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Commisioners Have Reservations about Outer State Street Hotel Plan

In rare public project hearing, planning panel sides with neighborhood activists on four-story proposal.

The Santa Barbara County Planning Commission agreed Wednesday with slow-growth advocates who believe a proposal to replace a one-story Outer State Street motel with a four-story hotel is too tall and bulky.

At their Wednesday meeting, commissioners listened to a parade of residents criticizing the proposed 108-room hotel, which would be located on about an acre of land currently occupied by the Hope Ranch Inn, 4111 State St. The property is just outside Santa Barbara city limits, near where Highway 154 meets State Street.

Then they weighed in themselves.

“It is a little packed,” Commissioner Joe Valencia said of the proposed project.

He noted that he once worked as an executive of a hotel that contained about as many rooms, but on three times the space. “I think you should consider taking a whole floor off,” he said.

However, commissioners did credit the proposal for its aesthetic appeal and cutting-edge design, which includes an underground parking lot, a multitiered building and environmentally conscious plan for recycled construction materials and solar water heaters. They also praised it for being the first attempt in recent memory to redevelop the area, which is widely considered run down.

Located on a traffic-heavy corridor that includes many warehouse-style buildings and a random assortment of businesses — including a U-Haul storage facility, a new condo project, a methadone clinic, a stained-glass store and a porn shop — the area is an unfitting gateway to a city considered world-famous for its impressive architecture.

Some argued that the Hope Ranch Inn is part of the eyesore.

“The existing hotel is 80 years old,” said Commissioner Daniel Blough. “It has outlived its usefulness. It needs to be razed.”

But like most of his four colleagues on the commission, Blough acknowledged that the replacement project, as proposed, is too big.

Residents, meanwhile, voiced a litany of complaints about the project, ranging from how it would block their mountain views, to how it would displace low-income people who call the motel home.

“We believe there has been no long-range planning for this area,” said Ann Crosby of the neighborhood group Citizens for Sensible Planning, adding that approving the project would be “piecemeal planning at its worst."

“We know how the county places tremendous importance on low-income housing,” she continued. “There are 30 or 40 people who make it (the Hope Ranch Inn) their home. You don’t see the ‘vacancy’ sign on because people are living there.”

Another opponent, Gil Barry, an architect by trade and a member of the Allied Neighborhoods Association, said his interpretation of the developer’s design shows that the project will be 45 feet tall — 10 feet taller than the existing legal height limit for the area.

“It’s a whole story off,” he said.

Although most of the roughly 10 residents who spoke to the commission blasted the proposal, one man came to its aggressive defense.

First, James Celmayster disclosed the fact that he was the real-estate agent who brokered the sale of the property a year ago to the current owner.

“I’m somewhat annoyed with the uneducated response of some of the people here,” he said. “This property is a transient hotel — there is nobody in there of low-income status.”

He also took umbrage with one person’s charge that planning for the area was taking place behind the scenes.

“This is the opposite of ‘behind the scenes,’" he said, referring to how Wednesday’s meeting was a rarity, in that the Planning Commission was not being asked to approve or deny any plans, but rather to simply accept public comment and provide direction for the developer. (The developer has yet to submit a formal permit application.)

“I would like to stop all the rhetoric," he said. "Let the process proceed.”

On Wednesday, representatives of the developer sought to counter the height criticism by showing pictures of other tall or bulky buildings in the area, such as the Sansum Medical Center, American Indian Medical Clinic and a children’s gymnasium located in a warehouse-style building.

The head architect, Ralph Le Roux of Santa Cruz-based mADi Group, said he is willing to work with the various commissions to ensure his project meets all the guidelines.

“Many people coming to this area (as tourists) are expecting and excited by the architecture,” he said. “We have tried to adapt to that style and refine it.”

Regarding the issue of low-income residents, Noozhawk interviewed one woman at the motel who said she’d been living there for several months. Interviewed on site late last week, Hillary DeFay said she would hate to see the current motel razed.

“It’s historical,” she said of the inn, where rooms go for as low as $59.40 a night. “It was built in 1947. When you came down 154, it was the only hotel for miles.

“Can you imagine putting more impact on this intersection?” she asked, pointing to the four lanes of fast-moving traffic on State Street and the nearby onramp to Highway 154.

However, on that day — a Friday at 5 p.m. — it hardly looked like a place chock-full of residents: the parking lot contained just one car.

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