After a marathon meeting Thursday lasting nearly six hours, the Santa Barbara Planning Commission had no choice but to acknowledge the enormous amount of public comment from upset neighbors of Hillside House, where a large project is slated.
Hillside House, a nonprofit residential facility for people with developmental disabilities, has been at the helm of the project, which would remove Hillside House’s current building and build 121 residential units in buildings two to three stories tall on the 24-acre lot.
The project would contain 10 units for Hillside House residents, 44 low-income rental units managed by the Housing Authority of the County of Santa Barbara and 67 market-rate rentals.
The previous proposal had 81 ownership units, with 40 units being low-income, 12 of which would have been for Hillside House residents.
Another change is that the residential units were formerly spread out among 33 two- and three-story buildings. Now, 17 two- and three-story buildings are proposed, and that reduction is partly due to the number of bedrooms in some units being reduced and because garages are being eliminated in favor of a single surface parking lot.
But those changes weren’t enough to fully convince planning commissioners that the developer had done everything to reach out to the surrounding community.
Before issuing that opinion, though, they heard about the need for a new facility from Hillside House Executive Director Craig Olsen.
The nonprofit, which serves 59 people with moderate to severe developmental disabilities, has existed on that property since 1955, long before most of the neighbors were there.
Olson described a crumbling facility that continues to degrade, despite their efforts to maintain it.
“Our facility cannot be rebuilt in the same manner as it exists now. … It would not be licensed,” he said.
He added that four residents to a room and cramped bathrooms don’t provide the dignity the residents deserve.
The project’s architect, Detty Peikert, said the land is zoned for five units of residential units per acre and that the units are modestly sized apartments, “not luxury condos.”
He added that the project simply isn’t possible in another location, and that it has been reduced in size since the process first started.
Planner Lisa Plowman said the project would add only about a second to traffic waits at the Las Positas and Veronica Springs intersection.
In addition to the benefits for Hillside House, she said the rental units are desperately needed in the city since the vacancy rate for rentals is less than 1.5 percent and the combined waiting lists for the City and County of Santa Barbara housing authorities now exceeds 15,000 people.
Awkwardly, Hillside House residents in wheelchairs and powerchairs could not attend Thursday’s hearing because City Hall’s elevator is not large enough to accommodate them, though several gave comments via video.
Commissioner Mike Jordan said the commissioners offered to move the meeting, but that the applicant decided to hold it in Council Chambers.
Out en masse, however, were the neighbors of the project.
Those opposed to the project expressed concern about traffic, the size of the project and the lack of compatibility to the surrounding area, as well as a lack of services.
In addition to a lack of sidewalks or a grocery store within walking distance of the project, MTD’s Line 5 is the only bus that serves the area, and it comes only once an hour, a fact that came up many times Thursday as people reminded the commission that many low-income people rely on public transportation.
Elizabeth Phillips said neighbors are supportive of Hillside House as well as the need for affordable housing.
“The issue here is the incompatibility of this project with the area,” she said. “We see what impact the lack of infrastructure will have on that population in that part of town. … The project does not seem realistic.”
Linda Barrett, a Realtor, said she did approve and that the nonprofit was complying with the zoning.
“There’s a lack of inventory” of housing in the city for low- to moderate-income professionals, she said, adding that increasing setbacks or building sidewalks could help with the lack of infrastructure in the area.
Commissioner Addison Thompson was the first to offer his thoughts, and commended the project and the work of Hillside House, “but it’s in the wrong place.”
“There are no services nearby,” he said. “It’s way too aggressive for this area.”
But the problems that are in this neighborhood have not been caused by Hillside House, according to Commissioner Bruce Bartlett.
“Those neighborhoods really need to own up to the problems that they have created with their own development,” he said, adding that he liked some of the design changes and that the architecture is “heading in the right direction.”
The neighborhood varies greatly in character street by street and even house by house because it has changed over time, Commissioner Deborah Schwartz said, adding that it made it difficult to assign a cohesive character to the neighborhood.
“I wish I could say to the Hillside House that there’s another property opportunity,” she said. “This is not an ideal property for the amount of development. I wish it were, because we need the housing.”
Schwartz said she would be looking for different intensity of use when the project comes back, and that she wants the traffic to be looked at more closely.
Workshops are also crucial, she said, and more outreach to neighbors must be done.
“We have to find a way to get some common ground,” Schwartz said.
Chairman Mike Jordan said he was frustrated that the same issues had come up since the Planning Commission looked at the project two years ago.
“The improvements are fantastic if you don’t look off the site,” he said. “I think we’ve lost a year and a half on this project.”
No formal action was taken on the item since it was a conceptual review hearing, and the applicant of the project will decide when to come back before the commission to move forward.