Downtown view with Granada Theatre
Some of Santa Barbara’s iconic buildings are the tallest, such as the Granada Theatre, and city leaders are considering raising the development height limit for residential projects. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

A new generation of people and change in thinking could force Santa Barbara out of its long-held comfort zone of building densely if necessary, but not high. 

The City Council recently voted to let developers build high-density housing units in the downtown Central Business District and may boost the residential height limit from 45 feet to 48 feet.

Voters rejected a 2011 ballot initiative to lower the city’s maximum building height to 40 feet, but buildings can only be built taller than 45 feet if the City Council declares the project is a community benefit, with at least five out of seven members assenting.

The current limit makes it difficult to build four-story buildings and accommodate mechanical systems, according to developers, and even the 48-foot limit is seen as too short by some architects and developers.

“Santa Barbara can be taller and just as beautiful,” said Brian Cearnal, an architect and owner of the Cearnal Collective. “The difference will be a vibrant downtown with people living and working in a sustainable community.”

He thinks the city should allow buildings up to 60 feet tall.

“It’s time to build higher, which all agree is the most sustainable building model,” he said. “The Lobero building, across from the theater, is a wonderful example of a taller building that works. And the views of the mountains are still available through our street corridors.”

Even 60 feet might not be the highest, since voters could approve a ballot measure and amend the City Charter to allow buildings taller than 60 feet.  

City planner Renee Brooke said the time is right to consider higher buildings. 

“I know some people fear a loss of public views with taller buildings, but if designed carefully, buildings can actually frame really amazing views and draw your eye toward a view corridor,” Brooke said. “We have been really successful maintaining a pedestrian scale along the street downtown, even with taller buildings. For example, the Balboa Building near the corner of State and De la Guerra streets is 80 feet tall, but it does not feel overwhelming when you walk by it.”

There is a way for the city to go higher, she said, with the demand for more affordable housing.

Architect Brian Cearnal

Architect Brian Cearnal thinks Santa Barbara should allow 60-foot-high buildings, and says so at a City Council meeting in December. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk file photo)

“A market-rate rental housing project is considered a Community Benefit Housing project,” Brooke said. “For whatever reason, no applicants of mixed-use of multiunit rental housing projects have proposed a building taller than 45 feet in the last six years. I see that as a lost opportunity, as some project sites can accommodate that extra height and still be compatible with the area.” 

Economics might be compelling Santa Barbara to go higher, Brooke noted.  
“If we truly want to make an impact in revitalizing downtown, we will need to accept that some buildings will be taller than 45 feet,” she said. “The cost of land and construction, especially on sites with constrained access and areas for construction material storage, will make redevelopment of sites downtown very expensive. I believe it can be accomplished through a mix of re-purposing existing buildings — converting upper floor office space to residential units — and redeveloping underutilized sites.”

Councilwoman Meagan Harmon, who represents Santa Barbara’s downtown, said the city and the community are embracing new ideas when it comes to development downtown.

“Painting our city with a broad brush, whether we’re talking height or open space or unit size, may make it difficult to achieve consensus,” Harmon said, “but if we drill down to look at specific areas of applicability for such changes, we’re better positioned to achieve the equally important aims of innovation and protection of the character of our city.”

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