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Stone Stairs, Hillside Add Up to Lower Riviera : Santa Barbara: Sweeping views and sunny aspect of residential section bring comparison to European counterpart.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> McCafferty is a free-lance writer based in Santa Barbara. </i>

“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.

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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.

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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.)

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“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.

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“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.

And yet only a minute or so from the commerce of Milpas Street are many properties with a calm suburban feel. One remarkable example is the four-acre parcel belonging to John and Patricia Campbell, who moved to Santa Barbara from Massachusetts in 1975.

The two-story wooden house was built by their seller in 1912 and its turn-of-the-century charm appealed to Campbell, a physicist, and his wife, an anthropology teacher.

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The deciding factor in the sale, however, was the fact that the house was on a four-acre parcel bounded on the north by a 25-acre undeveloped barranca. The slopes of the deep ravine are covered mostly by native chapparal and oaks, but they also are graced with imported eucalyptus and olive trees, giving the Campbells a small forest for a back yard.

“The property abuts the County Bowl (Santa Barbara’s popular natural amphitheater in the next ravine east), and I think it’s just going to stay wild,” Patricia Campbell said.

She pointed with pride to five quaint clapboard-sided houses that the Campbells saved from demolition during construction near Cottage Hospital across town in 1988. They moved them onto their property at the edge of the barranca as rental houses and remodeled them to restore their 1916 charm. Now they are in the state Historical Register as examples of California housing built around the turn of the century.

As a reporter strolled the property, two large deer bounded by as if for visual effect. “We call them the watchers,” Patricia Campbell said. “They observe everything that goes on. They’re not pets, but they’re not afraid either.”

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The Royce Adams family also has seen deer bounding nervously across the streets of the Lower Riviera, near their house on the other side of the County Bowl. Adams and his wife, Jane Brody, bought their three-bedroom home on San Diego Road in 1983 for $190,000 and watched with satisfaction as a large home near them sold recently for $545,000 despite a sluggish real estate market.

When Adams and Brody, teachers at Santa Barbara City College, decided to buy and renovate, they targeted the Lower Riviera because of the convenience of the location and the serenity of the setting.

“The house was vacant, so we visited the lot at several times of the day and night to check out the noise--and it was always quiet,” said Adams, who has since retired from the classroom but writes textbooks at home.

“We hear a slight noise from the County Bowl, but usually only the end of weekend performances when a roar of applause goes up or there is a demand for an encore.

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“We installed a hot tub in the back yard and use it several times a week, and lots of times we don’t hear any noise from the city at all.”

The home is on an extra large lot, giving the family a second yard on a terraced area behind the garage and plenty of running room for their daughter, Kate, 6. They have “almost more landscaping than we can handle,” Adams said. The yard also includes an enclosed barbecue area as big as the garage it is attached to.

Adams has brought the 50-year-old house up to the present, substituting French doors for a couple of windows and installing three skylights to brighten things up. He removed a concrete pad, put in drains for the rain that is sure to come some day, and took out crumbling stone terrace walls behind the house that evidently were not installed by Italian experts. Like so many other buyers of older homes, he had the well-cured hardwood stripped bare of carpeting and refinished.

Prices on the eastern third-of-a-mile of the Lower Riviera, from Adams’ house to Five Points, have gone up, but: “You can still find a beautiful little two-bedroom place for around $300,000 (about $50,000 over the ‘bottom line’ in Santa Barbara),” according to realtor Maizlish.

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“And you might even get a view,” he said. “It’s a little ‘different’ on the Lower Riviera. You get a kind of timeless feeling. It feels like it’s always been there, and always will be.”

At a Glance Population

1990 estimate: 44,670

1980-90 change: +7.0%

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Median age: 33 years

Annual income

Per capita: 15,507

Median household: 26,904

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Household distribution

Less than $15,000: 25.9%

$15,000 - $30,000: 28.6%

$30,000 - $50,000: 23.6%

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$50,000 - $100,000: 17.4%

$100,000 + 4.5%


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