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Local News

More Discussion, But No Vote, on General Plan Updates

Talks provide insight on philosophies of the new members of the Santa Barbara City Council

After years of discussion, updates to Santa Barbara’s General Plan remain elusive. After three hours of debate on Wednesday, and twice as many more on Tuesday, members of the City Council ran out of time to vote on some of the core issues.

They’ll come back to address the vote again Nov. 16, but the discussions provided an interesting window into the philosophies of the new council members elected last November, and perhaps a foreshadowing of just how difficult it may be to find consensus.

The city’s general plan, which serves as a constitution of sorts, provides policy recommendations for how the city should deal with housing, transportation and a number of other subjects over the next 20 years. The document crafts the long-term vision for the planning of the city.

Draft documents of the updates were released last March. In June, the city Planning Commission recommended its version, and then eight workshops were held for the public to weigh in. During outreach, the city heard from the community through the workshops, and that has been the starting point for staff and the Planning Commission, according to John Ledbetter, the city’s principal planner.

“We believe the plan up to this point really does meet divergent interests,” he said.

For the past 30 years, the city has had a density of 12 to 18 dwelling units per acre, and incentives exist for developers to build more. The General Plan updates create zones across the city that address density. For example, the downtown core, the area around La Cumbre Plaza and Milpas Street are classified as high density, and could see anywhere from 27 to 45 units per acre, with each unit at an average size of about 600 square feet.

Members of the Planning Commission were on hand Tuesday to explain their recommendations. Chairman Bruce Bartlett said the commission listened during all of the public workshops and tried to make the policies accordingly.

“We think we’re on pretty safe middle ground on most of the policies,” he said. “I think there are going to be a lot of people who wish we would do nothing and a lot of people who wish we would do more.  I think we’re right in the middle of that.”

In particular, Bartlett defended the increased densities put forward by the Planning Commission, and he added that keeping the status quo on policies would be “the worst thing you can do for the city.”

Commissioner Sheila Lodge said she disagreed on density and where that should go. She suggested a compromise of giving an incentive to build residential units on commercial-zoned land.

Commissioner John Jostes also spoke, saying the density in the plan would use fewer resources and meet a community need.

On Wednesday, the council tackled how much development to allow in terms of square footage within the city. Measure E, a ballot initiative passed by Santa Barbara voters in 1989, limits the amount of new nonresidential development within the city to 3 million square feet until the year 2010.

According to city staff, there’s support in the community for a 1 million-square-foot cap. That square footage could be used for small additions, vacant land and projects that are deemed to be a community benefit. Whether to include the square footage of projects that are already pending or approved was the subject of some debate, and council members agreed on different amounts of square footage to include. Eventually, a straw vote was taken, and five council members voted in favor of 1.35 million square feet, excluding pending and approved projects.

Transportation was the next issue tackled, and Councilman Dale Francisco took issue with some of the documents underlying the General Plan findings, with the city’s circulation element and the efficacy of its policies of particular concern.

Much work still needs to be done to quantify the city’s traffic patterns, Francisco said, but until then, “I will not support the city’s circulation element in its current form.”

Staff recommended the council bring the circulation element back later for review.

Councilman Frank Hotchkiss agreed: “The ramifications of it can be enormous. We’re talking about 20 years; we want to get it right.”

Francisco also asked for language to be included that sounds less binding, and he asked for ways to gauge demand for some of the city’s transportation projects, before they’re built.

“There has been a mentality among transportation activists that if you build it they will come,” he said. “We can’t continue to spend transportation dollars on things no one is using.” Francisco used the bike garage and The Granada as an example.

Councilman Grant House seemed to bristle at Francisco’s insinuation, and he reminded the council to be careful not to make “blanket statements” about some of the city’s transportation projects.

Councilwoman Michael Self said she thought the General Plan encompassed too much, and she called the circulation element “very destructive document to this community.”

Councilman Das Williams disagreed. “If you throw out the whole thing, I suppose we should all go home,” he said, adding that he thought most of the General Plan recommendations were “pretty innocuous.”

The council voted 6-1, with Self dissenting, to approve the Planning Commission’s recommendations, as well as to make the language less binding.

Housing density received the most attention during Wednesday’s talks, and the topic was forced to end before the council could even take a straw vote on it. The current General Plan looks at density based on the number of bedrooms, but a General Plan update recommended by the Planning Commission looks at units by square footage. As a result, Francisco said, the city has gotten some large, luxurious studios it might not have planned for, such as Chapala One.

Council members delved into the philosophical when they began talking about how dense the community should be.

“What kind of housing are we trying to create?” Francisco asked, adding that “affordable housing doesn’t exist in Santa Barbara.” He said incentives should exist to help build rental units, which are the only affordable units in the community.

Williams said the goal is not only to create more rentals as a solution to affordable housing, but to help foster ownership units as well. He said that looking at areas such as west downtown that are technically outside the high-density core would also be crucial.

“If we only had wealthy people here, we’d be missing out on a lot,” House said, reminding the council that 60 percent of Santa Barbara residents rent.

Francisco took issue with the high density core of the city’s overlay, which would allow for 27 to 45 dwelling units per acre.

“I feel that some people are trying to achieve a dense downtown as an end to itself,” he said.

But Williams said that smaller, denser units would help target a middle income type of household looking to buy in the $500,000 to $700,000 range.

“Young people in this community on a dual income buy that kind of an investment,” he said.

Adding more density downtown, in an area already rife with design guidelines and historic buildings, would present a challenge. The council asked staff to show a map that showed downtown, and was spotted with historic buildings and their buffer zones, so much so that they called it “the Swiss cheese map” for all of its holes.

Self took issue with government deciding “it can solve all ills,” she said, adding that in reality, Santa Barbara has become as expensive as Beverly Hills, and that the concept of affordable housing would never be realized here.

“By being less desirable, we will become more affordable,” she said.

Growth would increase in the city, albeit slowly, and “people are to be living in the city somehow,” House said, even it means they live in garages and the like. “The people are going to be here anyway. How are we going to provide for them?”

House suggested that city staff explore making a new map that spreads out the high-density areas along Haley and Gutierrez streets toward Milpas. Creating a more detailed map will be the task of an ad hoc committee including Hotchkiss, Francisco and House, who will bring their findings back before the council on Nov. 16.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @laraanncooper or @NoozhawkNews.

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