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Santa Barbara Rental Apartment Project Gets Mixed Reviews at ABR

ABR sends the project to the Planning Commission; board chair says one unit should be eliminated

A 15-unit mixed-use project proposed for this parcel at 116 E. Cota St. in Santa Barbara was sent Monday by the ABR to the Planning Commission for review.
A 15-unit mixed-use project proposed for this parcel at 116 E. Cota St. in Santa Barbara was sent Monday by the ABR to the Planning Commission for review. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

Back to the drawing board. Again. 

The Santa Barbara Architectural Board of Review appreciated changes to a four-story apartment building proposed for downtown, but not enough to give approval to the project at 116 E. Cota St.

In fact, the ABR voted 5-0 Monday night to send the project — proposed under the city's Average Unit-size Density (AUD) Incentive Program — to the Planning Commission for further review. 

"I don't want to go to the Planning Commission," said the project's architect, Clay Aurell of AB Design Studios.

It was the second the second time the ABR criticized the project.

The firm in February proposed a 58-foot-tall rental-housing project in downtown Santa Barbara between Plaza Vera Cruz and The French Press.

The ABR hammered the project at that meeting, so Aurell returned Monday night with a smaller building, reducing the size of the rooftop deck, and moving a smaller open space to the ground floor.

The new building is still four stories, but at 45 feet.

The project includes 15 two-bedroom, two-bathroom residential units and approximately 738 square feet of commercial space. Sixteen covered parking spaces will be provided on the ground level.

Residential units would be spread out on the second, third, and fourth floors. The four stories also will tower over nearby Vera Cruz Park, eliminating some of the sunlight during the evening. 

Even though the proposed building is now smaller, the ABR members expressed concern about the architecture and how the building seemed to charge toward the street.

"I do feel strongly that the impact and massing at the street needs to be reduced," said ABR chairman Kirk Gradin. "To lose one unit seems like an easy solution to make it more acceptable, from a street perspective."

Gradin said the designed seemed "rather tall and imposing."

"It feels like it is reaching toward the street as opposed to stepping back," Gradin said.

Many of the AUD projects have lost a unit in order to make them fit on a site and blend in with the neighborhood. Gradin prefers that the building be lower toward the street and reach higher as it sets back on the site.

"Compositionally it looks nicer that way," he said.

The project is the latest in a flurry of AUD program proposals designed to let developers have more units on a lot in exchange for building rental units.

Santa Barbara’s middle class has been squeezed out of the city to places such as Ventura, Lompoc, Buellton and Santa Maria, while the city has seen an influx of tech-driven transplants from Seattle, the San Francisco Bay Area and other large metropolitan areas.

The city is trying to partner with developers to save its middle class and provide more housing opportunities for low- and moderate-income workers who largely serve the city’s tourist industry.

While the apartments will not be subsidized by the government, like typical Section 8 housing, city officials hope the rental nature of the property will attract working-class individuals.

Santa Barbara has approved 173 of the AUD units so far, but nothing has been constructed yet. Many neighborhoods have objected to the dense rental housing projects, while housing activists say the city is doing the right thing by creating incentives for developers to build apartments.

When this project was originally approved, it would have needed to go to the Planning Commission because it was taller than 45 feet, and in need of a community priority designation. When the developer reduced the height to 45 feet, it no longer needed Planning Commission approval.

But the ABR decided to send it there anyway.

"I would like the Planning Commission to bless this," said ABR member Howard Wittausch

The ABR also suggested that the architect provide "a more functional open space design," consolidate the open space to the interior of the building, and consider planting "significant" canopy trees at the site.

Most of the concerns, however, rested on the part of the building that faces Cota Street. The architect had attempted to break up the four stories by creating a long hangover at eight feet tall, to make the building appear layered.

"The building would benefit and the public would benefit from a little more warmth to the street," said ABR member Kevin Moore.

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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