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Chapala Street Condo Denial Overturned by Council

Historic Landmarks Commission had rejected Peikert project after first approving it.

In another uproar over building size, the Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday unanimously overturned a decision by the Historic Landmarks Commission to deny a Chapala Street condominium proposal, saying the commission — which had earlier approved the project — overstepped its jurisdiction in shooting it down a month later.

The commission in late November rescinded its earlier decision to approve the three-story development at 517 Chapala St. because some of its members later visited the property abutting the historic Brinkerhoff Avenue Landmark District — known for its Victorian homes — and had a case of deciders’ remorse.

“I went to the site and I felt bad — I felt like I hadn’t done my duty,” said Historic Landmarks Commissioner Robert Adams, who said it was his idea to rescind the vote. “I’m here to fight for little pockets of open space in historic districts.”

The case illustrates how local attitudes about taller and bulkier buildings have intensified in the past couple of years, especially as they pertain to Chapala Street, which has seen the recent development of some condo buildings widely maligned for their size.

In March 2005, when the project first came to the Historic Landmarks Commission — whose charge is to make judgments on project design — the tallest portion of the plan was a 50-foot tower. Also, the design butted up against the Brinkerhoff neighborhood and alongside Chapala with very little buffer space. The commission barely blinked, offering its unofficial blessings, thereby allowing the project to advance to the Planning Commission, officials said.

In July 2006, the Planning Commission — whose charge is to make decisions on land use — also saw no substantial problems. It unanimously approved the six-unit project, which includes one affordable housing unit and a commercial storefront.

But, as is standard procedure, the project then had to go back to the Historic Landmarks Commission for official approval of the design. At this point — in late 2006 — the commission became more aggressive.

City staff members theorize this is because the community had begun admonishing the uptick in proposals for taller condominium projects.

The emerging trend regarding tall buildings appears to have influenced how the HLC reacted to this project,” says a Planning Department staff report. “The HLC’s mindset had evolved and … they were more cautiously reviewing the height of development proposals of three stories or greater as compared to years past.”

Beginning in late 2006, over the course of several months, the myriad concerns of the Historic Landmarks Commission included the proposed building’s height, its lack of a buffer from Chapala, its limited landscaping and its third-story balconies, which commissioners feared posed a privacy issue for the people living in the Brinkerhoff neighborhood.

By last September, the Historic Landmarks Commission and the developer, Detlev Peikert, had been playing project tennis for nearly a year, making adjustments along the way. On Sept. 19, the commission voted to grant preliminary approval on a split vote.

But in early October, the commission voiced its change of heart, and in mid-October officially undid its prior approval. Peikert and the commission continued to try work it out for another month, but finally Peikert asked that the commission just deny the project so he could appeal the decision to the City Council.

By the time the proposal reached the council’s dais Tuesday, substantial design changes had been made. For instance, the building height was reduced by three feet, to 47 feet at the tower and 40 feet at the Chapala elevation. The balconies also were replaced by a concept to put a garden on top of the building.

On Tuesday, the council overturned the Historic Landmarks Commission decision on a 6-0 vote. Mayor Marty Blum was absent.

Dale Francisco
Councilman Dale Francisco said he supported the appeal because the Landmarks Commission missed its window of opportunity to reject the project. But he went on to voice his displeasure over some of the large projects on Chapala.

“It’s not the buildings themselves built in isolation,” he said. “But when I look down Chapala Street, toward the beach, I see these huge buildings looming like dinosaurs” over their neighbors.

“This is not the kind of proposal I want to see in Santa Barbara,” he added.

Councilwoman Iya Falcone said the community is reaching a point where it must choose between keeping bigger buildings out of Santa Barbara and easing the squeeze on the middle class, which is being driven out by median home prices of $1.2 million.

“I ran on workforce housing six years ago, and I believe in it to this day,” she said. “However, what it helps to produce, if you let the developers get their money’s worth — which they have every right to do — is that it creates buildings that feel like they’ve sort of been bloated.”

One such project has been the Paseo Chapala development on Chapala at De la Guerra Street. The bulky building includes expensive condos, but also has a high proportion of work-force housing units — 30 percent

“We need to grapple with whether or not this community wants to really value size, or is getting some housing for workforce and low-income people worth a little bloat,” she added. “I don’t know the answer to that.”

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