It’s official: An initiative that would significantly lower building-height limits in Santa Barbara received enough valid signatures to be placed on the November 2009 ballot, meaning that, unless the spearheading group has a change of heart in the next year, it will be decided by the city’s voters.
Meanwhile, City Council member Das Williams, a critic of the initiative who believes that it would do violence to the city’s ability to provide housing affordable to the middle class, on Wednesday said he plans to float a proposal of his own that could compete on the same ballot.
On Tuesday, in a formality vote, the Santa Barbara City Council officially accepted the signatures submitted by a coalition of slow-growth advocates who gathered them for the ballot measure. The signatures were vetted for validity over a period of several weeks by the city clerk, who concluded that the group — Save El Pueblo Viejo — was in the clear.
As it stands now, buildings in the commercial zones of Santa Barbara can be 60 feet high. The initiative calls for lowering the limit to 40 feet in the historic downtown area and 45 feet in the rest of the city.
Sheila Lodge, a member of Save El Pueblo Viejo, said the height initiative is vital to maintaining the city’s unique small-town charm.
“It’s what makes it different,” said Lodge, a former mayor of Santa Barbara. “To be able to see the views downtown, and to be able to have a sense of openness. These are the things people love most about Santa Barbara.”
She said the measure also would serve to protect the city’s economic base, noting that the city’s character draws many tourists.
Lodge said Save El Pueblo Viejo probably will begin campaigning around the first of the year.
Williams countered that he thinks it’s possible to maintain the charm while rewarding developers who go above and beyond the call of duty on affordable housing. He says the height initiative as proposed would exacerbate the city’s middle-class exodus because developers thus far have tended to build a higher percentage of affordable units than is required by city law only when they can maximize the amount of units in the given space provided.
“The real danger is (the group’s initiative) prevents us from having a future of another generation of working people in Santa Barbara,” he said. “If Santa Barbarans want to see affordable units downtown that working people can afford, then they should vote against this initiative.”
He added that by lowering the height limit so unequivocally, the initiative would have another unintended consequence: promoting buildings that are fatter, and lacking in open space.
Williams is working on a draft of an ordinance that, if approved by the City Council, could be placed on the ballot. Williams said such a measure could call for a similar height initiative, but with exceptions granting extra height to affordable-housing-friendly developers. It also could address other related architectural matters, such as setbacks.
He said on Wednesday that he plans to make the attempt, but it could be a challenge: At least two of the seven council members — Mayor Marty Blum and Dale Francisco — support Save El Pueblo Viejo’s height initiative.
Save El Pueblo Viejo members have argued that lowering the height limits would not reduce affordable housing options if developers showed more willingness to lower the ceilings of the individual units. The group needed 6,480 valid signatures to place the item on the ballot.
Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.