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High-density 23-unit Apartment Project Moves Forward in Downtown Santa Barbara

Development in El Pueblo Viejo district has pitted preservationists against housing advocates

A 23-unit, three-story, mixed-use development is coming to the 800 block of Santa Barbara Street in downtown Santa Barbara after the City Council deadlocked on an appeal of the project.
A 23-unit, three-story, mixed-use development is coming to the 800 block of Santa Barbara Street in downtown Santa Barbara after the City Council deadlocked on an appeal of the project. (Contributed photo)

A 23-unit, three-story, mixed-use project is coming to downtown Santa Barbara.

The Santa Barbara City Council deadlocked 3-3 this week, allowing the project at 800 Santa Barbara Street to move forward; it previously had been approved by the Historic Landmarks Commission, but was appealed by preservationist groups, including the Pearl Chase Society and Santa Barbara Conservancy.

Mayor Cathy Murillo and councilmen Gregg Hart and Eric Friedman supported the project, while council members Kristen Sneddon, Jason Dominguez, Randy Rowse opposed it.

The seventh seat on the council currently is vacant.

Had the project been denied, the developer could have built six luxury condos, which had already been approved for the site years ago, before the current average unit-sized density incentive, AUD, program.

The high density-housing project pits two of Santa Barbara's pillars of power against each other.

On one side are preservationist groups and their allies, who believe Santa Barbara must guard against pressures to overbuild, particularly in the area's historic district, which is one of the city's attractions for locals and tourists.

Housing advocates, however, say Santa Barbara has a dearth of rental housing, and that the city should strategically allow rental housing in areas of town to lessen the number of people who commute and allow millennials a place to live in the city.

The developer was represented by prominent land-use attorney Steve Amerikaner, who has a lopsided winning record when it comes to development battles at City Hall. 

The project proposes demolishing an existing 1,965-square-foot, one-story office building and building a 19,179-square-foot, three-story building. The high-density housing project will include eight studios, 10 one-bedroom units, and 5 two-bedroom units. The commercial space will consist of 1,289 square feet.

An underground parking lot would provide 29 parking spaces, storage, and service areas.

The project is next to the Anacapa School, which formally protested the development at the meeting. The independent school’s headmaster, Gordon Sichi, said the HLC’s approval of the project was a mistake and that the council had “an opportunity to make it right and take it stand.”

He said the building should be stepped back like a wedding cake so that a huge wall isn’t looming over the school. The maximum height of the building is 35 feet, 8 inches.

“Anacapa believes in the AUD system,” Sichi said. “This project, however, is not located well. It is not near any grocery stores, thus residents will need to drive for basic necessities.”

He said Anacapa School is “being dwarfed by this project.”

Santa Barbara resident Keith Albert said he was a downtown renter for two years when he moved to the city from New York 26 years ago. He now owns a home on the Mesa.

He said he is a supporter of the city’s AUD program and believes that Santa Barbara should create more housing downtown.

“At some point or another, I think the economic vitality — and I am looking out about 20 or 30 years because that’s about as long as I will have to live — I think it is extremely important that people be able to live and shop and work in the downtown area,” Albert said. “I think an appeal of this project at this time would really be an obstacle to attaining the housing goals that the city has.”

Representatives from the business community support the project. 

“We want to see the creation of more housing downtown, plain and simple,” said Steve Epstein, representing the Chamber of Commerce of the Santa Barbara Region. “We think the 800 Santa Barbara Street project checks a number of important boxes. It puts more housing in our urban core and it meets the strict design guidelines we’ve all come to expect.”

Dominguez said these types of units cater to the wealthiest of renters and worsen the city’s workforce housing program.

“In El Pueblo Viejo, if we are going to put in housing, we want to make sure there is a community benefit,” Dominguez said. “This is not helping workforce housing. People who live in Ventura who are commuting to this town are not going to pay this price for a studio.

People who live in Ventura generally want larger space, larger yards and that is why they moved to that county. This is not going to attract that co-hort of people.”

Hart said rental housing is better than luxury condos, which he believes the developer would build if the AUD project was denied.

“The bottom line for me is that the reality exists that we have an approved condo project on this site that is three stories,” Hart said. “That colors everything that we are looking at here. It is a high-end luxury project. It will be occupied by people who live in Los Angeles who have second homes here. That project will be built if something else isn’t built.

“I would prefer to have a rental housing project at this location than luxury condos for folks who don’t live here,” Hart said.

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina 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.

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