Call it the local version of a bipartisan treaty, in some ways as rare as a partnership between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Bush.
Standing on the steps of City Hall on Thursday, a group of about 15 people that included strident slow-growth advocates and vocal affordable housing activists announced they had struck a compromise on the best way to approach the two thorniest development issues facing the city: Building size and affordable housing.
In a sense, the move seems designed to stave off a political collision course that was on track to culminate in the November election.
That’s because the slow-growth advocates — who belong to a group called Save El Pueblo Viejo — had briskly begun collecting signatures to put on the November ballot an initiative that would lower building height limits.
That initiative, spearheaded by former Planning Commissioner Bill Mahan, was triggered largely by anger over a spate of bulky luxury condo developments on Chapala Street, such as the 60-foot-tall Paseo Chapala complex, which has become something of a local whipping boy. Mahan’s initiative would decrease limits to 40 feet from the current 60 feet in the historic downtown district, and to 45 feet from 60 feet in the rest of the city’s commercial-zoned areas. Mahan said the group has collected at least 2,000 signatures — among them that of Mayor Marty Blum — and would need a total of 6,500 by sometime in August to put it on the ballot.
The compromise solution, called the “Interim Building Regulation Ordinance,” calls for the City Council to put a similar measure on the 2009 November ballot. The City Council will discuss it Tuesday.
Meanwhile, in the spirit of the late President Ronald Reagan’s call to “trust, but verify,” Mahan’s Save El Pueblo Viejo intends to keep collecting signatures for the original initiative, saying they won’t stop their efforts until they see hard evidence of City Council buy-in.
“They haven’t done anything yet,” said former Mayor Sheila Lodge, a member of Save El Pueblo Viejo.
Among other things, the compromise adds an incentive to create affordable housing. While maintaining Save El Pueblo Viejo’s original 40-foot limit, the compromise also grants 12 additional feet to developers who incorporate a certain amount of affordable housing. What’s more, the 40-foot cap would be measured to the top of a structure’s walls, not the roof, to address fears that the limit would lead to a flat-line look, thereby endangering the preservation of Santa Barbara’s signature red-tile style.
The original initiative — whose supporters include the League of Women Voters — had offended the sensibilities of affordable housing activists such as Mickey Flacks, founder of the Santa Barbara County Action Network, who called it “using a cudgel to do the work of a scalpel,” and local architects, who believed it would spawn an architectural trend of ghastly uniformity.
Above all, opponents — which include the Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce — feared the height initiative would accelerate the migration of working middle-class families out of expensive Santa Barbara.
Meanwhile, Mahan’s original initiative threw a monkey wrench in the ongoing effort of the City Council and the Planning Commission to work with the community in giving Santa Barbara’s General Plan the biggest makeover in its 44-year history.
A voter mandate to lower the limits without exceptions would amount to an end-run around those leaders’ attempts to carefully set standards for land-use — a major component of the General Plan, which acts as a guiding document for the policymakers of current and future generations.
But at Thursday’s news conference, city leaders, architects, planners and Flacks — who just a few hours earlier, at a Planning Commission meeting, had drawn hisses from neighborhood activists opposed to a high-density workforce housing project — stood beside Mahan, Lodge and other members of Save El Pueblo Viejo.
The group even included the architect who designed the much-maligned Paseo Chapala building, Detlev Peikert.
City Councilman Das Williams, who organized the coalition, said when he walks the city precincts on the campaign trail, the top two wishes of his constituents are somewhat contradictory: to have less development and more affordable housing.
“You’ve set a high bar for your community leaders,” he said. “Everybody here has had some input in that process. These people have often been on opposite sides on development or growth issues. … It’s amazing that people stepped aside from their pride and said, ‘How can we ask for something that’s best for Santa Barbara?’ ”
Mahan said he believes the compromise is a better solution, but added that if his group had not taken firm action, the recent upward trend of bigger and bulkier buildings – many of them condo complexes – would have continued unabated.
As an example of the group’s influence, he cited the Radio Square condo development that will replace the strip mall anchored by Carrow’s on West Carrillo Street. Responding to stepped-up pressures from slow-growth advocates concerned about height, architects for the project, acting on their own, lowered the height of the building to three stores from four, albeit at the expense of many affordable housing units.
“We have accomplished a lot without passing any laws,” Mahan said. “The handwriting is on the wall — there’s not the support for these big buildings anymore.”
The compromise ordinance would allow the 12 extra feet of height to developers who put in at least twice the amount of affordable housing currently mandated by city ordinance. (The ordinance requires developments of at least 10 units to make affordable to middle-class workers at least 15 percent of them. So a project in which 30 percent of the units were affordable would be allowed to build to the higher limit.)
It also includes stipulations for setbacks from the street, open space and maximum floor areas that decrease at each story.
Coalition members said that had the compromise ordinance been in place at the time the Paseo Chapala complex had sought approval, the development would not have gotten through.
(It would have been close, though. Although the luxury condos there go for between $1 million and $2.5 million, 30 percent of the units are deemed “affordable.” But officials said it doesn’t have enough open space, as defined by the standards of the proposed compromise ordinance.)
Flacks said she had to give credit to the members of Save El Pueblo Viejo for spurring people into action.
“I said they are using a cudgel to do the work of a scalpel,” she said. “But then, a cudgel is useful for batting people upside the head and getting them to pay attention.”
In addition to Flacks, Lodge, Mahan, Thomas and Williams, those at the news conference were architect Brian Cearnal; Community Environmental Council executive director Dave Davis; planner Suzanne Elledge; former Mayor Sheila Lodge; Cathie McCammon, League of Women Voters; architect Detlev Peikert; land-use planner Lisa Plowman; architect Alex Pujo; and City Councilwoman Helene Schneider.