A majority of the Santa Barbara Planning Commission on Thursday praised a developer who lowered the height of a proposed condo project on West Carrillo Street, at the expense of many affordable units.
A spokesman for the Radio Square proposal — which would be located in the corner shopping center containing Carrows at Carrillo and De la Vina streets — said the developer was compelled to reduce the height of the project’s tallest buildings to three stories from four for three reasons: the Historic Landmarks Commission’s dislike of the project, outrage from neighbors and an upstart movement to keep downtown building heights below 40 feet.
As a result of the change, however, the number of affordable units reserved for middle-class families would shrink drastically in not only number — to four from 21 — but also percentage — 15 percent from 38 percent.
“I’ve spent a lot of sleepless nights thinking about this project,” said Steve Yates, CEO of Conceptual Motion, a development strategy firm representing the landowner, DBN Carrillo LLC. “The way to sleep at night is to step back and take a balanced approach. I don’t want my friends and colleagues driving by the building for the next 50 years and saying, ‘Steve, damn him.’”
Most of the seven planning commissioners were pleased with the proposed changes, although they did not vote on it. (It will go back to the Historic Landmarks Commission on Feb. 6.) Two commissioners indicated they were not satisfied with the prospective loss of affordable housing.
Lately, however, political pressure has been coming from preservationists, not affordable-housing advocates.
At Thursday’s meeting, every one of the handful of residents who spoke to the commission about Radio Square blasted the option with the taller buildings.
“The four-story option is the worst project ever to be submitted to the Planning Commission,” said Gil Barry, a member of the Allied Neighborhood Association, who said he was speaking as an individual and not an association representative. “I feel the three-story (option) is the best project ever to be submitted. To me it’s like ugly versus beauty; night versus day.”
More generally, the Planning Commission of late has taken some heat for approving a spate of taller buildings, notably from a nascent group of preservationists working to put a measure on the November ballot to lower the building height limit.
Commissioner Charmaine Jacobs pointed out that she has voted against such tall projects three times this year, and would have done so again had the developer floated just the taller option.
“This went from the kind of project I could not support to a project I could support very happily,” she said. “Unfortunately, we’re losing 17 affordable units, but again, the balance of the project makes up for it in other ways.”
Commissioner John Jostes was similarly impressed with the new alternative, not to mention the developer’s flexibility.
“The applicant has very skillfully articulated the principles of very sound community planning,” he said. “I think it’s moving in a very, very good direction.”
Commissioner Harwood White Jr. said he, too, preferred the version with the shorter buildings. But he did make a somewhat half-hearted plea to enhance the affordable-housing component. Like several other commissioners, White criticized the large proposed size of some of the market-rate condominium units, and said he would like for some of that excess volume to be used for the benefit of the significantly smaller affordable units.
“There may be some opportunity for having a higher number of affordable units, having pointed out such a large number of oversized (market-rate) studios,” he said. “At least the affordable units have to get similar shrift, or at least a better shake in the square-footage department.”
But two commissioners — Bruce Bartlett and George Myers — were unequivocal about their desire to see more affordable housing.
“I really am sorry to see the former project go, from an affordable-housing standpoint,” said Myers, the commission’s chairman. “This location is primed for this kind of housing.
“The city is standing on a fence, and ‘building heights’ is on one side, and ‘the economic and social standpoint’ is on the other,” he said. “The building heights are getting all the attention right now, and I think it’s out of balance.”
Bartlett was the only commissioner to expressly ask the developer to consider going back to four stories — or 50 feet — for a small portion of the project, in the middle of the development.
This, he said, would allow the developer to add back some of the affordable-housing units.
“(Pedestrians) would never see it from anywhere,” he said. “I think we could have the best of both worlds.”