It’s not often when there’s talk of the afterlife inside the Santa Barbara City Council chamber.
But at Thursday’s Planning Commission meeting, there was an air of purpose and something bigger than your typical building-height debate.
“These people are generally coming in off the street, and to them this has to feel like heaven,” said Commissioner Michael Jordan.
The commission voted 5-0 to allow Sanctuary Centers of Santa Barbara to build up to 59 feet and five stories at 115 W. Anapamu St., to house adults with mental illness and substance abuse problems.
Normally in Santa Barbara, any developer asking to build a five-story, nearly 60-foot building would likely get laughed out of the Planning Department. The city is notoriously infamous for its rigid aesthetic development standards, particularly building height, so as not to change the architectural character of the city or block people’s views from the Riviera.
But the Sanctuary Centers proposal seems to hit at all of the sweet spots of Santa Barbara’s other set of values: social justice and human services.
The project would house 34 studio apartments, a medical clinic and support services. The apartments would serve very-low-income adults living with mental illness and substance abuse disorders, and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorders.
Plans also call for a medical and dental clinic with a combined six exam rooms, a co-occurring disorders center, meeting rooms and support services.
In order to allow a development higher than 45 feet, the Planning Commission must make the finding that there’s a great community need to do so.
At a time when Santa Barbara is struggling with how to house its homeless population, many of them mentally ill adults, the project threads many of the city’s goals into a single eye of the needle.
“Most of them are living on the street,” said Barry Schoer, president and CEO of Sanctuary Centers. “If we tried to rent space for housing, we’d be turned down right and left.”
He said that the organization’s clientele, on average, die 20 years younger than everyone else if they are the streets. Many people who commit crimes and are released from jail have nowhere to go, and end up re-offending so they can have housing.
The project will offer people a much-needed place to live.
“This provides that last piece, where folks can live the rest of thier lives,” Schoer said.
Kit McMillion started working at Sanctuary Centers of Santa Barbara in 2000. She liked her job because it was a welcoming place to work.
In 2005, however, she had a “small incident,” which ended her then-employment, but allowed her to live at the place she worked for five years.
“I am much better than I was,” McMillion told the commission. “I can hold down a job. I am relatively happy now.”
McMillion was one of the several speakers who called on the Planning Commission to potentially allow the organization to build a 5-story, 59-foot building.
At the site currently is a two-story, 8-unit affordable-housing apartment for the organization’s clients. The new project would retain the eight units, but demolish two detached residential units, one currently used as clinic space, and the parking lot.
The proposal would provide nine commercial parking spaces, but none for the residents.
The project is still in the early stages, but before Sanctuary Centers formally submits an application, it wanted approval to build up to 59 feet.
About two dozen people spoke at the meeting, and the project was not without its critics.
While everyone who spoke said they agreed with Sanctuary Centers’ mission, the question arose as to whether five stories at 59-feet are needed.
Sanctuary Centers wants to build four apartments on the fifth floor, with a rooftop deck, which irks some neighbors.
John Doordan, president of the Santa Barbara Club next door, raised concerns about the construction, as well as the height of the building.
“Both might disrupt our daily business,” Doordan said. “The prospect of a five-story building with a rooftop deck is quite imposing.”
Attorney Mark Carney, representing 1123 Chapala St., the Bartlett, Pringle and Wolf building, also objected to the height of the building.
“The problem is the fifth floor,” Carney said. “The demonstrated need is not for the project; the demonstrated need is for the height above 45 feet.”
He said that the Barlett, Pringle and Wolf building is 39-feet tall, and this building is 20 feet taller than that.
“It would have an impact on shade and shadow,” he said.
Although she voted to allow the Sanctuary Centers to build up to 59 feet, Commissioner Sheila Lodge said that it doesn’t have to be that tall.
“It seems to me that there’s a way to accommodate those four other units within the fourth floor,” Lodge said. “I’m fully supportive of what Sanctuary Centers wants to do. I’m still having trouble believing it is absolutely necessary to do the fifth floor.”
Commissioner Jay Higgins said the need is obvious, and that sometimes city planners need to take some risks and allow out-of-the-box development.
“When we have such an emergency and crisis, we have to find ways to say yes, not ways to say no,” Higgins said.
— Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.