A rendering of the proposed Funk Zone mixed-use project.
A rendering depicts the Funk Zone mixed-use project proposed for 121 E. Mason St. and would stretch for a city block. (Courtesy rendering)

A 155-unit project proposed for an entire city block in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone is at the center of a debate over the need for apartments and affordable housing on the American Riveria.

During Monday’s meeting, most of the speakers and some of the members of the Architectural Board of Review criticized the proposal, which is still in its early stages. 

“This is a very large project, and it will significantly contribute to the gentrification of the Funk Zone,” board member Leon Olson said.

Owner Neil Dipaola, managing member of SOMO SB LLC, has proposed a four-story, mixed-use development at 121 E. Mason St., but it also would stretch for a block, bounded by Yanonali, East Mason and Santa Barbara streets and Gray Avenue.

Several buildings at the site would be demolished to build 142 rental units and 13 condominiums, 29 of which would be at below-market rate.

The owner of the project wants a development agreement with the city that ensures eventual approval, but also means the city can ask for specifics included in the project. The current maximum height for the area is 45 feet, but the developers want to be able to build as tall as 60 feet.

A total of 228 parking spaces are proposed inside mechanical lifts, as well as valet service and standard spaces.

The Funk Zone has experienced a transformational revolution in the past 20 years. The area once was a funky mix of warehouses that served as home to artists, surfboard makers and craftspeople. It was raw, gruff and unmanaged. But as State Street struggled, and businesses fled from the high rents and a shift in retail patterns, the Funk Zone fluorished.

City leaders neglected the area, so it arose organically, and restaurant owners, wineries, beer halls, coffee houses, shared-work spaces and small retailers started leasing spots far more affordable than State Street. Investors also began to buy buildings, renovated them and brought higher-end clients. Without the city’s involvement or high-priced consultants to envision the future of the Funk Zone, the area turned into the city’s hottest attraction, where tourists and locals gather nightly, and especially on the weekends to enjoy a night on the town.

Now, the residential developers have found the Funk Zone.

The SOMO SB project has for the first time in any formal way shined a bright light on the future of the Funk Zone, and whether it will hold on to a thread of its history or become the home for hundreds of residential apartments, just a block from the ocean. With Santa Barbara under pressure to zone for 8,001 new units by 2031, all sites are on the table, even if they involve displacing current tenants and uses.

Christine Pierron, an architect with the Cearnal Collective, said the surrounding East and West Beach areas are almost all dominated by luxury homes.

“There are very few lots available left in our beach communities to provide a much broader spectrum of housing that would include rental, low-income, moderate income, middle income, market rate, affordable by design,” Pierron said at the Monday ABR meeting. 

Santa Barbara resident Brian Miller said the project is great, but that Santa Barbara is under threat from Sacramento “bureaucrats” to build more housing.

“Santa Barbara is not Bakersfield,” Miller said. “Santa Barbara is not Clovis. Santa Barbara is not Santa Maria. Santa Barbara is not Lompoc. We have our own peculiar issues, problems and density standards.”

He added that “the citizens of this city are getting pissed off,” and he questioned whether new housing would actually be affordable.

“Do they truly satisfy making it more affordable to live here?” Miller said. “The answer is no.”

John Simpson, owner of the Shopkeepers, a home for small-business retailers who make jewelry, clothes or other products, raised concerns about the proposal. He said the architects were doing their best to “design funk,” but that the Funk Zone evolved into what it is naturally, and it’s tough to create that in a single project. 

“It really does threaten to radically shift the vibe in the Funk Zone that is already attracting so many people from out of town, our locals,” Simpson said.

He criticized the design of the open space, which he said was surrounded by three-story walls.

“It’s a bit depressing,” he said. 

The project is still in the design review stage, so it will return to the ABR for more discussion on the design. Eventually, the project must go to the Planning Commission and then the City Council for approval of the development agreement.

Members of the ABR could express comments only on the design, not on the issue of land use and housing.

Board member Dennis Whelan said he didn’t like the design and the attempt to make the building look like current Funk Zone buildings.

“It is an invented history, and it has a Disneylandish quality to it that is kind of hard to pull off,” Whelan said. “From the beautiful drawings, it all looks brand new even though its not supposed to.”

He said the interior does not match the exterior and that the open space and corridors on the inside of the project have an “Escher-like quality.”

“The amount of natural light that is going to penetrate, I am extremely dubious about some of these public spaces that have plantings in them that they would even survive,” Wheland said. “I would like to see what life is going to be like for these apartment dwellers. We just don’t know anything about it.”

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at jmolina@noozhawk.com. 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 jmolina@noozhawk.com.