Rendering of proposed hotel for Garden Street in Santa Barbara.
Developers want to build a 250-room hotel at 101 Garden St. in Santa Barbara, but the city wants more housing and potentially an environmental review. (Courtesy rendering)

The developers of a proposed 250-room hotel a block from the waterfront fell short again on Thursday at a five-hour Santa Barbara Planning Commission meeting.

A majority of the commission declined to approve their project, and instead told them to pay for a housing study while the staff considers whether a robust environmental review is needed.

It was a deflating moment for the development team and architect Brian Cearnal, who both said the city was changing things at the last minute.

“I am more than disappointed,” Cearnal said. “This is the weaponization of CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act], and it is just wrong.”

Cearnal said he doesn’t “get” why the city would delay the project because 12 letters came in at the 11th hour.

Developer Shaun Gilbert and Cearnal openly expressed frustration with the city process. It was the second time in three months that the commission has reviewed the project, but the concerns about conducting an environmental review arose only at Thursday’s meeting.

The team wants to build 250 hotel rooms at 101 Garden St. At the request of the commission from the April meeting, they added six on-site apartments for employees.

However, the project really goes back about 15 years, when the city created a specific plan for the site, which included either housing or a hotel.

In 2008, the landowners — the Wright family — proposed 91 residential condominiums, of which 20 would be affordable. They eventually withdrew that project.

Then, about four years ago, the Wright family proposed merging six lots to build 250 hotel rooms, along with a library, a bar, a lounge, a small market and dozens of other hotel amenities.

The project also would include 267 vehicle parking spaces, 46 bicycle parking spaces and eight bicycle rental parking spaces for guests.

Further complicating the situation, the Wright family in the late 1980s donated land so that Garden Street could extend from Yanonali Street to Cabrillo Boulevard, a contribution that in today’s dollars would equate to $10.8 million, as part of a deal that allowed the developers to build at the site.

New decision-makers are in power now, however, and are putting new pressures on the developer.

Commissioner Devon Wardlow, the panel’s most outspoken pro-housing advocate, wants the developer to consider more housing, and what the impact of 250 hotel rooms would have on the city and its housing situation.

She led the charge at the April meeting to prod them to build six units. She advocated for more housing again on Thursday and stressed that the project might not be compatible overall with the Funk Zone.

“The applicant has not significantly demonstrated that this use is compatible with the Funk Zone neighborhood,” Wardlow said. “I cannot make the findings to support this project.”

Also at the meeting, business owners in the Funk Zone said the hotel was too big and out of character with the area.

“We don’t need another mega hotel,” said attorney Marc Chytilo, who represents local group “Keep the Funk.”

Gilbert rejected the idea that more of an environmental review was needed, and especially that the opponents of the project brought the issue up in the past week and did not mention anything at the April meeting.

“We keep going through all the hoops and for something else to pop up,” Gilbert said.

He noted that the developer cannot reduce the number of hotel rooms to less than 250 and add even more housing because the project would likely not be financially viable. High interest rates and soaring construction costs are huge variables and that he was motivated to move quickly before costs increased more.

He resented the fact that the site is zoned for a hotel, but the commission was still down on the project.

He said his hotel company is not in the business of housing and that the commission was placing unfair expectations on one developer.

“We are not going to solve all of the city’s problems with one project, right?” Shaun Gilbert said. “We’re not going to make everyone happy, right?”

The vote was 6-1 to “continue” the project, which essentially gives the staff more time to study whether there needs to be an environmental review.

“We want to continue the project because we received numerous letters regarding CEQA issues, fairly at the last minute that we want to be able to look into so that we could make sure we provide applicant, the public and the commission with adequate CEQA review,” Assistant City Attorney Tava Ostrenger said.

The board also voted to require the developers to pay for a housing study. Commissioner Lesley Wiscomb supported the environmental review, but voted against the motion because she doesn’t believe they should be paying for a housing study.

“You are not in the business of housing,” Wiscomb told the developers at the meeting. “I appreciate the fact that you have been able to put six units on the property. That is commendable to you, for people who are hotel operators.

She suggested that rather than requiring more housing at the site that the developers contribute money to a city fund that could go to the city Housing Authority, which builds affordable housing projects.

“This is a site that where a hotel is allowed,” Wiscomb said. “They have gone above and beyond. I think this is just another delay and spending more money on something that we make come back and the commissioners may say, ‘This is is inadequate.'”