"On the Lower Riviera, you really know you're in Santa Barbara," said realtor Mort Maizlish as he took a visitor on a tour of the city's sun-drenched hillsides.
He was referring to the sweeping view, the pleasant mix of architectural styles--many of them "old," as California goes--and the walls and walkways of sandstone built by the Italian stonemasons who immigrated to California early in this century. Their descendants still live on the Riviera.
The Lower Riviera is the residential area stretching about a mile and a half as the condor soars across the back of the city from the Old Mission to the mouth of Sycamore Canyon, the "Five Points" intersection. It is bounded by Milpas Street on the lower side and Alameda Padre Serra (APS to the locals) on the north.
The properties above APS are seriously expensive, in accordance with their panoramic views and/or exclusive wooded character. Those below Milpas compose "Lower Eastside," a gentrifying but still somewhat downtrodden neighborhood.
But above Milpas are homes that can be bought for about $300,000 and maybe less for two-bedroom models, with others ranging up to the million-dollar category, depending on size and view. The hilly neighborhood is the base of the Riviera, part of Santa Barbara's picture-postcard aspect. It is aptly called the Riviera because, as on the European Riviera, the hillsides face south, open to the sunshine.
"We love it here," said Mark Sims, who with his wife, Priscilla, bought a two-bedroom fixer-upper on Loma Street last October. It was a little pricey at $337,500 because it carries some history and, like many houses in the neighborhood, a great deal of potential.
They bought the house--the first built in this particular neighborhood--from people who did as many have done in the South Coast: they took the money and ran, in this case to Oregon.
"But why would anyone want to leave here?" asked Sims. He is a carpenter and has already restored the home's old hardwood floors and replaced some windows and hardware, leaving the old-fashioned doors. He is now planning an extensive kitchen and bathroom remodel. They have room in the back yard--rising in a terrace behind the house--for a deck and spa, with some garden left over.
His wife, a lawyer who now works for a Santa Barbara law firm, said she likes the proximity to shopping as well as the aesthetics of the neighborhood. "We like to just sit out on the front porch and feel lucky. We're having fun--especially now that we don't have to commute from Ventura (25 miles south, where they used to live)."
She said the only negatives to the property are the somewhat heavy traffic on Loma Street, one of the busier avenues across the neighborhood's steep slopes, and the lack of parking on the narrow streets in their neck of the woods.
Mark Sims pointed out the high quality of construction that is evident in many Riviera homes: In inspecting the property he found two-by-four lumber that is actually two inches by four inches, lumber bolted to the foundation ("unheard of in 1940, when the house was built"), expensive French drains for carrying away water seeping from the dug-out hillside, and sandstone walls and steps that give the house the feeling of permanence.
William Maehl, an administrator at Fielding Institute, a private social sciences graduate school, moved to Santa Barbara from the university town of Norman, Okla., in 1987 and decided on a condominium in the shady area where Milpas Street bends away from the Riviera to become tree-lined Anapamu Street. (The stone pines were planted by the Italians in a gesture toward the Appian Way, according to local lore.)
"We like the downtown city life. We shop on Milpas Street, where there's a great variety of restaurants, and it's non-touristy. There's a community spirit and a great deal of ethnic diversity."
When he and wife, Audrey, want to stroll downtown Santa Barbara, they can easily walk to State Street, the tourists' favorite haunt, which is less than a mile away.
At home, they hear "a small amount" of traffic noise, especially when Santa Barbara High School students are going and coming, but the compensations are more than ample.
Their two-bedroom, 2 1/2-bath condo cost $239,500. Their complex is one of several designed in keeping with downtown Santa Barbara's Spanish appearance.
"The area has a definite pull for buyers," realtor Maizlish said. "Obviously there is the Riviera effect, which is special--the hillside, the view, the stone stairways between houses. Really nice.
"But also Milpas Street has become even more of a business center since downtown real estate prices have escalated so sharply. Trader Joe's (on the lower end of Milpas Street) located in Ventura first, like many businesses, and then decided on Milpas Street for its next branch." It is one of many thriving businesses to open on or near Milpas in the last few years.