A rendering of the proposed new American Indian Health & Services building.
A rendering of the proposed new American Indian Health & Services building. (Courtesy image)

American Indian Health & Services currently runs a medical center out of five separate offices, with no options for lease renewals. 

It’s a shabby setting for an organization that serves 7,000 people a year. Soon, however, that might all change.

The Santa Barbara Planning Commission on Thursday showed support for initiating a specific plan, which would allow the clinic to build a new center at the site of the Army Reserve Center, 3237 State St.

The plan would allow the clinic to build a new facility, serve as a staging area for emergency services, and provide affordable housing. The proposal does not include housing, and clinic officials said they have no intention of building such units. 

The buildings have been vacant since 2009.

“This building has been abandoned essentially for approximately the last 12 years,” project architect Detty Peikert said. “So, this is a tremendous opportunity to revisit the use of this site and work toward establishing a permanent home for AIHS.”

The center was founded in 1994 and serves people from the El Mercado Shopping Center, 4141 State St.

“The space is disjointed and does not have the layout of a clinical facility,” said Scott Black, CEO of the clinic. “Although we have been in the same location for 27 years, a commercial lease does not provide us with the ability to control our future.”

The AIHS clinic offers medical, dental, pediatric and behavioral health services. It is one of 41 independent nonprofit organizations designated as an Urban Indian Health Program. The clinic serves Native Americans and Alaskan natives as well as non-native medically underserved populations. About 80% of the patients are at 200% of the federal poverty guideline.

“They are often uninsured or underinsured people who need specialty care as well as primary care,” Black said. “The majority of our patients are not Native American, and American Indian Health & Services is not affiliated with any one tribe.”

The clinic is in the process of acquiring the property from the federal government. The site is not zoned for a medical office building, so rather than rezone the area, city staff recommended a specific plan. The only reason housing is included as an option is because it is already allowed in the current zoning and state law prevents a specific plan from overriding the existing housing zoning.

Plans call for a healing garden, and a new pedestrian entrance on State Street. There’s already an unused curb cut on State Street that would be used for primary vehicular access, with its own parking lot, separate from the current parking in MacKenzie Park. The clinic proposes 115 parking spaces; 86 are required.

“Our intent is to make this an opening, welcoming campus for the American Indian Health & Services and for the community,” Peikert said. 

Members of the commission were supportive of the proposal, which next will go before the Santa Barbara City Council. Since it was a concept review, no formal action was taken, but the commission members did offer their positive feedback. Chair Deborah Schwartz did not attend the meeting.

“This is an excellent reuse of a facility that has been sitting uninhabited for far too long,” Planning Commissioner Sheila Lodge said. “It’s going to be a great improvement to the corner.”

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at jmolina@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.