Presentation on AUD housing in Santa Barbara
Attendees of Wednesday’s public workshop break up into small groups to discuss Santa Barbara’s AUD incentive housing program. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

Santa Barbara’s high-density housing program may move downtown and away from Milpas Street.

Jessica Metzger, a project planner for the City of Santa Barbara, delivered a presentation on the status of the program Wednesday night in the Faulkner Gallery.

Since the Average Unit-size Density incentive program was approved in 2013, developers have built about 223 rental apartment units. The program allows developers greater building density if they build rental apartments. Before the program’s inception, developers had not built rental apartments in the previous 40 years because the high cost of land did not allow rental projects to pencil out. The city’s move to allow bonus density has provided an incentive for developers to build rentals. 

“That’s pretty impressive for a program deemed an experiment in the beginning,” Metzger said.

The program is set to expire in the summer of 2021 or when 250 units are occupied, unless the city extends the program.

Wednesday’s event was the second public workshop before city staff are expected to take proposed changes to the program to the Planning Commission in the fall and the Santa Barbara City Council in the winter or spring.

Throughout California, communities are struggling to build more housing to keep up with the state’s population growth. Coastal communities, including Santa Barbara, are hard-pressed to find land to build more housing and to keep up with state mandates.

Santa Barbara historically has been a slow-growth community. It is essentially built out, so the only way to build significant housing is by demolishing existing homes and units to build apartments, or build downtown — on top of the city’s retail area.

Metzger delivered the presentation from the front of the Faulkner Gallery while about 75 members of the public sat at tables, reviewed proposed maps and filled out a survey conveying their thoughts on the proposed program changes.

Presentation on AUD housing in Santa Barbara

Architect Brian Cearnal addresses the crowd at Wednesday’s workshop, saying Santa Barbara needs to build more housing downtown. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

The suggested amendments to the program also include reduced parking stands for downtown development. Currently, developers are required to build one parking space per unit. The cost of building a parking space, however, is about $40,000, which can create a burden on a developer. One of the parking recommendations at this time includes allowing developers to pay in-lieu-of fees instead of building parking spaces.

The program has rankled some Santa Barbara residents, who say they believe that it is only resulting in new — even more expensive — housing that is still out of reach for most working-class people. Some of the AUD projects call for the demolition of low-income homes to build high-density rental apartments. By moving the density downtown, city officials are hoping to find homes for young professionals and millennials, who can walk to State Street and the nightlife, and take the bus or ride a bike as their primary mode of transportation.

“Change is inevitable, therefore we must direct the change rather than sit and go through the change,” architect Brian Cearnal said.

He noted the city’s jobs-housing imbalance and the clogged Highway 101.

“I realize it has always been a problem historically in Santa Barbara,” Cearnal said, “but we’ve got to try and deal with it.”

Cearnal said he supports housing downtown.

“The downtown increased density is long overdue, and for those of you who are concerned that there’s going to be a rush to development, trust me, there won’t be,” Cearnal said. “The land costs are so high right now that nothing is going to happen unless we allow more density. When we do, people will step up and build more housing.”

Pat Saley said she lives downtown and that Santa Barbara needs families downtown, too, not just millennials. She said she wants to make sure that landmark structures and structures of merit are spared from high-density zoning.

“What really concerns me is that we are going to kill the character that makes this town so special,” Saley said. 

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

Joshua Molina

Joshua Molina, Noozhawk Staff Writer

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at