Rendering of new Milpas Street project.
Rendering shows the revised Milpas Street apartment project, top, and the original plan, bottom.  (Courtesy illustration)

The epic saga of 711 Milpas St. is getting a bonus chapter. 

The Santa Barbara City Council voted 6-0 Tuesday night to allow Alan Bleecker and Ed St. George to negotiate a development agreement for their housing project on the Eastside. Councilwoman Meagan Harmon was absent because she is ill.

“Today is the day,” said Jarrett Gorin, principal with Vanguard Planning LLC, which represents the project. “It’s an opportunity for us to be creative and initiate a process where the city and my client can work together to get some affordable housing on the ground and to do it quickly.”

Bleecker wants to build the apartment project at the site of his longtime Capital Hardware store. He spent nearly a decade navigating the city’s Byzantine planning process, which saw him throw blows with the city’s architectural board of review on multiple occasions and joust with neighborhood dissidents, before ultimately winning approval in a dramatic five-hour March 2019 meeting. 

But late last year, Bleecker joined financial forces with St. George, and the duo decided to revise the project. When the council approved the project on appeal in 2019, it consisted of 44 two-bedroom units and 32 one-bedroom units ranging in size from 575 to 805 square feet. The project had 76 parking spaces and 80 bike parking spots.

The new project calls for six additional units and an increase in the height of the building from 45 to 52 feet.  In addition, the developers want to include 16 moderate-income apartments. None of the units are studios. 

The developers could pull a permit immediately and start demolition on the site.

Proposing a new project entirely, however, would mean they would have to start the planning and review process all over again, a fact that could take years before winning approval again. Instead, Bleecker and St. George have proposed a development agreement, which would allow the city, Bleecker and St. George to craft a specific set of terms that would go before the Planning Commission and City Council for final approval.

Such an agreement would enable the city and the developers to agree on actions and conditions while helping the city obtain certain concessions. Ultimately, it provides an assurance that the project wouldn’t be rejected at the end because the city and the developers would have already agreed on the terms of development. 

“There’s already an approved project, and now you have a better option in front of you,” Gorin said. “Work with us. Let’s make it happen.”

St. George told Noozhawk after the meeting that he was happy with the council’s vote. 

“I am glad to see the council taking steps toward approving projects that make sense for the community, as the Grand Jury report suggests,” St. George said. “A special thanks to Councilmember Friedman and Councilmember Gutierrez for their courage to bring this development agreement forward.”

At the core of the debate is a deeply personal, political and cultural battle over the city’s housing future.

In an effort to create more rental apartments, the city in 2013 approved the Average Unit-sized Density incentive program, which allows developers to stack apartments on small pieces of land if they build rentals. However, the units are market-rate, raising questions about whether the new housing is meeting the needs of the community’s working-class families or just serving as a financial boon to developers to build expensive small rental apartments for young millennial workers.

Some affordable housing activists say the new apartments are not affordable and are too small for working, middle-class families who cannot afford to buy a home in Santa Barbara. Milpas Street is a vibrant business area, comprised of predominantly Latino owners who cater to locals with services ranging from immigration and tax assistance to bars and restaurants.

Tuesday night’s vote means that the city and the development team will meet to come up with an agreement on terms, then create a development agreement process that looks at what each side can get through negotiations. Councilman Michael Jordan said he wants the project to go before the architectural board of review for a full hearing. 

“It should be a reasonable amount of time and a normal visit through the ABR process,” Jordan said. 

City Administrator Paul Casey, who has been a focal point of St. George’s scorn in recent months, was uncharacteristically quiet during the meeting but spoke toward the end at the request of Councilman Michael Jordan, who asked Casey to “come out of hiding.”

“This is unusual, and that’s fine,” Casey said of the development agreement. St. George recently launched a petition calling for Casey to be replaced as city administrator. 

Eastside resident Mark Alvarado said he was against the project from the beginning, but he believes it is now headed in the right direction.

“We need progress in our city,” Alvarado said. “We need to progress. And if this is part of our progression then I think it is good government that you look at the community benefits for something like this.”

Alvarado said there’s an opportunity to make the project better.

“We’re thankful that some new ownership came in to bring some light to the community benefit and that’s definitely a plus for us because we know there could be other opportunities for us down the road.”

Councilwoman Alejandra Gutierrez and Councilman Eric Friedman brought the proposal to the full council for discussion. 

“It is really rare to have private developers offer this high percentage of affordable housing because of this tough system we have in place and all the money developers waste in this waiting process,” Gutierrez said. 

Friedman agreed.

“This is not a normal process, but this is not a normal project,” Friedman said. “We now have something that tries to address the lack of affordable housing.”

For Gorin, the council’s path was clear. 

“At this point, everybody recognizes the city’s development review process is broken,” Gorin said. “But the city needs housing now.”

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