Faced with continued public resistance, Santa Barbara developer Ed St. George has hit the pause button on plans to revamp his Santa Barbara City College student housing property into a larger, more self-sustained development called Playa Mariposa.
“While I remain committed to new purpose-built student housing adjacent to Santa Barbara City College, time and further dialogue will help shape a project that the entire community may one day support,” St. George wrote in a July 27 letter to the city Planning Commission.
The pause comes as St. George is removing unpermitted landscaping and remodeling work done at the student housing site, dubbed Beach City, and in the adjacent Honda Valley Creek, between SBCC’s East and West campuses.
Playa Mariposa would have roughly tripled the number of beds at 801-803 Cliff Dr. to about 1,500.
The project proposal would not allow students to bring their vehicles, and would instead offer zip car, bike share and ride share programs.
As part of the comprehensive facility, Playa Mariposa would have its own dining hall, fitness center and study areas.
Part of the goal, St. George has said, is to ensure students are housed in an environment that promotes responsibility.
The project drew the sustained ire of many Mesa neighborhood residents who worried about the effects of concentrating so many students in one area, the effects on parking and whether the housed students would be local or from out of state (or out of the country).
Given the disagreements, “the community isn’t ready” for such a project, said Laurel Perez of Suzanne Elledge Planning and Permitting Services, the company handling the plans for the project.
Perez told Noozhawk that once the unpermitted Beach City and creek work is remedied, a more conceptual-level community dialogue on student housing needs can be revived.
A complaint was filed with the city in July 2014 and led to site inspections by city staff, which determined a list of violations that included the removal of trees and other vegetation as well as unpermitted building remodeling.
The violations took place both on the developed site and along an environmentally sensitive habitat area within Honda Valley Creek, which includes the largest monarch butterfly winter aggregation site in Santa Barbara.
The unpermitted work included removing trees, including 32 eucalyptus, which are a favorite of the monarchs; grading the hillside; replacing an irrigation system; and adding new parking spaces and a traffic control gate.
On Thursday, the Planning Commission approved a coastal development permit and zoning modifications for the remedying work and the habitat restoration plan St. George’s team has proposed, which were modified following an April review by the commission.
St. George told commissioners Thursday that the eucalyptus tree removal stemmed from what he said were safety issues and environmental degradation that arise from homeless encampments, which could be hidden from view in the sea of eucalyptus bark that accumulates in the ravine.
“I’d just like to take this opportunity to apologize for removing those eucalyptus trees,” he said. “Had I known at the beginning that it was going to create this much of a problem or that it was a sensitive habitat, I would never have done that.”
The changes and improvements include security fencing, the removal of an unpermitted deck by the development’s swimming pool, enhanced architectural treatment of the buildings and a habitat restoration and monitoring plan for the Honda Valley Creek.
Oak trees were added to replace the removed eucalyptus.
“All the resource agencies we consulted … have agreed that replacement with native trees is the appropriate way to go,” Perez told the commission.
Despite the loss of habitat, she said, monarch butterflies were still documented inhabiting the creek, which is considered an environmentally sensitive area.
The restoration of the butterflies’ habitat will be accompanied by a monitoring program that is intended to keep close track of its success.
Though the commissioners condemned what Commissioner June Pujo said were “egregious violations” by St. George, who several public commenters argued has been developing in the area long enough to know the rules, the commissioners applauded the revised habitat restoration and monitoring plan, especially for what they said was its thoroughness.
“I share the unhappiness of the neighbors and others in the community about the way this all happened, but those things are going to be fixed,” Commissioner Sheila Lodge said. “I agree that this seems to be a very good restoration plan, and I look forward to its going forward.”
One silver lining to come out of the issue, the commissioners agreed, was a long-term plan to ensure the creek is properly maintained.
“We hear a lot about what was done, what should have been done, what wasn’t done — but we can’t do anything about that,” Commissioner Addison Thompson said. “The reality is what it is, and we ought to look at this as an opportunity to make that whole ravine better than it was.”