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Laura Hout: Building-Height Blues

If tall buildings destroy ambiance, it's news to Europe's great cities.

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Paseo Chapala blends commercial and residential space in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara. (Laura Hout photo)

Imagine Santa Barbara without the Courthouse, the Mission, the Granada or the Arlington Theatre. Hard to do, right? But that’s exactly what certain citizens and elected officials envision for our future. They want to amend Santa Barbara’s General Plan through 2030 and limit city building heights to 40 or 45 feet.

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Laura Hout
What a barren world it would be if all visionaries shared their fear of heights. I had the good fortune to live in Europe and see great architecture firsthand. I shudder at the idea of building-height limits in London, Milan, Vienna, Prague, Florence, Verona, Munich, Rome, Cologne, Venice, Bellagio, Berlin. If tall buildings destroy ambiance, it’s news to these great cities.

It occurs to me that it’s only young cultures that cling to nostalgia as a style criterion. Sure, pueblos and presidios are charming and atmospheric. But it’s the Queen of the Missions that puts Santa Barbara on the map. And that queen stands head and shoulders above humble adobe predecessors, bell tower and all.

“Why come to Santa Barbara if it looks just like everyplace else?” ask members of Save El Pueblo Viejo. But their data contradicts their argument. Their list of building heights in the city (not inclusive by any means) shows the Courthouse tower at 100 feet, the Granada at 116 feet and the Canary Hotel — not including roof garden elements — at 62 feet high.

And what do most tourists visiting Santa Barbara want to see? The Mission and the Courthouse. Exactly. Members of Save El Pueblo Viejo and the League of Women Voters should take a page from history. According to Santa Barbara — A Guide to El Pueblo Viejo, the Courthouse, along with the Lobero and Arlington theaters are “impressive case studies of how larger volumes can be maneuvered so that they add to — rather than destroy — the provincial Andalusian scale of Santa Barbara.”

These buildings were created before height limits were enacted.

I first realized the importance of planning policies when I walked Santa Barbara in the mid-1990s with a European architect. Through his eyes I learned we could not build the Arlington today, the Courthouse would never happen. And why, he asked, as we stood at the intersection of State and Carrillo streets, don’t people live above these commercial buildings? What’s with the mock-window facades on the Saks Fifth Avenue building and the then-Pier One building?

I confess, I’d never even thought about it.

Fortunately, our city has taken major strides in fostering mixed-used developments. But if detractors have their way, that progress will be halted. According to certain factions, the only way to keep our city charming is to squash it flat. Building heights should be limited to 40 or 45 feet. They want to preserve “El Pueblo Viejo” — never mind that Santa Barbara touts itself as the “American Riviera.” Perhaps these leaders and concerned citizens should tour some of the European locales that our city boosters so blithely claim we resemble. Maybe then they’ll realize the folly of mythologizing the “Pueblo” and reverting us to a dusty Spanish garrison.

Either we’re the American Pueblo or we’re the American Riviera. By all means, we should preserve our historic buildings and honor Santa Barbara’s heritage and Hispanic/Mediterranean-inspired design. But we live in the 21st century. It makes no sense to emulate building methods of the 1800s. Why would any enlightened city ignore sustainable living practices, shun smart growth and forgo green-building? To sprawl into the suburbs, waste more land, require more car trips, gobble more gas and cripple our downtown? That’s progress?

I don’t think so.

Julie Bischoff, a member of the Santa Barbara Contractors Association and Built Green Santa Barbara, expresses bewilderment at downsizing building heights. Over the years Bischoff’s company, J.W. Bailey Construction, has built mixed-use projects on Chapala, Garden and Santa Barbara streets.

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Could the Arlington Theatre’s iconic spire be built today? (Laura Hout photo)
“I don’t understand how policymakers in an environmentally conscious city like Santa Barbara, who say they want to build green, be sustainable and save open space, don’t realize that ‘up’ is the only place left to go,” Bischoff says.

“Building up reduces the footprint on the land, uses less water, reduces automobile trips, revitalizes neighborhoods and makes them safer.”

Bischoff notes there are ways to soften building masses, by stepping them up in tiers like wedding cakes, and creating interior courtyards that allow light into building cores.

In Munich, I lived in a five-story mixed-use building with a center courtyard and lively street scene below. I didn’t need a car (think of the cost savings!) unless I rented one for a weekend drive. The city was vital, the Bavarian countryside preserved. To be sure, this is not a lifestyle for everyone — right now I have three big dogs and I like my suburban yard. But it’s a wonderful lifestyle choice: I walked more, I kept fit without trying, used public transit and saved money on auto expenses.

“Most Americans agree we will never see cheap gas again,” says David Goldberg, spokesman for Smart Growth America, referring to a recent Harris poll. Mortimer Zuckerman, editor-in-chief of U.S. News & World Report is more blunt. Decrying gasoline prices that have risen above $4 a gallon, he asks, “And where is the wealth going? To enemies of America, to some of the world’s worst leaders, such as the oil autocrats of Iran, Venezuela and Russia.”

Enlightened visionaries in Santa Barbara’s past argued for “smart growth” before the term was coined. Simon Eisner, who prepared the General Plan for the city of Santa Barbara in 1964 stated, ““There is growing awareness that the automobile is getting out of hand: that its influence on the urban scene is becoming dictatorial rather than beneficent. It is the instrument whereby free rein was given to urban sprawl …” In fact, these early leaders envisioned several blocks of State Street as a car-free pedestrian zone, much like the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica.

That is vitality! But none of this can ever happen if we lower building heights.

“What we will miss — if we lower building heights — is the chance to revitalize our neighborhoods, create a vibrant city core, and build a truly sustainable city,” says Detlev Peikert of Peikert Group Architects.

Peikert, whose firm designed Paseo Chapala, adds, “Dynamic city cores support businesses and services, even in tough economic times.”

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Why shouldn’t the former Pier 1 building, 928 State St., have a mixed use? (Laura Hout photo)
Joe Andrulaitis of Cearnal Andrulaitis Architects Inc. agrees.

“The arguments for lowering building heights are not valid,” he says. “The planning process is already responding to community concerns about building heights. What we hear people saying is the city doesn’t need more high-priced condos, it needs more workforce housing.”

He points out that in order to be more sustainable, San Luis Obispo just raised its height limits to 75 feet.

A proposal to enact “interim building height limits” of 40 to 45 feet is scheduled for a Santa Barbara City Council vote in September. An initiative to enact 40- to 45-foot height limits in the city core is slated for the November 2009 ballot.

Citizens wishing to help shape Santa Barbara’s General Plan through 2030 — including height limit parameters — are urged to attend a community workshop at the Central Library Faulkner Gallery, 40 E. Anapamu St., from 6-9 p.m. Wednesday. Click here for the Plan Santa Barbara Policy Options Report. Comments can be submitted no later than 5 p.m. Aug. 1 to PlanSB Team Planning Division, Community Development Department, P.O. Box 1990, Santa Barbara 93102.

For national information on smart growth, sustainable living and green building, click here or click here.

Locally, SB4ALL, a coalition of engaged citizens participating in the General Plan process, can be reached by contacting Andrulaitis at 805.963.8077 x211. For additional information, contact Built Green Santa Barbara for Built Green Santa Barbara or the Santa Barbara Contractors Association.

Laura Hout is a freelance writer and Realtor affiliated with Prudential California Realty.

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