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Landmarks Commission Again Backs 3-Story, 23-Apartment Project in Downtown Santa Barbara

High-density proposal in El Pueblo Viejo District draws opposition from historic preservationists, Anacapa School

A three-story, 23-unit apartment building is proposed for 800 Santa Barbara St. in downtown Santa Barbara. The project would include eight studios, 10 one-bedroom units and five two-bedroom units; commercial space; and underground parking for 29 vehicles. Click to view larger
A three-story, 23-unit apartment building is proposed for 800 Santa Barbara St. in downtown Santa Barbara. The project would include eight studios, 10 one-bedroom units and five two-bedroom units; commercial space; and underground parking for 29 vehicles. (Hochhauser Blatter Architecture & Planning rendering)

A three-story, 23-unit apartment complex with an underground parking garage has received a key approval for its proposed construction at the corner of Santa Barbara and De la Guerra streets, near El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park in the city’s El Pueblo Viejo District.

The Historic Landmarks Commission narrowly approved the project at its Aug. 9 meeting. Commissioners Michael Drury, Bill Mahan, Philip Suding and Julio Veyna voted for it, with commissioners Anthony Grumbine, Bill LaVoie and Judith Orias dissenting.

The 800 Santa Barbara St. project, however, likely will be appealed to the City Council. It is opposed by historical preservationist groups as well as Anacapa School, which is next door at 814 Santa Barbara St.

The project is the latest high-density housing proposal brought forward under the city’s increasingly controversial Average Unit-Size Density (AUD) Incentive Program. For the first time in decades, the program has allowed developers to build rental apartments — by permitting more units than zoning otherwise would allow — to help expand the city’s affordable housing stock.

“A lot of people have spoken up about this not being appropriate for an AUD location, and I would agree that it is not,” Orias said. “That is not in my purview. That is something that should be taken up to the City Council.

“It’s unfortunate that it seems to be a characteristic of the human being that we wait to make mistakes and run to correct them afterward. But in this case the mistake, if it is a mistake, is going to be in concrete and asphalt and plaster, and it will be built and will remain here for many, many years.”

Since Santa Barbara approved the AUD program in 2013, there has been a flurry of proposals, many of which have rankled the community. The city has approved 317 of the medium- and high-density units, with 470 more in the pipeline. So far, 165 building permits have been issued under the AUD program.

The residential apartment boom has sparked wide debate over growth and development. Supporters say the projects appeal to younger workers who want to live near downtown and prefer to rent rather than own.

Critics contend the projects never provide enough parking for the number of residents living in them, and that the additional residents and units strain water resources while adding to traffic congestion.

The Santa Barbara Street project calls for the demolition of an existing 1,965-square-foot commercial building to build a 19,179-square-foot mixed-use development. The project consists of eight studios, 10 one-bedroom units and five two-bedroom units, along with 1,289 square feet of commercial space. An underground garage will contain 29 parking spaces.

About 15 trees will be removed from the property, nine would be retained and three relocated. The developer will plant 17 new trees.

Since 2015, the proposed apartment complex at 800 Santa Barbara St. has been before the Santa Barbara Planning Commission and the Historic Landmarks Commission a total of seven times. It is expected that opponents of the project will appeal its approval to the City Council. Click to view larger
Since 2015, the proposed apartment complex at 800 Santa Barbara St. has been before the Santa Barbara Planning Commission and the Historic Landmarks Commission a total of seven times. It is expected that opponents of the project will appeal its approval to the City Council. (Hochhauser Blatter Architecture & Planning rendering)

Architect Jan Hochhauser said the project fits in nicely with its neighborhood. The site is across the street from the Santa Barbara Historical Museum and the Santa Barbara Unified School District offices.

“This does not stand out as a sore thumb,” he said.

Hochhauser told Noozhawk after the meeting that the project is “fabulous and fits right in.”

Suding said it was the HLC’s job to review the architecture of the project, not make a decision based on the AUD program.

“What difference does it make what the inside is?” he asked. “If it were commercial and residential or mixed-use, like with the condominiums, you’d have people coming and going, making far more trips.

“Yeah, If I had my druthers I would not want this as an AUD overlay, but I think it is what it is and we should move on and move forward from that.”

But Gordon Sichi, Anacapa School’s headmaster, said it does matter and that the project is too big.

“This is not a good site for an AUD project,” he said.

Sichi said his school, which serves about 75 students in grades seven through 12, has already had one close call this month. On Aug. 1, the Board of Trustees voted to shut down the private independent school, but the next day an unsolicited donor gave them $1 million to keep it open. He said the school would like the opportunity to develop the adjacent site.

“If the property ever came back on the market, I do now have backing to purchase it,” he said. “We would like to bring something beautiful to you.”

LaVoie focused most of his comments on the architecture of the proposed building, saying it should have “more poetry,” with buttresses and “a window where it shouldn’t be” to add some charm. He suggested a fountain and a courtyard to face De la Guerra Street.

“This building needs a little more poetry,” he said. “A lot more poetry.”

Things got a little tense turn when the HLC seemed poised to ask the developer to work on some of the design elements and come back before the panel; in the last two years, the project already has been considered by the HLC and the Planning Commission a total of seven times.

Attorney Steve Amerikaner stepped in and demanded a vote.

“If the vote is to deny the project, we will move forward with it to the City Council,” said Amerikaner, a partner at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck and a representative of the developer.

“To postpone this decision yet again, we think is going too far. The applicant has been through this process for over two years.”

Amerikaner will likely find himself before the City Council with the project anyway. Hochhauser said he expects the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation and/or Anacapa School to appeal the HLC’s approval.

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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