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Local News

Planning Commission Keeps Housing Project Moving Toward Funding

An approved compromise will help the Housing Authority meet a deadline to qualify for $10 million in tax credits

Narrowly saving the $10 million in federal funding at stake for a downtown housing project for low-income workers and the chronically homeless, the Santa Barbara Planning Commission voted unanimously Thursday on a compromise.

Meeting in the middle between creek advocates who said the building at 512 Bath St. was too close to Mission Creek, and proponents of the project who wanted to qualify in time for tax credits, commissioners voted 4-0 to move the project 5 feet from the creek and toward the street.

The project calls for 53 studios ranging in size from 320 square feet to 445 square feet. Half of the units would house downtown workers, and the other half would house people making the transition out of homelessness.

The plans were approved by city staff hearing officer Susan Reardon in June, meeting the Housing Authority of the City of Santa Barbara’s July 7 deadline for submitting its application to the state. Reardon signed off on the plans, which included a 25-foot minimum setback from the creek. No members of the public or the city’s Architectural Board of Review expressed concern over the setbacks, according to city reports.

The setbacks along Lower Mission Creek are discretionary and vary from 25 feet to 50 feet, but the city doesn’t define a number for creek setback standards. After the project had been approved, the Urban Creeks Council raised questions about the setbacks. Subsequently, Planning Commissioner Stella Larson recommended that the item be suspended and come back before the commission for further review.

But at times during Thursday’s meeting, it seemed like the project might not go forward.

Commissioner Bruce Bartlett began the meeting by chiding the applicants for going through the staff hearing officer for approval, instead of the Planning Commission.

“I would hope that applicants would include the Planning Commission, especially when they’re on tight time frames and large projects,” he said.

Bartlett recused himself from the hearing, saying he has a project with the Housing Authority.

Rob Pearson, executive director of the Housing Authority, which owns and is developing the property, said the group has been following what city staff told it to do, adding that the staff advised the group to go to the staff hearing officer, and that the 25-foot setback was allowed under city ordinance.

The project’s architect, Detlev Piekert, agreed.

“We really went to great lengths to make sure that 25-foot zone was what the city wanted,” he said.

Piekert said they talked with the Urban Creeks Council “at the 11th hour” and came up with compromises, including adding more vegetation by removing a patio, a laundry room and parking, and shuffling them to other parts of the property.

Pearson reminded the commissioners that the property had been in bad shape before it had been acquired. He said homeless people were living in the trees, and the creek was used as a restroom when the Housing Authority purchased the property.

Despite Larson’s call for speakers to leave out any comments about social issues and focus instead on the project’s planning elements, many said they supported the mission of the housing project.

Several members of the city’s Architectural Board of Review spoke, including Keith Rivera, who said, “We felt like this was a well-designed project” and that creek setbacks had never been an issue.

Eddie Harris of the Urban Creeks Council said it was feasible to change the design while keeping the creek in mind.

Lee Moldaver of the Creeks Advisory Committee said the group was recommending 50 feet for setbacks in the future. On the Bath project, “this isn’t really an 11th-hour hit; it’s just that a lot of groups and individuals are finding out just before the appeal deadline,” he said.

Commissioner Deborah Schwartz commended the Housing Authority’s track record, and called the project “both beautiful and practical.”

“I know what this property was like before the Housing Authority acquired it,” she said. Under private ownership, Schwartz said, the building had fallen into disrepair and was even the site of some criminal activity.

Larson said she was open to compromise, but that planners “fight for every inch of the creek.”

Pearson expressed his frustration in response.

“What’s very frustrating for us is that when I went to the city, I asked, ‘What is the setback for this project?’ and they said 25 feet,” he said. “This is not our screw-up.” 

Pearson recommended pushing the building 5 feet toward Bath Street, and the commission supported the recommendation.

The project will go back before the Architectural Board of Review at its next meeting in order to make an Aug. 7 deadline to qualify for the $10 million in federal funding to cover 90 percent of the project’s construction costs.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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