Tuesday, October 23 , 2018, 5:04 pm | Fair 74º


Santa Barbara Council Sends General Plan Back to Subcommittee in Pursuit of Majority Vote

Hours of discussion focus on the update's housing element in an effort to find consensus and direction

In the seemingly never-ending General Plan update process, the Santa Barbara City Council decided Tuesday to pass the housing element’s intricacies back to its three-member subcommittee for more discussion.

Santa Barbara planning staff asked for clear direction on what’s needed for consensus and on a reasonable time line for adoption.

The City Council failed to adopt the plan in November, on Das Williams’ last day on the dais before he headed to the state Assembly. Now, Councilman Randy Rowse has been thrown into the mix as the seven members work to a five-vote majority to adopt the plan. The housing element is by far the most controversial portion of the plan, which focuses on area-by-area residential units per acre densities.

Though only a small portion of the city’s downtown area would be affected by the proposed changes, council members can’t agree on a growth model to include in the General Plan.

The Planning Commission, a community coalition and staff have mostly come to agreement on a hybrid plan of sorts, where developers are incentivized to build smaller, more affordable units.

“Clear direction is what we need,” principal planner John Ledbetter said. “What do you need before you will give it a check?”

Community development director Paul Casey reminded the council that the city is ineligible for some state grants without a current housing element.

The City Council sent the in-depth density discussion back to the subcommittee to get consensus and move forward, but the meeting also included hours of policy-specific suggestions, comments and concerns by individual members. As always, concerns over bulky, ugly buildings, too-little parking and negative impacts with planning decisions dominated the discussion.

The hybrid growth model and idea to increase possible density — units per acre — mostly in the downtown area have been proposed because if residential development happens, downtown is the place to put it with the smallest amount of traffic and other impacts, according to city planning staff. While the status quo is thought to be unacceptable, so is too much change as far as the housing element is concerned.

“We have to adapt to the reality around us, not ask reality to adapt to our theoretical preferences,” Councilman Frank Hotchkiss said.

High median home prices mean that more than half of the city’s residents are renters and thousands of workers commute every day, so a growth model was developed that could encourage smaller units that members of the work force could afford to rent or buy.

Rowse asked for more information about the work force in the city, saying data about salaries, commuters and demand for housing is necessary before making assumptions about what people can or cannot afford. He said the “long and horribly expensive process” doesn’t have much further to go since Santa Barbara is already built on a grid and prone to good urban planning.

Councilman Bendy White asked staff how practical it would be to assume that affordable market-rate rentals would be built without government subsidies, adding that most of his comments pertain to for-sale units.

“Santa Barbara is unique, Santa Barbara is special and we’re going to do it our way,” he said.

Councilman Dale Francisco has suggested approving a handful of high-density housing projects and evaluating them before adopting different planning policies untested, which others supported at Tuesday’s meeting.

Councilwoman Michael Self believes smaller units are harder to fill than larger units, saying that “people don’t want to live in a cube … unless they have to.”

She rhetorically asked staff why higher densities were needed when the status quo would allow 8,000 new units to be built over 20 years and the proposed densities would allow 2,800 to be added to the city’s current 35,000.

White, Councilman Grant House and Mayor Helene Schneider are the most supportive of the proposed plan, and are the only members left who voted for it in November. Schneider urged members of the council not to discount input from the previous five years just because those community members aren’t present at current meetings.

Staff set May and June as tentative dates for discussions to come back to the City Council, hopefully for adoption.

Click here for more information on Plan Santa Barbara, the effort to update the city’s General Plan.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews.

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