Does Santa Barbara have room for more people?
Different informed citizens will give you different answers.
Preservationists say the city is not only bursting at the seams, but in danger of becoming overrun by traffic, people and tall buildings. They are “slow-growthers” and “no-growthers,” and would like to curb development — perhaps by lowering current building-height limits, for instance — so as to retain the city’s small-town charm.
Affordable-housing advocates say Santa Barbara’s exorbitant cost of housing is marginalizing the middle class and poor, leading to a community clogged with commuters and devoid of diversity. These folks adhere to a philosophy they refer to as “smart growth,” which is a fancy term for ushering in higher-density rental apartments and below-market-rate condos near transit centers downtown.
The question on population growth is at the center of the city’s ongoing colossal effort to update its General Plan. The process has been dubbed “Plan Santa Barbara,” and when it comes to workload, complexity, importance and time-consumption, it’s a whopper.
But what, exactly, is Plan Santa Barbara?
For the sake of context, think of it as an amendment to Santa Barbara’s version of the Constitution.
Like the Constitution, the General Plan is not a set of laws, but rather the guiding document city leaders look to when crafting specific ordinances on land use, housing, transportation, city services and the like.
“What the General Plan talks about is, ‘What will the city actually look like?’" Mayor Marty Blum explained. “It’s like a good book about Santa Barbara’s charter. What do we want? Open space? Small parks in every neighborhood? That kind of thing.”
The process of updating the General Plan is a big deal because it will guide city policy for decades to come. In the effort currently under way, the city is giving plenty of voice to Joe Citizen, at least in theory. City officials have and will continue to diligently record the comments and suggestions of local residents, although some people believe the city should do more on this front. In any case, the process is about half done, which is to say it will continue until at least 2010. (The next public meeting for Plan Santa Barbara will be April 7.)
How Did We Get Here?
With its red-tile rooftops, white-stucco facades, centuries-old Presidio, abundant plant life and quaint courtyards, Santa Barbara is not your typical American city. Named by the Portuguese in the early 1600s, it was settled by Spaniards in the late 1700s, taken over by Mexico in 1822, and seized by the U.S. military in 1846. It became an official American city in 1850, just five months before California became a state.
In the early 20th century, Santa Barbara grew gradually, and was known throughout the nation as a health resort and getaway place for the wealthy and movie stars. But it wasn’t until the aftermath of the devastating 1925 earthquake that the city began to fully embrace its history, culture, architecture and climate.
Under the guidance of Pearl Chase, the chairwoman and a founder of the Plans & Planting Committee, the city reinvented itself. Hundreds of small, Spanish-style houses were built; new laws restricting building heights and architectural styles were passed; trees were planted and saved; billboards were abolished; the landmark Courthouse was finished. From the rubble of the deadly quake, Santa Barbara had emerged triumphant.
By the 1950s, Santa Barbara, like many American cities, began to witness a population boom. Local leaders, alarmed by a 30 percent surge of residents between 1950 and 1960, began working on the virgin draft of Santa Barbara’s state-mandated General Plan.
The document was finished in 1964. Although it has been fine-tuned three or four times since then, the ongoing Plan Santa Barbara process amounts to its first major update.
Unlike the bureau-speak embedded in the language of most governmental documents, the prose in this 1,000-page tome at times possesses a poetic quality. From the very beginning, the General Plan has espoused minimizing population growth to preserve the area’s high level of desirability.
“There is no question about whether or not this substantial rate of population increase will continue into the foreseeable future," the document states. "It will. The problem is not one, therefore, of attracting people to come to the area. They are already attracted, and they are coming.”
To ward off mass influx, the authors urged future city leaders to keep densities low and industrial development at bay. The idea was to preserve Santa Barbara’s singular character, which the authors believed was responsible for attracting the kind of people who kept the local economy strong — tourists and wealthy retirees. In terms of job creation, they suggested favoring research institutions over industrial development, in keeping with Santa Barbara’s genteel feel.
Through the decades, the document has played a pivotal role in shaping the city as it exists today.
In the 1970s, the General Plan was the muse that inspired an attempt to cap the population at 85,000. The politically popular idea turned out to be unconstitutional, but three decades later, the population is declining on its own anyway. After a gradual, decades-long climb, it peaked at 90,600 in 2002, and by last year had fallen to 89,400, according to the state Department of Finance.
Related to that effort is another General Plan policy that still remains. This one assigns a number to the concept of “buildout,” and says Santa Barbara will run out of vacancy when it contains exactly 40,005 dwellings — that is, houses, condos, mobile homes and apartment units. By these numbers, Santa Barbara is indeed dangerously close to hitting critical mass: the city currently has 37,500 dwellings, and 1,300 more are approved and in the pipeline, leaving little more than 1,000 before the city is technically built out.
It’s one of the questions the city wants you to help answer.
In a nutshell, Plan Santa Barbara will happen in three phases, and the city has just entered phase two. The first phase was all about outreach, and it began in 2005. If that seems like a long time ago, it’s because the city froze the entire process for 18 months while it studied another project last year. But recently, the Planning Commissioners barked about the snail’s pace of the process, and now Plan Santa Barbara reportedly is back on track.
During that first phase, with an eye toward maximizing citizen input, city officials held myriad workshops, forums and meetings, in which they essentially asked people what they thought to be Santa Barbara’s most pressing problems.
Nearly 1,000 citizens participated. On the question of whether the city needs more growth, opinions were divided. Written comments included the following: "We need growth in housing; lessen limits on growth." "Live within our resources, which means no more growth." "Limit sprawl; concentrate new housing downtown." "Wish the city still had a population of 40,000."
Last month, Phase Two began in earnest, albeit mostly at a staff level so far. But the entire phase is expected to last at least a year, and will solicit more public input. Phase Two also will have more of a rubber-hits-the-road focus to create draft policies.
On April 7, the city will hold a Planning Commission work session on development trends, and staff members are hopeful that residents will show up in droves. This will be followed by two community workshops strictly geared toward residents, on April 19 and 23. From these sessions, staff members will craft a draft document of policy options. This will lead to a flurry of forums, workshops and meetings, in which the City Council, Planning Commission, and general public will bat the proposed document around, most likely changing it as it moves toward completion.
All the while, a paid consultant will put together an Environmental Impact Report looking at the pros and cons of various options.
Then, sometime in the spring of 2009, the third phase will begin. Here the goal will be to pass the proposed policy, and it will therefore generally involve less participation from the Planning Commission, and more from the City Council. Still, the public will have ample opportunity to weigh in. A series of public meetings will last nearly a year — ending in the winter of 2010 — and will culminate in the adoption of the General Plan amendment.
The General Plan update is nothing if not controversial through and through, however. Even the process is contentious.
Some residents fear that city officials, for all their attempts to generate comments from citizens, will try to ram its own agenda through. In general, these tend to be the slow-growthers, who fear the city planning staff is too enamored of the smart-growth philosophy, which favors high-density housing near transit centers.
Joe Rution, secretary of the Allied Neighborhoods Association, said in addition to including citizens in the brainstorming process, the city should put the resulting proposed policies up for public vote.
“We have in our past a tradition of major planning decisions that were made by ballot measures,” he said, citing as an example Measure E, a local law approved by voters in 1989 that has considerably slowed commercial development, and therefore the need for more housing. (It sunsets at the end of 2009.) “I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t continue it.”
Rution, the retired owner of a closed golf shop, was one of the founding members of the Bungalow Haven Neighborhood Association on East Sola Street, a group that formed in opposition to a developer’s plan several years ago to demolish three small houses to make room for a condo complex on Laguna and Micheltorena streets. The neighbors won the battle.
“I and some others are advocating for the maximum amount of citizen participation that can be put into this thing,” he said. “I think (the city) could do more. I think a lot of it is being developed in-house by the city orders and city officialdom.”
But others are more supportive of the city process to date. Among them is David Pritchett, member of Citizens Planning Association, which generally takes a rather middle-of-the-road stance on growth.
“They are really recognizing the dichotomy of public views, and have a hard time getting their arms around where to go next,” Pritchett said of the city. “That’s why I think this process is taking so damn long.”
In 1982, voters passed a charter amendment directing Santa Barbara to “live within its resources.” One way of interpreting that mandate is to continue the current course of limiting development, and therefore population. But another interpretation has surfaced.
It suggests that further stifling growth could finish off the middle class, which already has started to leave, presumably due largely to Santa Barbara’s median home price of $1.2 million.
According to the UCSB Economic Forecast Project, from 2000 to 2007 the proportion of people earning between $35,000 and $50,000 annually has dropped by 2 percent on the South Coast, compared to 1 percent nationwide. The proportion of people earning between $75,000 and $100,000 has risen by less than half a percent locally, compared to a 2 percent increase nationwide. Conversely, the proportion of people earning more than $150,000 on the South Coast increased by 4 percent — about double the national average.
“We have exported our housing needs,” said affordable housing activist Mickey Flacks, founder of the nonprofit Santa Barbara County Action Network, or SB CAN. “They are living in Ventura, they are living in Lompoc, and they are driving into the city. This is not good; it causes congestion.”
In this view, fewer residents actually mean more automobiles, because of increased commuting. But that’s not all. The trend could lead to deeper workforce quandaries — perhaps a dearth of veteran teachers, locally housed public safety employees or highly qualified surgeons.
Flacks believes a densely populated downtown is “not necessarily a bad thing.”
“It adds to the cultural level of the city of Santa Barbara,” she said. “If we stick with the present policy on the South Coast, by 2030 we will have only very rich people and very poor people living here. … I think that’s a bad future.”
Meanwhile, yet another problem is sprouting. In the past couple of years, the number of buildings considered tall by Santa Barbara’s standards has witnessed a dramatic spike. And quaint local businesses — like the Italian Greek Deli downtown — have sold out or been priced out, only to be replaced by national chain stores, like Verizon.
In response, a group called Save El Pueblo Viejo — named after Santa Barbara’s historic downtown district — has started collecting signatures to put an initiative on the November ballot that would reduce height limits in the city’s commercial zones to 40 feet from 60 in the historic district, and 45 feet in the rest of the city.
One of the group’s members, architect Gil Barry, is a self-described preservationist who said that while he understands the pitfalls of runaway housing costs, he believes the city can’t make inroads on that dilemma without hurting Santa Barbara’s unique character.
“There are two main goals in the community,” he said. “For around 70 percent of the people, their main goal is to preserve the small-town character, and for the other 30 percent, their main goal is to build more housing, in an attempt to provide housing for the workforce.
“One-hundred percent of the people have both goals. The difference is how the people weigh those two goals. … I had to weigh the goals and had to put the priority on ‘small-town character of life.’
“What makes it complicated," he added, "is both goals are worthy goals, and everybody would like to have it both ways, but we can’t have it both ways.”
In a glaring case-in-point, recently a developer lopped off an entire floor from the design of a proposed Radio Square condominium complex in the 200 block of West Carrillo Street. The change came at the expense of workforce housing for the middle class: The proportion of affordable units dropped to the minimum 15 percent from 38 percent.
Nonetheless, some believe Santa Barbara can have it both ways. One such group is the Santa Barbara chapter of the League of Women Voters.
“We do think the city is going to need to limit what is developed in the interest of preserving those things most of us like in Santa Barbara — the feeling of openness, the small-town atmosphere, marvelous views of the ocean and mountains,” said Connie Hannah, the league’s first vice president for local action.
Yet, she added, “One thing the city needs more than anything is rental apartments.”
The city, Hannah said, should follow the lead of Goleta, which recently helped subsidize a project to build 200 rental units near Old Town. Called Sumida Gardens, the project broke ground in January.
Meanwhile, just as the density debate pits slow-growthers vs. advocates of affordable housing, another aspect of the General Plan could pit the city against the state, as well as the city against its neighbors. This is what is known as the Housing Element.
Given Santa Barbara’s culture of independence and historic preservation, it’s not difficult to see how this portion of the process could be a collision course.
Although the General Plan has seven elements — land use, housing, transportation, seismic safety, noise, coastal planning and conservation — the only one that needs to be updated every five years under state law is the housing element. The next deadline is August 2009.
California, which assumes growth is inevitable, mandates that every county make plans to absorb it. As a result, the state tells every county how many more housing units they must make room for.
“The average resident of Santa Barbara has no idea that the state is telling us how many houses we have to put into our city,” Blum said. “It’s almost Orwellian or something. It’s like, who are they to say that?”
After the state assigns the numbers to the counties, the counties must divvy up the burden among the cities. In Santa Barbara County, that highly politicized process will be undertaken by the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, on which sit many mayors, including Blum. This year, the total number is 11,600 units.
If the number that is ultimately assigned to the city of Santa Barbara outstrips its own definition of buildout — in other words, if Santa Barbara is told it must find room for much more than 1,000 units — the city’s hands are pretty much tied. However, Blum has said if worst comes to worst, she will consider fighting it in court.
Wait, There’s More
If all this is enough to make a person dizzy, consider this: The General Plan isn’t just about land use and housing. It’s also about those other five elements. What’s more, the city of Santa Barbara is adding three others to the list: sustainability, history and youth.
Soon, Santa Barbara’s youth will have a chance to offer their two cents. This spring, the city is sending a survey to every senior government class in the high schools.
But at the end of the day, despite the complexities posed by history and economics, the confusion stemming from technical considerations and process, and acrimony over how best to chart the course of the city’s future, Blum said the whole thing boils down to one idea: “Living within our resources, and how do we do that.”