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Santa Barbara Council Scours Specifics of City’s General Plan

Members discuss in detail seven of the 12 'key decisions' involved in Plan Santa Barbara

Members of the Santa Barbara City Council continued Tuesday, during a General Plan workshop, the tedious and gradual process of attempting to decide what they want Santa Barbara to look like in the next 20 years.

The General Plan, or Plan Santa Barbara, outlines key decisions in its “Decision Matrix,” ranging from transit demand management to growth management. Only the housing policy is required to be updated, but the land-use and environmental elements must be updated, too, in order to be adopted.

There hasn’t been a complete update to the General Plan since 1964, though it has been regularly amended.

On Tuesday, the goal was to get the council’s direction on how to move forward. There was no concrete consensus. Each point made was met by a rebuttal, and nearly each constituent had something to add to the discussion.

The council weighed the updates to Plan Santa Barbara, nitpicked specific verbiage and data, picked apart details in the Planning Commission’s recommendations, and questioned one another’s reasoning.

Council members struggled through several of the 12 “key decisions” in the plan. Yet, there were many topics discussed that fell outside of Plan Santa Barbara’s “Decision Matrix,” such as the environmental impact report.

While most crucial topics were at least briefly mentioned, seven were discussed in greater detail — but no vote was taken. Those topics included the General Plan framework, the average housing unit size, the environmental impact report, growth management, historic preservation and work force housing.

Concerns raised during the workshop focused on high-density housing, and whether it would be more affordable and attractive to the work force.

The council mostly agreed to some extent that medium- and high-density housing should be advocated downtown to promote affordable housing. Many members said for-sale, mixed-use properties are a problem, including projects such as Chapala One because of their bulk and large unit size.

The solution, according to city planner Bettie Weiss, is to engage in smaller projects establishing smaller units, which would cater to the city’s workers and provide incentive for developers. High-density housing downtown would promote walking to work and decrease traffic congestion as well.

Council members expressed interest in the idea of downtown high-density projects that would host 27 to 45 units per acre (43,560 square feet) and would appeal to low-income workers. Such an approach would produce an average unit size of 800 to 1,300 square feet, shorter buildings and reduced parking requirements.

Yet, some members of the public weren’t so keen.

A representative from the League of Women Voters cautioned that creating high-density projects downtown would still be out of range for low-income workers, that the cost of building smaller units would be more expensive than building larger ones, and that the “charm” of Santa Barbara would be stripped by increased congestion and crime.

Furthermore, a 1,000-square-foot average unit size wouldn’t be attractive to buyers in this market, a representative from the Association of Realtors told the council. She said a 1,200-square-foot average unit would give low-income workers and families more incentive to buy.

Overall, the council had difficulty settling on an appropriate square feet for medium- and high-density units. The Planning Commission proposed 800 to 1,300 square foot average unit size for middle- to high-density housing,and 600 to 1,000 square feet for high-density.

Mayor Helene Schneider spoke of the council’s need to progress by keeping the big picture in mind, and not critique each recommendation to avoid “death by 1,000 cuts.”

Increased housing raised a red flag for Councilman Dale Francisco in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and sustainable practices. He said the state’s surplus water supply would expire if the sea level rose because of climate change and contaminated groundwater.

Councilman Das Williams ensured Francisco that if salt water intruded Santa Barbara’s aqueducts, there would be bigger national problems because most of the East Coast would be underwater.

In response, Weiss brought up the adaptive management program, which would monitor the adopted policies to see whether any changes needed to be made on the way.

As for growth management, the council mostly agreed it was best to limit nonresidential growth to 1 million square feet — excluding pending and approved government buildings — rather than the 2 million that staff originally proposed.

“Commercial development is a large driver of increased traffic — no pun intended — so it’s important for us to take the smallest number we see working because it’s easier to adjust upward rather than downward,” Williams said.

Creating the least contention were properties constructed or destructed within 250 feet of historic sites, which would be closely scrutinized for historical impact with a particular emphasis on El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park and El Pueblo Viejo.

A five-vote supermajority is needed to approve the General Plan. The City Council will continue its deliberations next Tuesday, Aug. 10, discussing issues such as building heights, transit demand management and residential parking downtown. The meeting will be held in City Hall, 735 Anacapa St.

The council is expected to review more of the plan’s key decisions and eventually return with final documents for amendments and a vote.

Noozhawk intern Alex Kacik is a graduate of Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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