Planned housing project for downtown Santa Barbara
Plans call for a downtown housing project with 86 units on this parking lot site, behind the old Staples building in the 400 block of State Street in Santa Barbara. The City Council is working to facilitate more of this type of development downtown. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

The stage is set for more housing in downtown Santa Barbara.

The City Council on Tuesday night voted 6-1, with Councilwoman Kristen Sneddon dissenting, to allow high-density housing, buildings as tall as 48 feet and open yard space to go on rooftops.

City officials want to encourage developers to build housing downtown and near businesses to create a built-in population of customers who shop, dine, drink and experience downtown.

The city in 2013 approved a controversial average unit-sized density incentive program that would allow developers bonus density to build apartments. The units, however, are not subsidized by the government, and are rented at the market rate, which has sparked some critics to suggest that the new apartments are not serving those who are most in need.

“I am by no means saying that the AUD program is perfect; it isn’t,” Councilwoman Meagan Harmon said. “But it is sort of a foundational principle of my governing philosopy that we make changes where we can. Effective governance is not always about huge, radical change. Sometimes the most effective thing we can do is make iterative adjustments to policies that exist that move the ball forward piece by piece, inch by inch, and get us to the world we know we want to see.”

All of the council members said they are in support of affordable housing, but Sneddon said that the program has been a failure.

“We have a need for greater affordable housing,” Sneddon said. “This has not yet been the project, the AUD, that has produced that. It is still in trial. It’s been eight years of a trial. It’s been eight years of continuing to give more incentives, and we are not getting the affordable housing out of it.”

The council also voted to remove the trial period for the program, which is set to expire at 250 occupied units. The city is expected to reach that number in a couple of months. 

The changes also will allow developers to build parking away from the housing site, and require only one parking space per unit.

Amy Tripp, a Santa Barbara resident who spoke during the meeting, said she supported the changes.

“The downtown, the central business district, is the area that should have denser housing and taller buildings,” Tripp said. “That is the location generally where these would be placed.”

Tripp said the area is “greatly underutilized” right now.

“There is a lot of foot traffic, but you are constantly passing by storefronts that are empty and buildings that are empty, so there needs to be more of an effort to revitalize the downtown and to place the denser housing in this area,” she said.

Former Santa Barbara Mayor Sheila Lodge said she didn’t support the height increase from 45 to 48 feet and believes developers should build open space as part of their projects.

“People don’t need the useless space overhead of the 48-foot height limit,” Lodge said. “People need space outside that they can step into.”

Although Harmon voted in favor of allowing more housing downtown, she also suggested that at a future meeting the council consider requiring developers to increase the inclusionary requirement from 10 percent. The council in the spring of 2019 approved an inclusionary requirement (below-market rate) of 10 percent for developments after that time period. 

“I simply do not think these changes, these necessary changes we are making, that a 10 percent inclusionary requirement is a sufficient benefit for this bargain,” Harmon said.

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