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Dorm-Style Housing Project Touches Nerve at Mesa Neighborhood Meeting

Residents raise many concerns about Playa Mariposa proposal adjacent to Santa Barbara City College

Developer Ed St. George discusses his 1,500-bed Playa Mariposa student housing project near SBCC Monday night at a meeting on the Mesa that drew a prickly response from neighbors.
Developer Ed St. George discusses his 1,500-bed Playa Mariposa student housing project near SBCC Monday night at a meeting on the Mesa that drew a prickly response from neighbors. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

The developer and planning team for a dorm-style housing complex near SBCC got a prickly, if not downright unruly reception during a meeting Monday night when residents near the project voiced their objections.

Cantankerous Mesa and lower Westside residents packed into a room at Holy Cross Church to pepper developer Ed St. George and his team with questions, the tone of which signaled that there is little goodwill between some residents — who have complained of crowded, noisy housing, trash and crime — and the college.

The neighbors had come to hear about Playa Mariposa, the next incarnation of the complex currently known as “Beach City,” which sits on about seven acres bordered by Cliff Drive and SBCC’s east and west campuses.

The project is still in its preliminary stages, but would allow 1,500 beds to be brought to the current apartment complex that sits on the 800 block of Cliff Drive. That's about triple the number of beds there now. 

Stoking neighbors' ire was the assumption by St. George that no new parking will need to be added to the project, as the students will not be allowed to have vehicles as a condition of their lease.

Laurel Perez, principal planner and partner at Suzanne Elledge Planning, the company handling the plans for the project, stressed that they haven’t even filed a formal application with the city and that the meeting was to gather input from neighbors.

“It’s the beginning,” she said.

A large crowd turned out Monday night on the Mesa for a meeting regarding the proposed 1,500-bed Playa Mariposa student housing project near SBCC. Click to view larger
A large crowd turned out Monday night on the Mesa for a meeting regarding the proposed 1,500-bed Playa Mariposa student housing project near SBCC. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

The city has not fully addressed the need for student housing, she said, and maintained that the seven-acre property is ideal for that purpose.

“The concept is the student moves in with two suitcases and nothing more,” she said.

Providing furniture and everything the students need already on the campus, Perez said, would help minimize the dumping of furniture and old mattresses that has become a problem in surrounding neighborhoods.

The property would be covered by a conditional-use permit, much like what governs the use of Westmont College, which must meet over 100 different conditions to maintain operations, Perez said.

The property owners would have to report to the city on compliance, and the permit could be rescinded if terms are not met.

Central to the plan is the concept of a “student hub,” a space on the property that would house a plethora of activities and services, all aimed at keeping students on the property and without the need for a vehicle.

A dining hall onsite would provide students with three meals a day and also be home to a 24/7 cafe.

A fitness center, game room, study areas and even a lecture hall and movie theater would provide alternatives for students that would bring entertainment and necessities to residents.

Programming over the holidays, like a Thanksgiving dinner, could also keep students on site. 

The leases signed by the students would prohibit vehicles, and each resident would have access to an onsite Zip Car program, as well as bike share and ride share programs, Perez said.

In addition, Perez said that St. George would pay for roundabouts to be installed at the entrance to east and west campus entrances to SBCC in order to help with pedestrian access to the area.

No studies have been done on that and the idea may not work in the area, but it’s a possibility, she said.  The roundabouts would also enable a proposed class one bike path in the area.

“If the city comes back and says ‘It just doesn’t make sense,’ then we move on,” Perez said.

Several City Council members attended the meeting and listened in on discussions that likely will be ongoing for some time.

 Council members Cathy Murillo, Randy Rowse and Gregg Hart all attended, though when asked for comments, Murillo said that city legal counsel had advised them not to weigh in on the issue.

After a presentation from Perez about the project, attendees began asking questions, and it became clear that the housing shortage was a symptom of a deeper problem.

Though many wanted to know about project specifics, others pressed at deeper existential issues surrounding the college and its sometimes tenuous relationship with surrounding neighborhoods.  

Who is city college there to serve, locals or those from outside the community? they wanted to know.

“Our community is at the breaking point,” one resident said, to the agreement of others.

St. George mostly demurred on those questions, stating that he was there to fill a need no one else was addressing.

Without adequate housing, students end up in “animal houses” where six to 12 students live at a time, in single-family homes on the Mesa, many of which are owned by absentee landlords, he said.

When asked where his residents came from, St. George said that about 70 percent of the residents at Beach City now are from the tri-county areas.

One particularly vocal resident, Sue Mellor, exclaimed that the home values of those in the surrounding neighborhoods would be drastically affected if the proposal went forward.

“We’ll have Isla Vista on the Mesa,” she said.

St. George explained that the students are already living here, and without adequate housing.

“I’m here to discuss what we’re going to do with the kids,” he said.

SBCC President Lori Gaskin was sitting in the audience listening, and finally got up to address the questions.

Unlike University of California or Cal State campuses, California community colleges cannot cap enrollment by law, she explained.

“That’s the beauty of accessible, affordable higher education in this state,” Gaskin stated emphatically.

Nevertheless, the school’s enrollment goes in cycles, with enrollment peaking when the economy is lagging.  

Now that economic forces are moving more smoothly, the college is expecting a 5.5-percent decline this year, and has numbers equal to that of a decade ago, Gaskin said.

About 63 percent of the college’s enrollment comes from the tri-county area, 24 percent from elsewhere in California, she said.

Another 7 percent — 1,300 students — come to the college internationally, a number that has been capped by the board of trustees, while another 6 percent are from out of state.

As the audience asked more questions, many times interrupting, St. George said the process was just beginning and that he wanted to work with the neighborhood.

“I want to make this work,” he said.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

SBCC President Lori Gaskin addresses the crowd Monday night. Click to view larger
SBCC President Lori Gaskin addresses the crowd Monday night. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

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