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Enchanted in the hills

September 27, 2008|Frank Nelson | Special to The Times

Santa BARBARA promotes itself as the American Riviera, a nod to its sweeping, palm-fringed bay, beautiful homes dotting the hillside above the sea, near-perfect climate and a lifestyle that residents on the French or Italian rivieras might envy.

To locals, the Riviera is the neighborhood set along the central arc of ridges and terraces overlooking the city, the sea and, often wreathed in mist, the distant Channel Islands. However, the Riviera Assn.'s map stretches beyond what's visible from the city below, extending as far inland as Parma Park and including areas where open countryside and mountain scenery often replace ocean views.

Properties along the front hillside, between Mission Canyon to the west and Sycamore Canyon to the east, can be breathtaking in more ways than one -- the views, the steep, sometimes difficult access . . . and the prices.

Early days

This area, once a barren, stony hillside, is today made much more appealing by an abundance of oaks along with semitropical trees, shrubs and other exotic plants, the fruits of farsighted planting programs begun about a century ago.

Much of the credit goes to Italian immigrant Francesco Franceschi Fenzi, a botanist and horticulturist who, in 1904, began turning 40 acres of Riviera hillside into one of California's most notable nurseries and arboretums.

Today he is remembered in the city's Franceschi Park, which showcases about 15 acres of his handiwork on Franceschi and Mission Ridge roads, where the centerpiece is Fenzi's 100-year-old redwood villa.

He was not the only Italian, however, to leave his mark on the Riviera. Early last century, stonemasons began arriving from Italy and today their artistry remains in sandstone walls, steps, gateposts and other decorative features, all of which add to the allure of this sought-after neighborhood.

Area landmarks include the famed El Encanto Hotel, due to reopen next year after a multimillion-dollar upgrade by new owners Orient-Express, and Riviera Park, the UC Santa Barbara campus for a decade starting in 1944 and now a low-profile office and business center.

Inside story

Paul Cashman, president of the Riviera Assn., was born in the neighborhood in 1955, one of 11 children; today he lives on a property adjoining his old family home, which is now owned by his sister Jessica.

Cashman lives on Alameda Padre Serra, which horizontally bisects the Riviera. Known locally as APS, the roadway is named for the founder of the California missions, Father Junipero Serra.

"The views are spectacular," Cashman said. "There's not a morning when I don't get up and walk out on the deck to gaze over to the islands. I never grow tired of that view."

He said one "significant challenge" to living on the Riviera is the fire risk. During the 1964 Coyote fire and the Sycamore Canyon fire in 1977, more than 200 homes were lost, including many in this neighborhood.

Housing stock

Buyers need deep pockets to purchase a home on the Riviera, and right now there's very little inventory. "Most people come here and they die here," real estate agent Loyd Applegate said.

Applegate, who lives in the neighborhood and has been selling homes for 33 years, said it's sometimes possible to find a two-bedroom condo in the $900,000 range.

Even on parts of APS where it's noisy, access is difficult and parking is a problem, buyers can still expect to pay close to $1.4 million. Elsewhere, a 1,500-square-foot home in good condition may sell for $2.5 million to $3 million, and a classic Riviera mansion may go for close to $10 million.

Applegate said there is a pronounced Italian influence in some of the most charming and expensive homes, built between the late 1920s and late '30s. Other styles include French, classic contemporary and midcentury. A few Craftsman homes occasionally reach the market. Designs from the 1960s and '70s can be seen in the aftermath of those earlier wildfires.

Report card

Marymount, the only school on the hillside, describes itself as an independent K-8 with a Catholic tradition. Santa Barbara Elementary School District's Roosevelt Elementary, which scored 844 out of a possible 1,000 on the 2008 Academic Performance Index Growth Report, sits below the Riviera.

From these schools, some students go on to Laguna Blanca, an independent secondary school in Hope Ranch, while other high school options are Santa Barbara, with a 754 score, San Marcos, also 754, and Dos Pueblos, 788.


Sources: "Santa Barbara Neighborhoods" by Walker A. Tompkins;;;

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