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Local News

Santa Barbara Housing Project Pits Seniors vs. Creek, Steelhead Restoration

The city Housing Authority has proposed building a 91-unit senior housing development on a lot next to Arroyo Burro Creek

Next to some auto dealerships and alongside Arroyo Burro Creek sits a triangle-shaped piece of land that forever was home only to dirt and weeds, except during the holiday season, when vendors sold pumpkins and Christmas trees.

But now, the City of Santa Barbara Housing Authority and architect Detty Peikert want to transform this lot into the next big thing in senior housing in Santa Barbara.

Looking to mirror the success of Santa Barbara's Garden Court, which has 425 seniors on a waiting list, advocates want to build a three-story, 91-unit affordable-housing project for seniors on a 1.76-acre lot at 251 S. Hope Ave.

"Often times low-income seniors are forced into skilled nursing way before their time, and it's morally and fiscally irresponsible for us not to try to develop another housing type," said Rob Pearson, executive director of the city's Housing Authority. "Many seniors need affordable housing. They are really having to make choices between paying for rent, paying for food and paying for their health-care costs."

The affordable-housing project, however, has pitted the senior advocates against environmentalists, in a debate not over whether there's a need for more housing, but whether an awkward-shaped lot next to a creek with known watershed pollution problems is the best spot to build 91 studio apartments.

Peikert said he needs to design 91 units for the site, otherwise "the project doesn't pencil out."

Peikert and Pearson are seeking a bonus-density allowance to built 91 units; only 47 for the size of that lot are allowed under current city rules. 

And in order to squeeze that many units on the lot, Peikert and Pearson want to build up to 25 feet from the top of the Arroyo Burro Creek bank. City creek rules call for a 50-foot setback.

The architect and housing developer brought the "Garden Court 2" project to the city Planning Commission this week for a concept review, where they heard an earful from commissioners and the public about the proposal.

Eddie Harris, president of the Urban Creeks Council, raised concerns that the project could hurt the creek, noting that "someday steelhead (trout) could even be reintroduced into Arroyo Burro Creek."

"I want to acknowledge that there is a need for housing," Harris said. "I don't deny that is a problem for many people in Santa Barbara. But I think it is essential for the city to ensure the needs are met for healthy and functional creek resources."

Harris said the site was "tightly constrained" and a threat to the water quality in the creek. He suggested raising the height of the building to four stories to reduce the impact on the creek.

"It is essential to plan wisely to allow for the recovery of clean water, adequate space for habitat and to reduce downstream erosion and flooding," Harris said. 

Santa Barbara resident Dan McCarter agreed that the site has environmental constraints that make a 91-unit housing project incompatible.

"Before we put the cart before the horse, we need to look at the horse, which is the creek and that section of the creek needs desperate renovation," McCarter said. ""Before we can do a development of this type, we need to look at the core infrastructure of the creek and make it efficient."

That section of Arroyo Burro Creeks acts as funnel and nozzle, which leads to downstream creek erosion. McCarter said those problems force many people in the Hidden Valley neighborhood across Highway 101 to carry expensive flood insurance. 

"Unfortunately, creeks don't understand compromise," McCarter said. "They either function properly or they don't function."

Ninety of the proposed 335-square-feet studio units would be for seniors, while one two-bedroom would be set aside as a manager's unit. Peikert said the studios were "the right size for this particular development."

The units would be intended for very low- and low-income elderly seniors. The project includes a common dining area, commercial  kitchen, and common indoor and outdoor area. 

The city could also have to amend the area's Specific Plan to allow for the senior housing; right now the area is intended for use by car dealerships.

The number of units proposed would also require a parking modification; 45 spaces are required, but the developer and Peikert only want to build 33 spaces. 

The commissioners appeared in favor of the housing, although many wondered if the proposal was too big for the area. 

"I think you have more work to do here," said Commissioner Michael Jordan. "I would just like to see more evidence of why you can't do it at 70 (units) rather than just saying, 'It doesn't pencil out.'"

Jordan said just because it works at the original Garden Court on De la Vina Street doesn't automatically mean it is going to work on Hope Avenue.

Commissioner Addison Thompson said there needs to be compromise on behalf of the environmentalists.

"I am all in support of creeks and creek maintenance and riparian zone," Thompson said. "I have been an outdoorsman since before I was a teenager, backpacking, hiking. But in an urban environment, when it comes down to whether we are going to have a 25-foot or 50-foot setback, versus how many seniors we can house here, I am going to go with the people."

Thompson said more housing is desperately needed. 

"We want to preserve the creeks as much as possible," Thompson said, "but the people have to have priority."

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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