The Macy's department store and parking lot at La Cumbre Plaza in Santa Barbara.
Santa Barbara’s La Cumbre Plaza has been trapped in a retail time warp for years, and still is. Credit: Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo

The city of Santa Barbara has lost out on $1.1 million to fund a La Cumbre Plaza Specific Plan that could provide for up to 2,000 new housing units.

Santa Barbara County First District Supervisor Das Williams led the charge to shoot down the housing funding at Thursday’s Santa Barbara County Association of Governments meeting.

“I have spent many, many months, years of my life in city of Santa Barbara planning processes that went nowhere,” Williams said. “They are all about the idealism and hope of bringing people together and that’s not where they end up.

“What they unfortunately end up as, all too often, is an impediment to progress,” Williams said at the meeting.

Williams comments hit hard at the city of Santa Barbara, and the team that supported the plan, including acting senior planner Dan Gullett, community development director Eli Isaacson and Santa Barbara Mayor Randy Rowse, all of whom attended the meeting to pitch for the housing funding.

“This is a transformative project for decades and decades and decades to come,” said Rowse, noting that 2,000 units is one-quarter of the number required of the city by the state between 2023 and 2031. “It’s very important that we get this done.

The city sought the funding from REAP 2.0, Regional Early Action Planning Grants to fund “equitable, affordable housing and sustainable transportation projects.”

The money is supposed to integrate housing and climate goals for infill development.

Santa Barbara County received $5.3 million for housing and sustainable transportation projects.

The city had hoped to get some of that money to pay for a specific plan for La Cumbre Plaza to build up to 2,000 units.

The rejection of Santa Barbara’s request delivers a major blow to the city’s housing efforts, and delivers a significant obstacle to its efforts to create housing opportunities in a community struggling with job-housing imbalance.

About 15,000 people daily commute in and out of Santa Barbara to work, and a large housing development at La Cumbre Plaza has been envisioned by city planners as an example of smart, urban infill development.

The city has been working on the idea of a specific plan dating back to 2009.

“We were very disappointed,” Isaacson said.

But the project hit a last-minute snag when one of the property owners within the proposed plan, Matthew Taylor, opposed being included in the specific plan.

He hired Ben Romo, an insider political consultant, to represent him, and the development team submitted its own application for the project just Wednesday, hours before the meeting.

The Taylor project consists about 15 acres fronting State Street and Hope Avenue. The proposal is to build 685 units, under the state’s bonus-density program. About 56 of the units would be for below-market renters.

The unit mix would include mostly studios, and one- and two-bedroom units. Some of the units would be set aside for seniors.

The project also calls for retail space and underground parking

Taylor and his partners own about half of the area within La Cumbre Plaza.

“There are many reasons why a specific plan just doesn’t make sense for La Cumbre Plaza,” Taylor said.

He noted that his property and others in the area already are zoned for housing. He is worried that a specific plan would delay or be incompatible with his project.

La Cumbre Plaza currently has a lease that goes through 2077, and there is a separate property owner within the mall, Riviera Dairy, which Isaacson said is “agnostic” to the specific plan.

“The specific plan would delay infill development for two years, maybe more,” Taylor said.

A specific plan would allow the city to look at the entire area in a holistic manner, and consider all of the planning implications together, including impacts on transportation, air quality and schools.

City planners are trying to avoid a piecemeal approach to development, and are looking at ways to create a new community at the largest spot for infill development in the city.

The Taylor project was submitted under Senate Bill 330, also known as the Housing Crisis Act of 2019, which limits the number of design review meetings to five, and puts other handcuffs on the city process.

“It’s the last good chance to create a new neighborhood in the city of Santa Barbara,” Isaacson said.

Isaacson, however, noted that the city still does have some control over the development, including the height, which currently as proposed extends to 74 feet in parts.

Williams, however, took an anti-planning tone and pushed back, saying planning processes slow down progress.

“The same people that you would hire to do additional planning efforts are the same people you need to hire to process applications,” Williams said.

He took a jab at county planning.

“We are having the difficulty at the county, so I don’t want to preach from the perspective that we are doing everything right. We are not, we need to do better ourselves,” Williams said.

Then he turned to criticizing city design boards, and said he had no faith in them.

“I just respectfully disagree that staffing additional planning processes will speed things up compared to planning processing of applications, especially when the city is tolerating design review boards run amok,” Williams said.

“By the city’s own rules, and by law, their design review boards are not supposed to be land-use planning organs. They are not supposed to be dictating the number of units that a project can do, and yet they are doing that. 

“It is a horrifying thing to watch.”

But for Rowse and the city planning team, what’s more terrifying is trying to redevelop the La Cumbre Plaza area piecemeal, rather than as a unit.

Gullett noted that the Taylor project can move forward separate from a specific plan, but that it’s not the best way.

“If the Taylors are ready to go, we would look to doing a specific plan around that property,” Gullett said. “The city doesn’t need property owner support to do a specific plan. We certainly want it. We want to have a harmonious relationship with all of our applicants and have a good public process.”

The SBCAG technical advisory committee had recommended funding for the La Cumbre Plaza Specific Plan.

The overall projects that got funded for a total of $5.3 million were housing projects in Lompoc, Santa Maria, a 3-D Prototype for the Housing Fund of Santa Barbara, new charging stations and San Jose Creek.

The vote was 10-1, with only Rowse in opposition. The meeting was in North County and Rowse was the only South Coast board member not to attend the meeting in person.

Joshua Molina

Joshua Molina, Noozhawk Staff Writer

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at