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Planning Agency To Re-Review Cottage Hospital Housing

Opponents press claim that workforce housing development has grown too large, despite approvals from planners, City Council and a Superior Court judge.

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Just because a plan for development has gotten the nod from Santa Barbara’s Planning Commission, the City Council and even a Superior Court judge over the course of several years doesn’t mean that it’s over.

Such is the case with Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital’s vision to build 115 units of mostly workforce housing for nurses, radiology technicians and other employees halfway up the hill on Micheltorena Street, occupied by the shuttered St. Francis Medical Center.

In terms of square feet, the design for the 43-building project has turned out to be about 10 percent larger than what the City Council approved.

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As a result, at 9 a.m. Thursday, the Planning Commission will weigh in on whether the difference is minor enough to avoid having to go through the entire approval process again. (So far, it has taken six years.)

From the hospital’s perspective, the project will improve its ability to recruit and retain talented staff who might otherwise recoil from the idea of moving to such an expensive area. A total of 80 units — most of them duplexes or tri-plexes — will sell for below-market rates to make them affordable to upper-middle-income people. The remaining 35 will sell at the market-rate value.

From the neighbors’ perspective, the project at 601 E. Micheltorena St. will be a “noise and air-quality nightmare,” said Tony Fischer, the attorney representing St. Francis Friends & Neighbors, the project’s opponents.

“Knocking down St. Francis will be a two-year construction project,” he said. “I mean, we’re talking six months of hauling. Down Micheltorena, down Anacapa … from 9 to 4, six days a week."

Ultimately, the official in charge of making the decision is Community Development Director David Gustafson. In a city report, Gustafson has said he is leaning strongly in favor of granting Cottage Hospital the waiver. (In city-speak, this is known as a “substantial conformance” designation). Still, largely because the project has proven controversial, he is taking the cautious approach of seeking input from the seven-member Planning Commission.

While the city-approved plans call for a project totaling 121,000 square feet, Fischer said the design that ultimately received preliminary approval from the Architectural Board of Review last month totals 133,000 square feet.

“There’s less landscaping and less open space, and more building,” he said. “We don’t know why they are doing this, as opposed to just going back to the Planning Commission with the revised project and coming back clean, which is what everybody else does.”

Meanwhile, project architect Brian Cearnal said the change is minor, and added, in essence, that the opposition is taking a see-what-sticks-to-the-wall approach to derailing the project.

“The number of units has always been the issue,” Cearnal said. “The overall square footage, frankly, is meaningless.”

Initially, Cearnal noted, opponents had appealed the Planning Commission’s 2006 approval of the project to the City Council and, after that failed, to Superior Court in the form of a lawsuit, on the grounds that the number of units, 115, was about three dozen more than what the zoning code allows. The Planning Commission and Council elected to make an exception for the hospital. About a year ago, the opponents filed suit.

Two months ago, Superior Court Judge Thomas Anderle ruled in favor of the city, and, by proxy, Cottage Hospital.

However, Cearnal admits the architects made a mistake on the project’s square footage.

Because of a design error, when the City Council approved the project two years ago, it thought the project totaled 121,000 square feet, but the actual number turned out to be 127,000. (So in a way, the project has only grown by 5 percent.)

“The simple answer is we made a mistake in our calculations,” Cearnal said.

Still, Cearnal expressed exasperation with the opponents, and said the project is now better — not worse — than it was when the City Council approved it.

“The units have always been very, very small,” he said. “Around 1,100 square feet — I think the biggest is only 1,500 square feet. … I can’t build a decent house that’s less the 1,100 square feet. Give me a break!”

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