The proposed 685-unit La Cumbre Plaza housing project exceeds the 60-foot height limit set by Santa Barbara’s city charter and will need to undergo environmental review, according to a squad of city staff members and department heads who recently sent a letter to the developers.
The city’s 34-page pre-application team comment letter also outlines several transportation and circulation changes that the developers — local father-and-son team Matthew and Jim Taylor — should make for the project to move forward.
The project ranges from two to six stories, reaching as high as 88 feet, according to the city. The city’s charter states that buildings higher than 60 feet are not allowed. However, the Taylors have submitted the project under the state law known as SB 330, which limits local control and discretionary review of housing projects.
“One of the major issues is the 60-foot issue,” Councilman Eric Friedman said. “The city charter is 60 feet. They are indicating that the state law allows it to go higher. We are trying to figure out what that means. Until I hear otherwise, the 60 feet in the charter applies.”
The City Council met Tuesday in closed session to discuss potential “significant exposure to litigation.”
“The significant exposure to litigation arises from expressed disagreements regarding the height limit applicable to development under the Housing Accountability Act and Density Bonus Law,” the agenda item states.
State law allows public officials to meet in private to discuss potential litigation.
Matthew Taylor spoke to Noozhawk on Wednesday about the project.
“We are currently working through comments, and we do appreciate the objective feedback from staff,” Taylor said. “We are looking forward to working through the outstanding issues collaboratively.”
The project hits at a time when many coastal communities throughout California are struggling with a housing crisis. Santa Barbara has a 1.7% vacancy rate, and development has not met the demand in the past several decades.
While most city leaders and community activists agree that new apartments and other housing are needed, the La Cumbre Plaza proposal has raised larger questions about how 685 units would impact upper State Street, including water, traffic, parking, circulation and the Hope School District.
At the same time, the city has allowed developers to build nearly 500 units since 2013, and another 500 have been approved or are in the planning process.
The city sent its PRT letter to the Taylors the final week of February, and then city leaders met with the team via a Zoom meeting last week.
The Taylors will take the comments made by the city and decide how to move forward before submitting a formal application.
The Taylor project consists of 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.
The public relations effort for the project has been snarled since the start.
In December, the Santa Barbara County Association of Government board of directors rejected a $1.1 million funding request from the City of Santa Barbara to redesign La Cumbre Plaza through a specific plan for the area. It did that even though an advisory and technical board recommended funding.
The city wanted a specific plan to redesign the mall to build up to 2,000 housing units with a high percentage of them affordable, while considering issues such as traffic, parking, public transit, utilities and other infrastructure for the development.
Now, without a specific plan, the city must review the projects piecemeal, and get fewer affordable housing units.
The Taylor project is 685 units, and of those about 56 of the units would be for below-market renters.
Santa Barbara Mayor Randy Rowse was the only member of SBCAG who supported the specific plan.
“I didn’t see anything about the project until the Santa Maria hearing when we got rolled on the specific plan funding,” Rowse said.
Rowse said the Taylors are good people and that there will be a housing project eventually at La Cumbre Plaza, “and it will be a good one.”
However, he criticized SB 330.
“It is so hard to maintain your community when you have all these outside forces trying to take over local control,” Rowse said. “I am concerned about maintaining the character of Santa Barbara. We do need housing, but not at any cost.”
The city’s letter also calls for an environmental review.
“Your application materials indicate that CEQA Exemption Section 15183 could apply to the project,” the letter states. “While housing at the La Cumbre Plaza site was envisioned in the City’s General Plan, there are project specific impacts that were not analyzed in the General Plan Environmental Impact Report (EIR), such as project-specific construction impacts as well as impacts to public services, including fire protection, police protection, schools, parks or other public facilities.”
The letter also states that “absent a Specific Plan and associated environmental review document that analyzes the impacts related to redevelopment of the La Cumbre Plaza site, environmental review will need to be conducted on a project-by-project basis.”
Jessica Grant, supervising transportation planner, outlined several other areas for review, including a need for “stronger connections with transit,” and a stronger pedestrian and bicycle connection from La Cumbre Road to La Cumbre Lane through the site and onto Hope Avenue.
The comments also outlined the need for new sidewalks near Chipotle and Panda Express in the mall, and compliance with the State Street Pedestrian Master Plan.
The project also must go to the Planning Commission for review.