new Le Cumbre mall.