When it comes to the four-year-old proposal to put a Whole Foods grocery store in the Upper State Street shopping center anchored by Circuit City, this much seems clear: The public wants it, and they’re getting impatient.

Members of the Santa Barbara Planning Commission said at a meeting Thursday that they were flooded with letters of support for the idea, and gave assurances that they, too, are Whole Foods fans. But they also voiced a few misgivings about the possible development on Hitchcock Way, which centered mainly on traffic and parking.

Nonetheless, Thursday’s meeting amounted to a small victory for Whole Foods and its devotees.

The purpose of the meeting was mostly technical: to determine whether the Whole Foods developer – Florida-based Regency Centers – would have to undergo a rigorous and expensive “environmental impact report.” To the relief of the company – and the chagrin of some local environmental activists – the commission informally, though not quite unanimously, decided the answer was no.

In the place of what is known as an “EIR,” the city staff will continue with the less rigorous study of its own, known in municipal jargon as a “Mitigated Negative Declaration.” The revised report will come out soon after the public comment period, which ends June 4.

“A Negative Declaration, when done well, can do just about everything an EIR can do in less time, with less cost and less heartburn for everybody,” Planning Commissioner John Jostes said. “This project has so many well-thought-out aspects to it that it makes sense.”

Left unsaid Thursday was any mention of the rumors about the Hitchcock Way project being in jeopardy – city officials earlier this week denied that was true – and that Whole Foods was eyeing a second location on lower State Street.

If approved, the plan for a Whole Foods would amount to a major makeover. It would involve:

• knocking down 69,000 square feet of commercial space, including Circuit City at 3761 State St. and the Taco Bell at 3771 State St.

• constructing about 70,000 square feet of commercial space and creating five new buildings

• putting Whole Foods in the anchor spot of the new main building, in what is now the strip mall’s main parking lot

• moving Circuit City into the Hitchcock corner of that building

• putting parking lots above and beneath the Whole Foods structure

• building 15 townhouses, two of them affordable; nine would face the two creeks (Arroyo Burro and San Roque) behind what is now Circuit City, four would be above Circuit City’s new location, and two would exist in another lone-standing building on the premises

• moving Citibank at 3757 State St. to a one-story building near the Taco Bell

On Thursday, several commissioners expressed surprise at the low turnout, given the volume of letters in support of Whole Foods. “It reconfirms my suspicion that happy people don’t come to meetings,” Commissioner Bruce Bartlett said.

Commissioner George Myers said that of the 37 letters he received, 34 were in favor of the project.

Commissioner Charmaine Jacobs said she was struck by the intensity of the support. “The letters from the public were some of the most enthusiastic I’ve read in a long time – they can’t wait for Whole Foods to come to Santa Barbara,” she said. “And I sense some frustration with the process that has taken so long.”

With that, she read from one of the more bluntly worded letters. “Please get past your crazy bickering and grandstanding and let this company operate in my town.”

Jacobs said that while she supports the concept of a Whole Foods in Santa Barbara, she has a lingering concern about the project: parking.

In 2005, Jacobs was on the planning commission that suggested that the Whole Foods developer add residential units to the project, in an effort to minimize the amount of parking. The idea was that residential units don’t require as much parking as commercial space. So Jacobs said she was disappointed to see the current proposal, in which the total amount of proposed commercial space slightly exceeds what’s already there.

“The traffic and parking issues on this part of the proposal don’t seem to be getting resolved,” she said. “I think they will be noticeable, as great as this project is.”

City staff members, in a draft report, have estimated that the project will bring 180 more trips to the intersection of Upper State Street and Hitchcock Way. But city project manager Allison Debusk said the increase isn’t enough to be considered a problem. She said the developer plans to install traffic lights with right-turn arrows at two clogged intersections: on State Street at Las Positas Road and on Calle Real at Las Positas Road. She also said the developer needs to add one parking spot to bring the proposal into compliance with city standards. The proposal includes 303 parking spaces.

But the commission seemed skeptical.

Planning Commissioner Stella Larson, after lending praise to Whole Foods, nonetheless said she’d like to see a full EIR. “I actually would be very interested in a focused EIR because of the location, location, location, which is always traffic, traffic, traffic,” she said. “It’s going to draw people from all over town and from out of town. We have to plan for a grand event here – this is a big deal.”

Still, none of the six other commissioners suggested the EIR, and the commission, without taking a formal vote, gave city staff the nod to forgo the measure.

The creek issue is another matter of concern. As it is, drains funnel runoff from the Circuit City parking lot into the confluence of San Roque and Arroyo Burro creeks behind the store.

Whole Foods, which is known for practicing “green” development, has said it plans to restore the creek area, but some commissioners said they needed more specifics.

A local nonprofit group called the Citizens Planning Association urged the commission to require an EIR, citing its concerns about the project’s size, along with the creek, traffic and parking.

“This overdevelopment entails loss of open space, and the unprecedented roof-top parking of 119 vehicles climbing and descending through an unsightly creek-side ramp,” said Naomi Kovacs, the organization’s executive director. 

A handful of people spoke in favor of the project.

Santa Barbara resident Melissa Marsted said she is impressed by the company’s reputation for purchasing locally produced foods.“Buying locally reduces delivery trucks on the 101,” she said. “Most of the money they spend on local products stays in the community.”

Janice Brown, a resident of the San Roque neighborhood, said she wants Whole Foods and is willing to put up with a little more traffic to get one. “My feeling is I drive that all day long, every day, back and forth, and I don’t care – I know it’s not going to be significant enough,” she said. “I want this project to go through.”

— Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at rkuznia@noozhawk.com.