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When It Comes to New Heights, Is the Sky the Limit?

A spate of approvals and proposals for taller buildings in downtown Santa Barbara has one group working to put a lid on it.

(To see a detailed city map showing current height limits, click here.)


While it’s true downtown Santa Barbara is unlikely to ever have a skyline, it’s also true there has been a skyscraper of a spike in the emergence of taller buildings in the last few years.

Since 2005, developers and planners have proposed or approved 15 buildings over the height of 45 feet — or about four stories — in the historic downtown area. That’s just five buildings shy of the total number created between the Flapper era of 1920 and the iPod revolution of 2005, according to a group of local preservationists.

The upsurge of mostly condominium buildings has prompted the group to launch an already controversial effort to place an initiative on the November ballot asking Santa Barbara voters to put a lid on it.

The group, which includes recently unseated City Councilman Brian Barnwell and former Planning Commissioner Bill Mahan, wants voter approval to decrease the city charter’s height limitation to 40 feet in the downtown district from the current 60 feet, and to no higher than 45 feet in the rest of the city.

That would mean no more buildings the height of the Canary Hotel (formerly Hotel Andalucia), which stands at 60 feet, or the Courthouse, which stretches to 85.

The group, called Save El Pueblo Viejo — in reference to the historic downtown area — is undertaking the project because its handful of core members believe Santa Barbara is not acting quickly enough to address height issues.

In short, they believe the matter is urgent.

“This is not a spike; this is going to be business as usual from now on, and downtown is going to be inundated with tall buildings,” warned Mahan, the group’s president, who fears the weak dollar will accelerate the trend by prompting a flood of condo purchasers from overseas.

But the ballot initiative is sure to spark some fireworks — especially in a city where the struggle to keep a middle-class workforce regularly confronts the challenges of an unbudging, $1.2 million median home price and the mission to preserve its small-town charm.

A Divisive Battle Ahead

Already, opponents and supporters of the proposed height limitations are emerging.

Among the detractors is Jerry Bunin, government affairs director for the Home Builders Association of the Central Coast. Bunin said further height restrictions will exacerbate middle-class flight, and the increased commuter traffic that comes with it.

“People need to think beyond themselves, and they need to think beyond yesterday,” he said. “Young families don’t have places to live in the community, so they are leaving. Instead of trying to limit height, they need to encourage affordability, and limiting height will not encourage affordability.”

Also opposed is the Santa Barbara chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

“Instead of high-priced condos being on the fourth floor, they will be on the third floor,” said AIA board member Joe Andrulaitis. “They are not going to go away.”

Supporters include Jarrell Jackman, executive director of the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation.

Speaking as an individual — and not a representative for the Trust — Jackman said Santa Barbara has “run amok” with large buildings.

“I’ve personally been appalled by the size of these buildings,” he said. “I walked up Chapala just yesterday, and said to myself, ‘How did this happen?’"He added, “I think it’s a good sign that Brian (Barnwell) and Bill (Mahan) are trying to lead us out of the wilderness, back to what makes Santa Barbara a really special place."

On the fence is Mayor Marty Blum, although she seems to lean in favor of the initiative.

“The first political thing I did in Santa Barbara was gather signatures for the limitations we have now — I was in my 20s,” said Blum, now 64. The 60-foot limit, she said, was arrived at arbitrarily — by eyeballing what was then the Carrillo Hotel, the site on the corner of Carrillo and Chapala streets where The Canary (formerly Hotel Andalucia) now stands.

“It’s time probably for a revision of that height limit,” Blum said. Still, she added, “We also want more housing for our workforce, and for the downtown workers to live downtown. You start seeing all these things, and seeing that you can’t do everything. I’m inclined to support it, but I’m waiting for that discussion to happen.”

What About the Housing Slump?

Oddly, the spate of proposed condo developments stands in direct contrast to the slump in the national housing market, which has affected Santa Barbara, if only marginally.

As a result, some developers are having trouble filling the condos — units that, on average, fetch about $600,000 locally. Karen Spechler, a real-estate agent for Coldwell Banker, said at least one downtown developer has been forced to turn condos into rentals.

“It takes so darn long to develop anything in this town — that’s the risk you take,” Spechler said. “By the time you get done, the market can change.”

Spechler, who added that the local condo market is beginning to recover, noted that the majority of her clients are locals trying to get a foothold in the housing market, not out-of-town investors. For instance, she said she recently sold seven units in a complex in Carpinteria. Six went to locals; one went to a nonlocal investor.

So, What’s Lacking?

In any case, the debate about the proposed ballot initiative is revving up against the backdrop of the city’s more bureaucratic — and perhaps systematic — efforts to address the matter. The Planning Commission recently rekindled its quest to update the city’s General Plan, a state-required planning document that serves as a decades-long visionary blueprint.

But Barnwell said the city’s elected officials thus far have lacked the political “guts” to make the bold changes he believes are necessary to maintain Santa Barbara’s unique charm.

By way of example, he pointed to how the City Council last year refused a request to put a moratorium on approving tall buildings.

“They dodged it like a disease,” he said.

Meanwhile, he said, the development of condos is “getting out of control.”

“We’re seeing a sort of gold rush,” he said.

Since March, the city has witnessed seven proposals for condo complexes that would stand at least 45-feet tall, according to Save El Pueblo Viejo.

The proposals include two projects near the Arlington Theatre, one on lower State Street adjacent to the Highway 101 underpass, one on Carrillo Street in the strip center that includes Carrows Restaurant and another in the 800 block of Garden Street.

Dale Francisco
Although the projects technically are just proposals, Barnwell, who lost his bid for re-election in November to political newcomer Dale Francisco, said they will almost surely be approved.They haven’t been approved, but they’re going to be,” he said. “What’s going to stop them? There’s no code to stop them.
Das Williams
But City Councilman Das Williams, who opposes the proposed ballot measure, said he does not hesitate to deny projects.

“I’m opposed to it, and I’m someone who has voted against most building projects in the city,” he said.

Williams said if the initiative succeeds, the public will miss out on what he views to be a grand opportunity: creating middle-class housing above a redeveloped MTD transit center in the 1000 block of Chapala Street.


Proponents of a ballot initiative to reduce maximum building heights in most areas of Santa Barbara will hold a news conference at 10 a.m. Wednesday at City Hall, 735 Anacapa St.

“That is one of the few sites where it makes sense to have a good amount of middle-class housing that is transit-oriented,” he said. “For it to work, it may have to peak over 45 feet.”

Williams acknowledged that the city has erred in approving some new projects without amendments, like the much-maligned complex of luxury condominiums on Chapala and De la Guerra streets known as Paseo Chapala. But even here, he said, the offensiveness is due not so much to the height of the structure as to its lack of a setback from the street: Buildings abutting the sidewalk tend to overshadow the street, and appear imposing.

Giving credit to the Paseo Chapala project, he added that 30 percent of the units are inhabited by middle-class residents. (The rest sell for between $1 million and $2.5 million, according to the Paseo Chapala Web site.)

Williams said solving the building-height dilemma will require a more nuanced approach than the ballot initiative proposed by Save El Pueblo Viejo.

He is currently a member of the city’s ordinance committee, which this month will begin looking at ways to ensure each proposed development meets a high threshold of public good. Criteria may include providing a certain amount of middle-class housing, ensuring a minimum setback from the street and having a design that is environmentally friendly, he said.

“The answer isn’t creating another blanket law that has no vision for what may be necessary in the next 100 years in the city of Santa Barbara,” he said. “The answer is for us to deal with the projects as they come, but hold them to an extremely high threshold of public good, and to be willing to say no if they don’t meet that threshold.”

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