Santa Barbara County
Cities and Towns

Source: Wikipedia

Isla Vista

Isla Vista is an unincorporated community in Santa Barbara County, California, United States. As of the 2000 census, it had a population of 18,344. The majority of residents are college students at nearby UC Santa Barbara or at Santa Barbara City College. The beach-side community is a census-designated place west of the University of California, Santa Barbara, on a flat plateau about 30 feet in elevation, separated from the beach by a bluff. Many paths connect the town to the beach.

Isla Vista enjoys a Mediterranean climate and often has slightly less precipitation than either Santa Barbara or the adjacent community of Goleta. Isla Vista is located on a south-facing portion of the Santa Barbara County coast, between two small peninsulas, Coal Oil Point and Campus Point, in view of the Channel Islands. During El Niņo years, precipitation in Isla Vista can be excessive and potentially dangerous. Some homes and apartments built on the south side of Del Playa Drive, most popular with students due to their direct ocean views, are in danger of collapse, since they are built on quickly-eroding bluffs thirty to sixty feet above the relentless Pacific Ocean. Recent erosion has exposed foundation supports in several of the properties closest to the university campus, UCSB.

As Isla Vista is on the south coast of Santa Barbara county, which has some of the highest housing prices in the United States (the mean home price in Santa Barbara, ten miles east, passed $1,000,000 in June 2004), the student population shares densely packed housing with a working Hispanic population. Since Isla Vista has not been annexed by either Goleta or Santa Barbara, remaining unincorporated, only County funds are available for civic projects. Students commonly pay $600–800 per month for half a bedroom.

Isla Vista is home to a student housing cooperative, the Santa Barbara Student Housing Coop, as well as a food cooperative, the Isla Vista Food Co-op.


Isla Vista beachfront at sunset

Traditionally, Isla Vista is the area 'in the box' formed by El Colegio Road to the north, Ocean Road to the east, the beach to the south, and Camino Majorca to the west. The 2000 census showed 13,465 residents in this area of about 0.6 square miles. The CDP or `census-designated place ' includes the UCSB campus, Storke Ranch, and the area between Los Carneros and Storke Road north to Hollister Avenue, and shows a population near 20,000 and land area of 2.2 square miles. In the 2000 census, a mistake was made, and about 2,000 UCSB dorm residents listed as residing at the Santa Barbara Airport, and thus were outside the CDP. Starting in 2010, much of the land in the old Isla Vista CDP will be removed and put in the City of Goleta.

Isla Vista is actually the name of the first subdivision made in the center of the area now called Isla Vista; properly, the Isla Vista subdivision is between Camino Pescadero on the east and Camino Corto on the west. The Isla Vista subdivision was established in 1925, the Ocean Terrace subdivision between UCSB and Camino Pescadero in 1926, and the Orilla del Mar subdivision between Camino Corto and the UCSB West Campus in 1926 also. A number of east-west streets undergo `jogs' at the boundaries of the three subdivisions, because Santa Barbara County never required the three subdivisions to use a common street layout. The three subdivisions now are collectively called Isla Vista, and their total extent occupies land inherited by Augusto Den, a descendant of the family that received a Mexican land grant.

In the recent incorporation of Goleta, inland to the north and up the coast to the west, Isla Vista was deliberately excluded. The LAFCO executive director cited `political infeasibility' as the reason, although the only poll on the issue indicated a city of Goleta including Isla Vista would have passed at the ballot box.

Isla Vista is located at 34°24'53" North, 119°51'38" West.

According to the United States Census Bureau, the CDP has a total area of 2.2 square miles, of which, 2.1 square miles of it is land and 0.1 square miles of it is water. The total area is 3.64% water.

Isla Vista's history

Early Days

The earliest human occupants of Isla Vista were the Chumash or their forbearers. They called the Isla Vista mesa Anisq'oyo', and had permanent settlements near Cheadle Hall and the 217 entrance on the UCSB Campus; these villages were collectively called Heliyik. Eventually the Franciscan Fathers encouraged the Chumash to remove to the Santa Barbara Mission.

The Isla Vista mesa was part of the Mexican land grant Rancho Dos Pueblos made in 1842 to Nicolas A. Den. Den's descendant Alfonso Den inherited the land now called Isla Vista; he and some of his nine siblings were plaintiffs in a famous law suit, because when they were minors their land had been illegally sold in 1869 by the administrator of their estate, Charles E. Huse, to Col. William Welles Hollister, namesake of Hollister Avenue in Goleta, the Hollister Ranch, and Hollister, California. A San Francisco lawyer, Thomas B. Bishop, who specialized in legal isses associated with transfers of Mexican land rights, sued Hollister on behalf of the Den children in 1876, and won the case in 1885. Bishop took much of the prime land owned by the Den children as a legal fee, and to this day some of that land, in the City of Goleta near Glen Annie Road, is called the Bishop Ranch. The least attractive land was left to the Den children, and that included the Rincon Ranch, which was at that time the name of the entire Isla Vista mesa, from present-day UCSB west to Coal Oil Point. The Rincon (Spanish for angle or corner) is the corner where Storke Road turns into El Colegio; until 1930 or so, Storke to El Colegio was the only road in to Isla Vista, because other roads such as Los Carneros or Ward Memorial did not exist, because the Goleta Slough prevented passage. The Rincon Ranch had very little fresh water, was marginal for agriculture, and was split between three of the Den children: Augusto Den, who had mental disabilities, got the land that now forms the UCSB Main Campus and Alfonso got the land that is now Isla Vista.

Alfonso Den's land eventually passed on to local land speculators, and was divided into the three subdivisions mentioned under Geography in the mid-1920s. The Isla Vista subdivisions are the earliest urban subdivisions performed in the Goleta Valley in the 20th century. The narrow streets of Isla Vista are characteristic of 1920s land planning. Plans for water, electricity, road building, and sewage were not made in the 1920s; the subdivision was speculative. Some of the speculation was related to ocean-front real estate, but an equally important motive was the likelihood of oil reserves being accessible from Isla Vista property. To aid speculation, the lots in the subdivision were narrow, and mineral rights were pooled among blocks of lots. Some oil was found, but the wells did not sustain oil production, unlike the very productive Ellwood Oil Field just to the west of Isla Vista. Royalties from the Ellwood field paid for a large portion of the costs of construction of Santa Barbara County's famed Courthouse. An oil deposit about one mile south of Isla Vista under the Santa Barbara Channel known as the 'South Ellwood' field was eventually found, but has never been fully developed, due to local political opposition after the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. The South Ellwood field contains upward of 100 million barrels of oil, and attempts by ARCO (in the 1980s) and by Mobil (in the 1990s) to develop the field have been rebuffed by local opposition.

Even though the Isla Vista lots were sold to several hundred owners in the 1920s, only a few vacation cottages were built before the 1940s. Scarcity of water, which had to be trucked in, as well as primitive sewage and refuse collection kept the development modest. A few dirt farmers raised beans, and piled their refuse into large heaps.

World War II

On February 23, 1942 a Japanese submarine attacked the Ellwood oil field to the west of Isla Vista, and in response the United States Marine Corps took over both the land immediately to the east of Isla Vista (now the UCSB campus) and the land that now forms the Santa Barbara Airport. The Marine Corps developed Marine Corps Air Station Santa Barbara as an important flight training facility for squadrons fighting the Japanese in the Western Pacific, most notably the famed Blacksheep of VMF-214 trained here until their ill-fated deployment aboard the USS Franklin (CV-13). In the process of this crucial war-time development of the air base, Mescalitan Island, home of a tribal king and site of extensive sacred Chumash cemeteries, was bulldozed to fill most remaining portions of the Goleta Slough, once an extensive estuary that sustained a few thousand Chumash. The slough was at one time deep enough that Spanish explorers were able to sail near to the foothills, past the location of present-day Hollister Avenue. By this time, however, most of the Slough had silted in by the enormous deluge of 1861-62, as well as by dirt loosened from agricultural operations in the area. The Marine Corps filled in several of the only remaining deep channels, particularly one that is now under the primary runway used for civil aviation today. The Marine Corps then built a sewage processing facility on the bulldozed sacred Chumash cemetery. Today this is the site of the Goleta Sanitary District facility.

The Marine Corps Air facility was deemed superfluous after World War II, and the airport was transferred to the City of Santa Barbara, while the blufftop barracks and land were transferred to the University of California in 1948 for the new Santa Barbara Campus (UCSB). The original vision for UCSB entailed a small, 3000-student campus, that would be contained on the blufftop site, and it seemed neighboring Isla Vista would develop into a mixture of single family dwellings and apartments for staff. Water became available from a reservoir in the Santa Ynez Mountains, Lake Cachuma, in the early 1950s. The homeowners who moved in organized the Isla Vista Sanitary District in 1954, which now is called the Goleta West Sanitary District.

The University

UCSB moved to its new campus in 1954, when there was a gala inauguration of the new campus, as well as the new, nationally-prominent Provost, Clark Kuebler. Kuebler had been the President of Ripon College (Wisconsin) , a small, liberal arts college. His charge was to develop UCSB into a first-rate small, liberal arts college that could complement the enormous `multiversities' at Berkeley and UCLA. By the end of 1955, however, Kuebler resigned, due to a scandal.

Kuebler was a prominent leader in the Episcopal Church (ECUSA) and helped establish Isla Vista's first church, St. Michael and All Angel's at Camino Pescadero and Picasso. Isla Vista has always had a vibrant religious community, and includes 7 religious institutions and a variety of religious study groups. One church, St. Athanasius, evolved out of the devotion of Isla Vista residents.

Although Isla Vista had been subdivided in the 1920s, it did not yet have zoning. A battle ensued in the early 1950s between the homeowners who wanted a mixture of single-family dwellings and apartments, and the non-resident property owners who wanted the maximum density possible. The non-resident property owners won, and all three Isla Vista subdivisions were zoned for apartments. Eventually the Orilla del Mar subdivision on the western edge of Isla Vista was rezoned for single family dwellings, but a rancorous relationship between the apartment developers and the homeowners was established. Today, only a few percent of Isla Vista's property owners are residents.

In the 1950s UCSB Professor Douwe Stuurman hosted the famed writer Aldous Huxley, at Stuurman's home on Del Playa. Huxley delivered a series of lectures at UCSB and in the Santa Barbara area.

It became clear the young people from the post-WWII baby boom would flood the University of California, and the original vision of UCSB as a small, self-contained, liberal arts campus would be inadequate. In the late 1950s, Clark Kerr, President of UC, revisioned UCSB to be a general campus like UC Berkeley. Samuel B. Gould was appointed the first UCSB Chancellor in 1959. The first UCSB plans that acknowledged Isla Vista were developed under Gould, who expressed concern that Isla Vista was an impediment to the orderly development of the area, due to its already haphazard development. Gould left UCSB in 1962, and later became Chancellor of the State University of New York.

The development of Isla Vista as a place of lodging for UCSB students attending a much grander institution commenced, initially with regulated dormitories along El Colegio Road. UCSB administrators actually recruited developers to build the large complexes on El Colegio, which in 1960 were thought to be forward-looking and modern, and even won design awards. A legend that UCSB administrators were profiteering from development of Isla Vista started in part due to these activities. Some of these dorms were portrayed in the mystery novels of Ross Macdonald.

The 60s and 70s

By the early 1960s, older students became frustrated with the curfews and entry restrictions in the dormitories, and drove demand for unregulated apartments in Isla Vista. Very aggressive developers built apartments to meet the demand, and successfully lobbied County Supervisors to drive down the requirements for parking places associated with the apartments, and to further drive up the density of dwelling units. At the same time, efforts to unify the owners of commercially zoned property around the Embarcadero Loop failed, leaving issues of coordinated business development and parking for commercial customers unresolved.

There are a variety of legends concerning who profited from the development of Isla Vista. One legend identifies the Mafia. Another identifies UCSB administrators, as earlier mentioned. Additionally, a local alternative Isla Vista newspaper, Probe, accused UCSB Chancellor Vernon Cheadle, because he sat on the board of a local savings and loan that made many loans to the Isla Vista developers. Probe never had evidence that Cheadle received money beyond honoraria for serving on the board, however. A persistent rumor that Cheadle and other administrators actually owned property through complicated intermediaries, who concealed the true ownership, survives to this day. Some faculty and administrators did openly own and develop property in Isla Vista, but they constituted at most a few percent of Isla Vista's landowners. Because Isla Vista had been subdivided into many small lots there were approximately 500 property owners of Isla Vista land in the 1950s. It is hard to discern any pattern to the development of Isla Vista beyond an anarchic group of landowners, each with small holdings, and all seeking a profit, a pattern that persists to the present day. A few of the non-resident landowners participate in civic affairs in Isla Vista, and, in general, those landowners provide the best rental units for their tenants. However, the majority of landowners are uninvolved, and the attractiveness of their units arises only from the proximity to UCSB, the beach, and to other young people.

Attempts at forming a City of Isla Vista were thwarted by a variety of stronger influences, ranging from the property owners to Santa Barbara County to UCSB and their own inexperience. Efforts to incorporate Isla Vista into its own City failed in 1973, 1975, and 1985, in each case due to a negative vote by LAFCO, the Local Agency Formation Commission. Isla Vista wielded considerable influence in the Goleta Water District, however, which covers a large area. The Isla Vista vote helped usher in the era (still going on) of no-growth policies in the nearby Goleta area, over the more conservative blocs of voters in Goleta, who at that time favored growth. Those Goleta residents gradually converted to the no-growth stance, but simultaneously they shun Isla Vista. In 2001, the residents of Goleta successfully persuaded LAFCO to exclude Isla Vista from the new City of Goleta, although many observers noted that Isla Vistans shop mostly in Goleta, because county planners channeled commercial business development into Goleta.

A vocal and organized group of Isla Vista residents argued for inclusion of Isla Vista in the new City of Goleta, but encountered strong opposition from the Chair and Executive Director of LAFCO. LAFCO enabled the City of Goleta to garner the tax revenue from Isla Vista's economic activity, without civic responsibility for Isla Vista's infrastructure. Some note also that Santa Barbara County gets net revenue from Isla Vista, and so has a financial interest in keeping Isla Vista out of a city. The official reason for the exclusion of Isla Vista given by the Executive Director of LAFCO was `political infeasibility.' The only wide poll of the greater Goleta area, conducted by the Goleta Roundtable, indicated that a city including Isla Vista would pass at the ballot box, however.

Starting in the 1970s, Isla Vista became more and more dominated by students from UCSB and nearby Santa Barbara City College. UCSB expanded its enrollment, and the economic power of the relatively affluent students drove non-student residents out. The late 1960s upheaval destroyed a raft of organized activities that once occupied students' time, and into the void a free-form party scene took hold, resulting in throngs of young people gathering on Friday and Saturday nights on Del Playa Drive, the street that hugs the southern blufftop of Isla Vista.


1970: 13,441
1980: N/A
1990: 20,395
2000: 18,344


As of the census of 2000, there were 18,344 people, 5,164 households, and 1,208 families residing in the CDP. The population density was 8,635.2 people per square mile. There were 5,264 housing units at an average density of 2,478.0/sq mi. The racial makeup of the CDP was 69.49% White, 2.10% African American, 0.64% Native American, 11.56% Asian, 0.23% Pacific Islander, 10.16% from other races, and 5.81% from two or more races. 20.01% of the population were Hispanic or Latino of any race.

There were 5,164 households out of which 13.3% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 16.4% were married couples living together, 4.8% had a female householder with no husband present, and 76.6% were non-families. 20.0% of all households were made up of individuals and 2.7% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.96 and the average family size was 3.21.

The age distribution was 8.6% under the age of 18, 73.4% from 18 to 24, 13.7% from 25 to 44, 3.1% from 45 to 64, and 1.2% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 21 years. Both the age distribution and median age are typical of communities dominated by college students. For every 100 females there were 100.1 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 99.8 males.

The median income for a household in the CDP was $16,151, and the median income for a family was $26,250. Males had a median income of $23,381 versus $20,281 for females. The per capita income for the CDP was $7,644. 62.8% of the population and 28.6% of families were below the poverty line. 29.7% of those under the age of 18 and 3.1% of those 65 and older were living below the poverty line.

The high percentage of non-family residents living below the poverty line can be attributed to the fact that Isla Vista is predominantly a town populated by college students.


This page was last updated July 19, 2009.