Followers of City of Santa Barbara boards and commissions have recently witnessed a concerted effort to obstruct and disregard the public’s opportunity to understand heights of proposed new large buildings we all must live with for decades.

Richard Closson

Richard Closson

When the height of the building is part of the consideration, the City Council’s 2017 Resolution No. 17-006 is the guiding standard, although it specifically defines the requirement for story poles for some average unit-size density projects.

Story poles are temporary physical poles erected to suggest the actual eventual perimeter and height of a proposed building. They are erected by independent licensed companies that certify their accuracy.

In addition to poles, they may include prominent flags, connecting ropes to show changes in the building outline, or colored mesh fencing for greater public visibility.

At the time of the council’s 2017 action, staff added: “Story poles are the only form of visual aid currently used by the city that serve a second purpose, to inform the public that a development of a certain size is proposed for a site.”

As the city responds to pressures to increase the height allowances of new buildings, developers routinely request exemption from the story pole requirement on the grounds of expense and that their own computer-generated graphics are better.

The question remains, “Better for whom?” Unfortunately, the developer argument has found favor among the many architects who sit on review boards and commissions.

Story poles are erected on the proposed site for everyone to view. People who work and live in the neighborhood can see an approximation of the building to come. They can judge it with their own eyes and assess it from their own experiences. They can compare the proposed new building envelope with what’s currently on the site.

In contrast, there are many faults with computerized videos presented to review boards. They are accessible only to the curious or connected who will watch a board meeting or find the online meeting video. They are created by advocates for the project and can be misleading; they are not certified to be accurate.

The state of current technology provides merely a simplistic and crude representation that can be comically balky.

Currently, the Architectural Board of Review is considering a proposal for the much-needed new Police Department building planned for the corner of East Cota and Santa Barbara streets. The site is a current parking lot on the east side of Antioch University Santa Barbara and the longtime location of the Saturday farmers market.

The developer has requested exemption from having story poles erected for the public to view. Ironically, the developer is the City of Santa Barbara.

As a result, “the city” is asking a city review board to eliminate “the only form of visual aid currently used by the city that serve(s) a second purpose, to inform the public that a development of a certain size is proposed for a site.”

Readers might think such a request would fail for lack of merit, but do not forget: design review boards are filled with experienced architects trained to understand two-dimensional drawings and computerizations.

In the process, they have lost the naïve perspective of a public citizen. They no longer understand how we untrained residents need visual aids to judge the size, bulk and scale of proposed buildings.

Although qualified in many respects, they are often unqualified to speak from the true public point of view.

Plans for an important civic building — funded with local taxes, commissioned by our city government, and reviewed by city boards — should be understood by the citizens it will serve. Having no public option to assess the building height should not be an option.

If you agree, please contact the Architectural Board of Review at

— Dr. Richard Closson is a Santa Barbara resident and retired clinical pharmacist. His current focus is historic preservation, especially Santa Barbara’s Franceschi House and its connection to the Versace Mansion, now The Villa Casa Casuarina, in Miami Beach. The opinions expressed are his own.