Henry Courtemanche grew up in Santa Barbara, and a few years ago he bought a small property in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone.
The commercial building at 42 Helena Ave. had been a fish processing site. By the time Courtemanche got involved, the one-story property was empty and abandoned.
He cleaned it up, put on a new coat of paint and touched up the skin of the building. His dream? Build a hotel there.
“We see there is an opportunity here in Santa Barbara for luxury hospitality,” Courtemanche said.
There’s just one problem. Santa Barbara has rules.
The entire building is 758 square feet and has no off-street parking. Hotels are allowed in that part of the Funk Zone, but only with a conditional use permit. A requirement of the CUP, however, is that the project have a mix of uses. Courtemanche proposed an outdoor bike storage area to fill the requirement. As for the hotel, Courtemanche proposed a hotel with just two guest rooms, a shared kitchenette and a shared restroom.
Courtemanche and his architect, Kevin Moore, took their idea to the Santa Barbara Planning Commission on Thursday and were met with a flurry of spitballed alternatives from the members of the commission.
“I do share the perspective that there is probably a better use for this property,” Planning Commission chairman Gabe Escobedo said. “If you think a hotel is best, so be it.”
The discussion ignited a larger debate about parking, hotels and the future of the city’s Funk Zone, which has emerged during the past 15 years as a haven for wine, beer and trendy food spots.
It’s also, however, cluttered with cars, with parking scarce most times and days of the week. The buildings are a mish-mash of styles, including spacious warehouses and new remodels, but the area between the beach and Highway 101 has become a tourist attraction and destination for locals who want to feel seen.
Escobedo noted that one of the challenges of the proposal was the fact that there was no off-street parking and that the Planning Commission would have to grant a parking modification to allow a hotel with no parking.
“I think we need to be a little more flexible,” Escobedo said. “Sometimes we have these policies on the books, but we forget why they exist and why they are created. We should be trying to find solutions.”
Architect Moore, who is also the chairman of the city’s Architectural Board of Review, spoke to the commission and made his case for why a parking modification could be granted.
“There are a number of public parking lots nearby,” Moore said. “So if a guest arrives with a car, the operations would recommend parking that vehicle in one of the public lots nearby. They would bring themselves to the hotel and hopefully be able to use the bike rentals that are directly in front of the parcel.”
However, city planner Alison DeBusk set the record straight. She said the city doesn’t have a parking district in the Funk Zone.
“The Garden Street parking lot, essentially all of those parking spaces are allocated to other public uses in the area, so there aren’t any extra spaces that are available to be used as a parking district,” DeBusk said. “To do that we would need a local coastal plan amendment.”
DeBusk also said that most of the Funk Zone properties are legal, but nonconforming. She said many of the sites have no parking even though uses have been changed.
“There are very few sites with actual approved modifications,” DeBusk said.
In some back-of-the-napkin brainstorming, members of the commission threw out a few ideas for the small site, including a wine-tasting room, a dance hall with salsa night, or cooking demonstrations.
Commissioner Leslie Wiscomb suggested that instead of bike storage that maybe there could be an outdoor art gallery.
“You might consider a contest and having a couple local artists do sculptures for that outdoor space,” Wiscomb said.
Courtemanche was open to the idea of an outdoor art gallery. He said it could be beautiful and a great amenity for the hotel guests.
“We just want to do whatever is best for the city to make sure it is used and just put it to use, because it has been sitting there for so long,” he said.
The building has been sitting empty for more than five years.
Since it was a concept review, no formal action was taken. The developer will take the advice and return with a formal application.
“I don’t have a problem with it being a hotel, although hotel rooms are like the last thing Santa Barbara needs, but I understand why it is being proposed,” Commissioner Sheila Lodge said. “It’s clear that everybody here wants to see you have a use there that is successful for you and for the Funk Zone.”