SANTA MARIA, Calif. - Customers fill tables at The Garden Mediterranean Restaurant and Cafe in Santa Maria.
The two-month old restaurant, located at the corner of McClelland St. and Boone St., is already a big hit with customers.
"I love the food. It think it's very authentic," said Sara Elturk, who works at the nearby courthouse. "It's in a nice walkable area of Santa Maria."
Once the site of a Mexican restaurant, The Garden has been transformed into something much different. Beautiful artwork covers the walls on the inside, while on the outside, there's a patio, featuring lavish landscaping,
"They come in, they like the new experience," said owner Reda Kchik. "They enjoy dining and trying a different type of food."
Kchik owns a couple of other businesses in Santa Maria. He said he's been hoping to open a restaurant like The Garden for years.
With positive reviews from customers in person and online, he's receiving encouraging signs he's in right location.
"Many people are walking by and they say it's very convenient here in downtown," said Kchik. "They see they place and they like to sit outdoors."
For Santa Maria city leaders, The Garden represents what they're trying to create, a new and improved downtown.
"What we may find are more mom-and-pop restaurants, and also something that brings an experience, where it's not just retail shopping, it's dining, it's a show, it's something where someone can spend a good three to four hours," said Santa Maria Director of Community Development Chuen Ng.
To accomplish their goal, the City has a Downtown Specific Plan, which is a framework and a vision for regulations and guidelines to revitalize, beautify, and redevelop the downtown core.
The extensive document has been developed by City leaders for more than 10 years. Once just ideas on paper, there's now evidence real tangible progress is being made.
"We believe we have momentum and we believe that in five, 10 years from now, downtown will be a different place," said Ng.
Already, the City has successfully launched a much-needed community event. Downtown Fridays, located in the Town Center West parking lot, has been a hit since it was created in 2016.
At the heart of downtown is the busy intersection of Broadway and Main. St., where a proposed four-story mixed-use project was approved last month.
"Which is what downtown's need to grow and thrive and eateries and coffee shops and breweries and wineries and we should really have those downtown," said Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce Economic Development Director Suzanne Singh.
The planned 30,000 square foot building has the potential to be a catalyst to the area with the ability to transform the area and sparking a wave of growth.
"It's huge to have someone bring in their investment into our community," said Santa Maria City Manager Jason Stilwell. "I think we will see in time that having that development begin there will spawn some additional new development."
There's signs that prospect is already happening.
"In the last three or four months, I've done quite a few feasibility studies for different types of businesses, hotel, huge restaurant chains and then developers," Singh said.
One developer already invested in downtown is The Towbes Group, which operates numerous housing developments in the Santa Maria Valley.
"The Towbes Group is very encouraged by the downtown area and the ability to remake the downtown corridor," said The Towbes Group executive Derek Hansen.
The Santa Barbara-based company opened Hancock Terrace last year on Boone St., an upscale art-deco styled apartment complex seen as a key addition to the City's revitalization efforts.
"I think it's one of the pieces of the puzzle," Hansen said. "You have housing that brings people downtown. Over the course of a few years, you'll start to see more and more interest in it and more developers bringing opportunities as well."
To attract those opportunities, the City is now embarking on an ambitious "Streetscape" plan.
Set to be approved later this year by City Council, it intends to re-imagine sidewalks and roads, making them more accessible for people, especially those walking, or riding a bike.
"I think it will bring the downtown to possibilities that we haven't seen in Santa Maria," said Singh. "I think bringing that downtown livelihood back will make Santa Maria awesome."
Planners want to change the look and feel of the area and to create a place with narrower streets and slower traffic.
Ideas for the the downtown area includes wider sidewalks, improved lighting, more trees and added bike lanes.
"We want to create an environment where people can feel comfortable," Ng said. "It's very important to bring the pedestrians back so people feel like this is a destination that I want to go to."
By slowing down traffic and reducing noise the City believes businesses will have an incentive to open in downtown, just like The Garden.
"Having a nice lunch or dinner, spending the day with their family and not having to necessarily drive to a strip mall and park," said Elturk. "I think it would be great for Santa Maria to have more places like this."
For Kchik, he's optimistic and sees a bright future not just for his restaurant, but also the surrounding area.
"More restaurants. More shops and more activities in downtown," Kchik said.
It's a real possibility as Santa Maria's downtown vision comes into focus.
"I think you will see a totally different downtown," said Singh. "I think you're going to say 'wow' where was this and this is really cool and I want to be here."