La Cumbre Plaza in Santa Barbara.
An Arizona housing developer is reportedly in talks for a housing project on the former Sears side of La Cumbre Plaza in Santa Barbara. Credit: Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo

At a time when there’s a community battle brewing over a proposed 685-unit, 74-foot-tall housing project at La Cumbre Plaza, another substantial housing development is in the works on the other side of the Santa Barbara mall.

Multiple sources told Noozhawk that Alliance Residential Co., a Flagstaff, Ariz.-based housing developer, is in talks with Riviera Dairy, one of the major property owners in La Cumbre Plaza.

It is unclear how many housing units have been discussed, but sources indicated that it would be “several hundred.”

Mark Carney, an attorney and partner with Reicker Pfau, represents Riviera Dairy, and told Noozhawk that the company had “no comment.” Alliance Residential did not respond to Noozhawk.

A second large housing project in La Cumbre Plaza throws gasoline onto the political fire that erupted when the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, led by county First District Supervisor Das Williams, denied the City of Santa Barbara’s $1.1 million request to create a specific plan for La Cumbre Plaza.

The city wanted the funding to work with developers to create an overall housing development, or specific plan, at the 31-acre site. The developers, however, believe a specific plan will stall their projects.

Already, the Taylor family, led by father-son team Matthew and Jim Taylor, has submitted a 685-unit project on the Macy’s side of the mall, facing State Street, that reaches 74 feet in parts, under a state law called SB 330, which limits local government control over housing developments.

It is likely that the other housing project, on the Sears side of the building, also would be submitted under SB 330, further attempting to limit local control.

SB 330 slashes the number of public hearings on a housing project proposal to five and allows developers to build as much housing on the site for which it is zoned.

Any project proposed higher than 60 feet, however, could face a legal fight or a vote of the people. Santa Barbara’s city charter says voters must approve any building higher than 60 feet.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bill, also known as the Housing Crisis Act of 2019, by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, in 2019, to force cities and counties to speed up their approval of housing projects. The law sunsets in 2025, further incentivizing developers to move quickly.

While activists, elected officials and planners in Santa Barbara and on the South Coast are mostly in agreement that the community needs more housing, there are canyon-like gaps over the number of units, location of units, and subsequent impacts on water, traffic circulation and infrastructure.

City planners were blindsided, however, at a Dec. 15 meeting when the city sought funding for the specific plan. A technical advisory committee and a scoring committee recommended that the city receive $1.1 million in state funding to create a specific plan.

But led by former Santa Barbara City Councilman Williams, the then-chair of the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, the board rejected the two committee’s recommendations and denied the City of Santa Barbara’s funding. Only Santa Barbara Mayor Randy Rowse was in support.

Williams criticized planners and design review boards for being too “idealistic,” and said city planners didn’t present evidence that the specific plan application met grant requirements, paving the way for the Taylor project to move forward separate from a specific plan.

Now, without the grant, Santa Barbara planners are puzzled over Williams’ comments and are looking to find ways to revive the specific plan conversation.

As it stands now, after SBCAG’s denial, the Taylor project is driving the bus for what the future of La Cumbre Plaza would look like. A second large housing project from Alliance Residential Co. would effectively kill any hopes for a specific plan.

“That land would be locked for 100 years,” said Dan Gullett, principal planner for the City of Santa Barbara. “What a specific plan gets us is rational planning and discussion of what unit types are best, who to target, open space, park space, circulation improvements, and roads that could make Upper State Street work better.”

Gullett said smarter planning is to pull all of the components together and “have a community conversation” about the best use for the site.

Eli Isaacson, community development director for the City of Santa Barbara, said developing La Cumbre Plaza is a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

“Our motivation all along in wanting a specific plan is we would love to see La Cumbre Plaza read as a single neighborhood, not as two housing developments, and a specific plan is an excellent way to achieve that outcome,” Isaacson said.

Isaacson and Gullett said they had conversations with a national housing developer in August 2021 but have not had conversations since about any project for the Sears side of the mall. They told Noozhawk that they weren’t sure of the timing of the second housing project, but sources said the proposal would hit the first half of 2023.

Isaacson said that at some point there were conversations between Riviera Dairy and the Taylors for one large project, but those conversations split and now each developer is going in different directions.

“We are concerned that we are going to have two different distinct projects that don’t relate to each other,” Isaacson said.

The Taylor project proposed 56 affordable units out of 685 proposed. SB 330 incentivizes housing construction but does not make any specific requirements for middle-income housing, or those making between 80% and 120% of the area median income, for which a major bulk of what Santa Barbara planners say there is a need.

Dave Davis, the city’s former 20-year community development director, said a cohesive, inclusive plan is needed and that SBCAG should have funded the city’s application.

“It should be a specific plan,” Davis said. “The Taylor project should be the beginning of a specific plan. Make it happen at the same time. They essentially should be processed together.”

Davis said the Taylor project can be the center of a specific plan conversation.

“There’s no reason you couldn’t track them together and integrate,” Davis said. “To the Taylors’ point of the view, it would be to their benefit.”

There’s another snag to the separate housing projects under consideration for La Cumbre Plaza. Santa Barbara is a charter city, which means any changes to the charter must be approved by voters, as the charter currently reads.

The Taylor project, on the Macy’s side of the mall, is proposed to reach 74 feet in parts. The city’s charter only allows buildings up to 60 feet. The charter and the SB 330 appear to be in conflict.

Santa Barbara City Attorney Sarah Knecht said the city is reviewing the preliminary application submitted by the Taylor family and intends to provide a timely response.

“The project proposes to go over the 60-foot charter height limitation that was approved by the city’s voters through a ballot initiative in 1972,” Knecht said. “The charter is the city’s ‘constitution,’ and the height limit established by the charter cannot be changed without voter approval. “