Architect Brian Cearnal.
Architect Brian Cearnal urges the Santa Barbara City Council to reimagine development in the downtown to plan for the future. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

Building heights for new apartments in downtown Santa Barbara could reach 48 feet, the Santa Barbara City Council decided on Tuesday.

The current height limit in the city’s municipal code is 45 feet, but the council agreed to increase the limit as part of its effort to overhaul its high-density housing program.

“We have to look into our future,” said architect Brian Cearnal, owner of the Cearnal Collective. “We are going to be approaching 100 years after the earthquake, and it is time for us to re-envision. It doesn’t mean we can’t have a beautiful community and tall buildings.”

The City Council spent nearly three hours on Tuesday talking about ways to tweak its average unit-sized density incentive program. Approved in 2013, the ordinance allows developers to build dense rental apartment buildings on small lots.

The program has led to the construction of more than 220 units. Since the apartments are not government-subsidized, developers are charging market-rent for the units, which has sparked debate about whether the new housing is meeting the needs of working-class residents.

As part of the council’s overhaul of the program, last month it moved the high-density program from the Eastside and the Milpas Street area to the downtown core, in hopes of encouraging developers to build apartments near State Street businesses and shops, and public transportation lines.

Earlier this year, the council also passed an inclusionary housing element to the high-density housing program, which requires developers building more than five units to set aside 10 percent for below-market inclusionary housing rents. 

Allowing developers the three extra feet of building height will further incentivize them to build downtown, the council decided. 

Councilwoman Meagan Harmon.

Councilwoman Meagan Harmon voted Tuesday night to support an increase in the building-height limit for the downtown central business district. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

“I think that extra three feet, while some say we need it, we might not, it provides opportunities to get higher-quality housing,” Councilman Eric Friedman said.

“I am just going to say, being a tall person, that extra couple feet makes a big difference, especially if you are talking about 8-foot ceilings,” said Friedman, who is 6-foot-4.  “I have the dents in my head from bumping into things with lower ceilings. If you have a chandelier at someone’s house, it can be an issue.”

The council’s votes Tuesday night, and last month at a joint City Council-Planning Commission meeting, were conceptional. The city’s staff must still return at some point with official votes to change the ordinance.

Council members Kristen Sneddon and Jason Dominguez opposed the increase in the height limit.

“I just don’t think we have been properly briefed on the impacts of all this,” Dominguez said. “I think there are certain blocks in town where 48 feet, you are not going to notice a difference, compared to other blocks at 38 feet. But we don’t have that data in front of us, and we are making decisions on huge swaths of land without understanding the impacts.”

He said the vote was “hurried” and “rushed.”

Tava Ostrenger, assistant city attorney for Santa Barbara.

Tava Ostrenger, assistant city attorney, helps explain the city’s rules for building-height limits at Tuesday’s Santa Barbara City Council meeting. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

“There really are some blocks where you can go higher up, and some blocks you can go lower,” Dominguez said. “To do this one size fits all, that’s Culver City. This is not Santa Barbara.”

In addition to the height limit increase, a council majority agreed in separate votes to exclude from increased density the Brinkerhoff, Castillo and De la Vina historic districts. 

Architect Alex Pujo said the city must do a better job of providing housing for its residents. 

“We need to recognize that we have not done a good job with housing,” Pujo said. “It was extremely difficult to find a place to live 45 years ago and now it is extremely stressful to even think about it. We need to create more housing units, not because the state tells us to do so, but because it is the right thing to do.” 

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.