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If the city of Santa Maria can be compared to a living organism, its streets are its veins and its people are its life’s blood. Like many living things, a heart is needed to pump life throughout a living body. For the city, its downtown is that heart.

The city has been working for some time on how to make its heart healthier to please its residents and businesses and work to make all of Santa Maria grow and thrive.

Recently, the Santa Maria Times sat down with Peter Gilli, planning division manager, and Neda Zayer, planner and downtown revitalization project coordinator, to talk about efforts the city hopes will strengthen its heart.

The initiative kicked off recently with the approval of the Downtown Specific Plan.

“The Specific Plan, in government terms, is a regulatory document that lays out the regulations and guidelines for downtown. We have also put in a lot of additional focus beyond the regulations of downtown,” Gilli said.

He said the plan’s ultimate goal is to create an area that people will use.

“The vision of our new downtown plan is to make our downtown a place where people want to be,” Gilli said.

“Revitalizing a downtown is not a linear approach. You have to attack it from multiple angles,” Zayer said.

The plan focuses on three areas to make the city’s heart better: activities, beautification and partnerships.

The city of Santa Maria kicked off its activity-driven focus with the creation of its weekly Downtown Fridays Farmers Market.

“Part of getting people downtown, you have to program things for them to do downtown,” Zayer said.

The weekly gathering started its inaugural season in the spring and will wrap up at the end of October.

“It’s got music. It’s got food. It’s got produce. It is a real opportunity for the community to come together and have a good time,” Zayer said. “We have done a lot special things, like honor local Olympians. It has been a great atmosphere. “

Downtown Fridays will be on hiatus through the winter months but will return next year.

“We have learned a lot in this first season of doing it. Next year we hope to add a lot of new items to it and revamp it a little bit,” Zayer said.

City leaders will kick off its focus on beautification with the help of a $300,000 grant from Caltrans.

“There is a lot that the city can lead and do in making downtown a more attractive place for people to come and walk around and hang out in,” Zayer said. “In 2017, we are going to do a lot of effort in public outreach in something that we are going to be putting together, a Downtown Streetscape Plan.

The streetscape plan will look at the potential for traffic-calming initiatives, and ways to improve the look of downtown while making the area easier to walk and bike through.

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“It is going to look at our street network, our walkability, our bike ability and friendly environment in the downtown,” Zayer said.

To create the plan, the city will hold a series of public outreach sessions to hear from people and businesses that want to be a part of downtown’s revitalization.

“Let’s try and make it feel like a downtown. This plan is really going to dig into the details of that,” Zayer said.

“We are looking at little steps we can take that, when put together, will make a really big difference. We are talking one bite at a time,” Zayer added.

Another small beautification step will be to add art to the downtown area. With that goal in mind, the city soon will kick-start an art box project.

“They take the utility boxes that Caltrans or the city has for traffic signals that are normally just gray or green boxes and work with local artists to put artwork on them,” Gilli said.

“It is something that has been done in other places," he added. "It shows an investment in the area; it shows that we are trying to make the area more special; if someone is walking around, it gives them something to look at. It is a small thing but an important step.”

Unlike other plans to revitalize downtown Santa Maria, the current downtown effort works to make residents and businesses a large part of the plan’s success, hence the focus on partnerships.

“Partnering with businesses and developers to make downtown an attractive place that they will want to develop and establish their business, we can do that through incentives and city partnerships,” Zayer said.

In the coming months, the Santa Maria Planning Division will hold community meetings throughout the city. Zayer said the meetings will be held in all quadrants of the city, not just downtown.

Logan B. Anderson covers city government in Santa Maria for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter: @LoganBAnderson.

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City Government Reporter