Pixel Tracker

Monday, March 18 , 2019, 5:45 pm | Fair 65º


Laura Hout: Height-Limit Proponents Are Hijacking History

Pearl Chase's legacy of preservation falls well short of height restrictions.

Superior design was more Pearl Chase's issue rather than height limits. The Arlington Theatre fits the former's criteria.
Superior design was more Pearl Chase’s issue rather than height limits. The Arlington Theatre fits the former’s criteria. (Laura Hout photo)

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Growing up, we learn such sayings to remind us that staying informed is our business, our duty, our responsibility. Sadly, abdicating responsibility has become a national affliction. Craving a quick fix we fall for smooth-talking orators, seeking sound-bite solutions so we can get on with daily life. Hence spin trumps truth and complexity is bludgeoned.

Laura Hout
Laura Hout
Recently I was part of a panel speaking to Realtors about building heights. It was there I heard Lanny Ebenstein proclaim, in stentorian tones, that Pearl Chase would categorically endorse lowering building heights. Oh, really? I thought. I guess I wasn’t at the Ouija board when Pearl spoke at the séance.

I admit, I’m partial to strong-minded women. And this being another instance of height-limiters playing fast and loose with the facts, I felt Pearl would have disapproved. It occurred to me that preservationists — and their no-growth allies — have been hijacking history.

I decided to find out if Pearl — who graduated high school at 14 and UC Berkeley at 19, and who envisioned rebuilding Santa Barbara from the rubble of the devastating 1925 earthquake — would really have supported such a simplistic solution as “just saying no” and lowering building heights.

Here’s what I found. Pearl fought to save historic buildings, not dumb-down the architectural profession. She traveled widely in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Europe, absorbing ideas, broadening her horizons. A self-trained civic planner, she researched projects meticulously and shepherded their execution. Shunning public office, she remained free from influence. And Pearl didn’t suffer fools. Bossy, arrogant, even snobbish according to some, “She had little patience for incompetent or uncommitted volunteers, and even less use for those ‘who didn’t get it,’” said Joyce Parkinson, her secretary.

So I ask: If Pearl wanted building heights limited to 40 feet, you don’t think we would have heard about it? As Charles Storke said in 1988, “Chase would absolutely pester you to death unless you did what she wanted. Tenacity was perhaps her greatest strength.”

It’s true Pearl fought one notorious battle regarding building heights. But the devil is in the details. The project she opposed involved two nine-story condominium towers, slated to occupy what is now Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens. I’m not a math whiz, but even I realize nine stories is a lot higher than 60 feet. Taking out my trusty calculator, I did some addition. In mixed-use buildings the retail-lobby level is usually 15 feet or more. Each story thereafter is typically 12 to 14 feet. Conservatively speaking, at 15 feet for the first floor and 12 feet for each of eight floors thereafter, you get 111 feet.

Wow! That’s as almost as high as the Granada building. Nearly twice as high as the current 60-foot height limit. No wonder Pearl joined in a lawsuit when the City Council approved the condo towers. It took a visiting judge — none of the locals would touch the issue — to rule that “the variance granted does complete violence to the comprehensive general plan.”

Wouldn’t lowering building heights by 30 percent also do “violence to the comprehensive general plan?”

Building heights weren’t codified until 1972. Prior to that, Pearl and the citizens who served on design review boards, had enough confidence in their skills to make complex decisions — without simplistic limits. Height limits, per se, were not Pearl Chase’s issue. Superior design was — and I’m convinced it still would be.

Gil Barry, another proponent of lowering building heights, warned that smart growth won’t work in Santa Barbara because it hasn’t worked in Los Angeles. Zoning for higher densities and maintaining 60-foot height limits, he warned, is tantamount to disaster. High-density projects in Los Angeles — which promoters promised would reduce traffic — have actually increased it. At the same time he lauded how Santa Barbara hasn’t sprawled like Los Angeles.

Because I know something about smart growth, I knew Barry had just weakened his argument.

To be sure I consulted an expert, just like Pearl Chase would have. Lucky for me, Bill Fulton took my call. A Ventura city councilman, Fulton is the author of four books, including The Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles, a Los Angeles Times best-seller, and Guide to California Planning, the standard textbook on urban planning used in college courses throughout the state. Frequently quoted on urban planning topics by newspapers and radio and television shows around the nation, he teaches urban planning at USC.

It turns out that smart growth is a buzzword that’s being abused, kind of like “gourmet kitchen” or “greenbelt” — meaning new countertops or lawn-covered setbacks in and of themselves aren’t it.

“Changing an urban landscape so people have more choices and are less likely to drive isn’t something that happens with one housing project or one mixed-use project,” Fulton explained. “In a transit-rich environment, where people live and work at high densities and have many transit options close to home and work, people are more likely to take transit than drive. On the other hand, if all you do is add higher density to either housing or workplaces and you do nothing else, then most people are likely to drive.”

Fulton added that in the Redondo Beach/Torrance area, selected precisely because it wasn’t a transit-rich environment, “We found that the key to getting more people to walk was not simply adding high-density housing, but concentrating all kinds of activities — including jobs and shopping — in centralized nodes.”

Again, the devil is in the details. Smart growth takes rigorous planning: higher density in concert with public transit. When Los Angeles dismantled its public transit system it signed its own death knell. Here in Santa Barbara — where we haven’t sprawled from the desert to the sea — we have the bones to make it work.

“Vast areas of Santa Barbara already have development patterns consistent with smart-growth guidelines,” says Alex Pujot of SB4all.org. “Compact development, pedestrian access, mixed use, corner stores, public parks, a central business district with tall buildings and no setbacks, transit corridors, etc. This is true of all towns built before automobiles.”

Last week’s tentative agreement on SB 375, gives local governments financial incentives and land-use leeway to encourage compact, smart-growth projects. If we allow no-growth-preservationists to hijack history, if like the character Matthew Harrison Brady in the dramatization of the Scopes Trial, “we don’t think about things we don’t think about,” we’ll Inherit the Wind.

Other sky-is-falling scenarios brandished by height-limiters include their “buildings in the pipeline” data and corroborating charts. Yet when confronted, members of SaveElPuebloViejo.org admit these charts are misleading. Time frames have been tweaked so it looks like an onslaught of buildings is imminent — when in reality very few buildings get approved each year and even fewer get completed. And fear-mongering sketches on the organization’s Web site are ludicrously out of scale. Counting window levels, I get about 18 stories on the building at the far right. Unless those are chicken-farm apartments, you can’t possibly get that much out of 60 feet. Eighteen stories times an average of 12 feet a story equals ... 216 feet. Yowza!

I don’t know about you, but this banzai-pipeline-of-buildings blitz insults my intelligence. And I’m dead certain Pearl Chase would feel the same way. Certainly she’d rail against historic buildings being torn down, but that’s not happening. She’d object to existing historic paseos and plazas being “shaded by tall buildings,” but that’s not happening either.

What’s happening is we’re losing our middle class. We’re becoming Brazil.

Mark Schneipp, director of the California Economic Forecast in Santa Barbara, said in 2003 that the result of all the past decisions is that the community is now experiencing a cultural drain, losing some of its brightest people. “You don’t have these people participating in the social structure,” he said. “They serve on the PTAs and in the Little Leagues where they live, not in Santa Barbara where they work.”

And that most certainly would alarm a progressive, self-educated humanitarian like Pearl Chase.

Building heights are not the issue, they are a simple-minded distraction. It’s much easier to talk about the color of a park bench than it is to tackle the bigger issues: Is the park safe? Can we get to the park — or are the gang-bangers going to get us first? What good is “small-town feel” if we’re unsafe on the streets?

I’m in whole-hearted agreement with those who say we can be doing better. But isolating and criticizing one element — affordable housing, luxury condos, building heights — is like eating candy instead of working out. Sure, eating candy is easier, but in the end it rots your teeth. A myriad of factors affect the creation of superior buildings: zoning, density, inclusionary housing, parking requirements, construction costs, a faltering credit market — never mind a labyrinthine approval process.

The only control we ever have — the only control Pearl and her contemporaries needed — is enlightened, educated men and women in our citizenry, serving on our review boards and city councils, commissions and boards of supervisors. Pearl is quoted as saying “What I watch for is ‘Who has leadership qualities?’ If you analyze it you’ll see that it’s often those who are comparatively free from outside pressures.” Lucky for us, Pearl was beholden to no one. Except her fierce conscience.

We fail Pearl — and her legacy — if we accept sound-bite solutions. Citizens who aspire to a more progressive — albeit complex — vision for Santa Barbara can visit SB4all.org. Citizens wishing to be part of Santa Barbara’s General Plan update process should be aware that, at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, the City Council’s Ordinance Committee will consider an ordinance amending the Santa Barbara Municipal Code to establish new Design Review Criteria. Among the topics to be discussed is an interim measure lowering building heights — without a public vote. Click here for Tuesday’s ordinance committee agenda report and click here for attachment one.

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

Support Noozhawk Today!

Our professional journalists work tirelessly to report on local news so you can be more informed and engaged in your community. This quality, local reporting is free for you to read and share, but it's not free to produce.

You count on us to deliver timely, relevant local news, 24/7. Can we count on you to invest in our newsroom and help secure its future?

We provide special member benefits to show how much we appreciate your support.

I would like give...
Great! You're joining as a Red-Tailed Hawk!
  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.