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Councilmen Rowse, Francisco Lead Public Hearing on Narrowing of State Street

The City Council is warned of potential consequences if the long-planned La Entrada hotel project is stalled

The “hole in the ground” that has long characterized Santa Barbara’s lower State Street appears to finally be making strides toward development, and with that, concerns about narrowing the street down to two lanes have bubbled up once again.

State Street would be narrowed from four lanes to two for sidewalk improvements surrounding the La Entrada hotel project planned around the intersection of State and Mason streets.

Santa Barbara City Councilmen Randy Rowse and Dale Francisco asked for a public hearing on Tuesday night not on the hotel project, but on the changes to the roadway.

The original La Entrada project was approved in 2001 and has changed hands to multiple owners since. Now, Los Angeles developer Michael Rosenfeld is moving forward, and city officials must sign off on whether Rosenfeld’s new plans “substantially conform” with the originally permitted project.

Some of the biggest changes have come from removing the nine timeshare units planned for the project, and increasing the number of rooms to 123 from 114. There also has been an increase in the amount of commercial space included in the project, among other changes.

The Santa Barbara Planning Commission agreed that the plans substantially conformed to the original project, but City Administrator Jim Armstrong ultimately will decide whether the project substantially conforms.

Rowse and Francisco both made valid points Tuesday, one of which was that the Funk Zone surrounding La Entrada has changed dramatically since the last traffic study was done on the area in 1998. That traffic study, however outdated, was part of the originally process to permits for the hotel.

Throughout the meeting, Rowse, Francisco and others made it clear that no one wanted delays on the hotel’s development; however, the road plans were a separate issue.

City Attorney Steve Wiley stated that the two could not be severed so cleanly legally. When the California Coastal Commission approved the project, the road improvements were part of that condition of approval.

If the council voted to revise that, the developer would have to go back to the drawing board for new permits, stalling development even more, and the city would open itself up to litigation for breach of contract, he said.

Construction on the west side of the street has already begun, and the street changes raised the ire of residents decades ago.

“It was very controversial then,” city traffic engineer Rob Dayton said. “This was about expanding the capacity of pedestrians.”

Before public comment, Planning Commissioner Deborah Schwartz warned that there could be adverse if unintended consequences for the project if the council didn’t move forward.

Schwartz conjured up images of the Miramar, the hotel that has long been stalled because of lack of financing, and urged them to move forward for the city’s well-being.

Attorney Douglas Fell was there representing developer Michael Rosenfeld and told the council in no certain terms that they could face legal action if they didn’t abide by their contract.

“We are at risk if any of these things change,” he said. “You’d just be telling us to go away, and that’s after spending a lot of money on the Californian Hotel.”

The Coastal Commission is also watching the council’s decision, and several city staffers said they had been contacted by the organization to check in on the project.

Many of the public speakers did not support the traffic changes, but almost universally, speakers urged the development to move forward from the barren construction site it is currently.

“I’m very concerned about where this puts us, but we may be stuck with this,” Francisco said.

Councilman Grant House urged the council to move forward, concerned that any appearance that the city isn’t fully supportive of the development could “spook investors.”

“You think the Miramar’s a problem?” he said, urging the council to “keep the handshake firm.”

Rowse thanked the public for their contributions Tuesday, and lauded the project, saying “it’s the best thing we’ve seen that hole in the ground.” But 2013 is more than a decade from when the permits were approved, and “it’s different out there.”

“If you had this as an open book today,” he said, “you wouldn’t be making the same decision.”

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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