James O’Mahoney used to have one of the best views in town. For 33 years, he owned a bohemian surf museum in what’s known as Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone.
Now, this waterfront enclave is surrounded by cement pumps and construction trucks.
A development called La Entrada is going in next door. The 250,000 square foot project includes a swanky hotel, rooftop pool, upscale restaurant, parking garage and more.
“It’s just a matter of time till we get steamrolled out of here,” said O’Mahoney. Facing rising rents and a new landlord, he had to shut the doors of the Santa Barbara Surf Museum in March.
The Funk Zone used to be a real estate wasteland. For most of the 20th century, it was full of grain mills and fish packing houses.
In the 1970s, artists started renovating the cheap, industrial spaces into funky apartments and studio workplaces.
“It was a different atmosphere,” said Sheila Lodge, who was the city’s mayor during part of that time. “You walk around, poke your head into places and talk to people. There wasn’t any wine to sample but you could see people making things.”
About 20 years ago, those artists started getting priced out.
Rents went up. Wine tasting rooms, breweries, high end bars and restaurants moved in. Tourists from LA started coming up for bachelorette parties. Just like the Arts District in downtown LA, the Funk Zone became unaffordable for artists and craftspeople.
Now, only a handful of artists live in the area. You’re more likely to stumble across a tiki bar or an upscale hostel than an artist workspace.
To O’Mahoney, the development downtown will put an end to what made the Funk Zone funky.
But not everyone feels that way.
“Perhaps there was a temporary hiccup,” said Carlos Lopes, the Managing Director of the Hotel Californian, the new hotel coming in. “But, we’re going to bring about 70,000 guests to the area, both in the restaurants and hotel. And they’re going to be patronizing our local tenants. And buying their products – their surfboards – their fishing gear. So, I think that’s a plus.”
Meanwhile, most of the craftspeople who are still around, some surfboard makers and painters, are looking at real estate elsewhere.
“We’re just watching closely,” said J-7 Surfboards owner Jason Feist. His business sits right next to the now defunct surf museum and the Hotel Californian. He worries La Entrada may bring tourists in but push the local character – and his local clientele – out.
“When we talk to folks visiting Santa Barbara, they have their Funk Zone maps out and are walking around trying to figure it out and they come in and say, ‘Hey, what’s down here? What makes this the Funk Zone? Where’s all the art?’ And I think that’s the big thing that’s changed. It’s lost a little of what was special about it.”
Feist is looking for more affordable places to rent on Santa Barbara’s eastside.
“We have our thumb on the pulse,” he said. “Seeing what’s going to happen here, just trying to survive.”