Downtown Santa Barbara housing project
Santa Barbara city officials are looking to bring more housing projects, such as this one at the corner of Anacapa and Ortega streets, to the downtown area. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

Santa Barbara’s downtown soon could boast more and bigger housing, but will it be better?

The city’s three-member Ordinance Committee met this week to talk about an array of changes to encourage developers to build high-density housing in the downtown central business district. 

In its battle to fill vacant storefronts and boost business along State Street, the city is exploring ways to bring more people downtown. Among the ideas is building apartments near the businesses to create a built-in population of customers who shop, dine, drink and experience downtown.

“What we need are developers to build these projects,” architect Brian Cearnal said. “The height increase is essential. I think, frankly, it should go to 60 feet. The bottom line is, you can’t build four stories in 45 feet.”

The proposals call for several changes, including increasing the maximum building height from 45 to 48 feet, eliminating the requirement for projects to have open yard space, allow for developers to build parking away from the housing site, and require only one parking space per unit.

The City Council still must vote on the package of changes this summer. 

The program stems from the city’s 2013 average unit-sized density incentive program, which sought to encourage developers to build rental apartments allowing greater density. The city is now pushing to build apartments in the downtown business district. The high cost of land and development in the city, however, means that developers must be able to stack as many units as possible on a piece of land so that the finances pencil out. 

The city is considering a number of ways to relax traditional development standards around required parking spaces, building height and open yard space. Some members of the Ordinance Committee expressed concerns about jumping another 3 feet, particularly in a city that is known for cherishing its ocean and mountain views. 

“I just don’t know that building height gets us any more affordability,” committee and council member Kristen Sneddon said.

Sneddon said she’s in favor of higher density downtown, but is opposed to increasing heights to 48 feet without a broader discussion about yard space and square footage of units.

“I am not in favor of increasing the building heights until we have the rest of the package,” Sneddon said. 

Committee member Mike Jordan was in favor of moving to 48 feet, and member Oscar Gutierrez said he prefers 48 feet. 

Detlev Peikert, an architect who has practiced in Santa Barbara for 38 years, said the changes under consideration would positively affect the vitality of the commuity, adding that all of the drama related to the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors will force the city to embark on a new vision for downtown. 

The AUD amendments, he said, are a step toward being responsive to the city’s needs.

“We have a statewide housing crisis that negatively affects every community in California, including Santa Barbara,” Peikert said. “We have an economic crisis caused by the global pandemic that affects every aspect of life and threatens the way we live now and long into the future.”

Sneddon is a supporter of affordable housing, but has never been convinced that the AUD program is the best way to create more affordable housing. The units are market rate, so with the new construction, and on prime pieces of real estate, she said she’s not sure that they would actually be affordable to most people who need housing.

“I want housing downtown,” Sneddon said. “I want it to be affordable. So many of these things, I don’t think, necessarily address that. I think it kind of stimulates more construction with this package, but not necessarily in affordability.”

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.