A proposal to build three dozen apartments in downtown Santa Barbara won wide praise from the Planning Commission on Thursday.
Although the project would be four stories tall in some places and potentially displace a popular bar, the need for more housing in the city, particularly downtown, trumped the potential negatives.
“With this project, we have an opportunity, really an obligation, to bring new rental housing to downtown,” commission chairwoman Deborah Schwartz observed.
Schwartz called the project “wonderfully designed” and a perfect fit for downtown.
SIMA Corp. has proposed a 36-unit, mixed-use housing development over several parcels at 710 and 714-720 State St. and 15 E. Ortega St. The residential units are a mix of studio and one- and two-bedroom apartments with 17 parking spaces.
Designed by architect Kevin Moore, the L-shaped development stretches behind Restoration Hardware at 710 State St. and then bends toward East Ortega Street and into the building currently occupied by The Press Room, a bar at 15 E. Ortega St.
Bar patrons have signed a petition in support of The Press Room and in opposition to the development.
“If you approve this project … you are displacing a lot of locals who … hang out at this place and have for 25 years, and that’s a big part of this central community,” Craig Borders said.
“There’s no regard given to the barfly, if you will, and I just think it should be considered in the planning of this.”
He added that downtown needs more affordable housing, not more “$5,000 (a month) rental units.”
Borders said the project must have more than 17 parking spaces, and he questioned the wisdom of displacing existing business tenants with new, empty commercial space.
The commissioners were empathetic to The Press Room supporters, and they urged SIMA to work with the bar to either relocate it in the new commercial space or find a new location.
“I hope the owner and developer will work with The Press Room and get it relocated elsewhere,” commissioner Sheila Lodge said.
At a time when downtown is losing businesses, Schwartz said, the City of Santa Barbara and property owners should do what they can to preserve those that are successful. She suggested that SIMA and The Press Room should seek “an agreeable outcome.”
“We are far from seeing the COVID-19 pandemic be behind us and, unfortunately, there will be more businesses that … close in our city, and many of them will be the local entrepreneurs,” she said.
After years of inertia, city officials have been scrambling to try to revitalize downtown in the face of the coronavirus-fueled economic collapse. They have begun to encourage developers to build housing downtown, and the City Council recently agreed to allow heights of 48 feet instead of 45 and to permit off-site parking.
Officials believe that downtown residents will eat, drink and shop along State Street, thereby propping up the city’s sagging retail scene.
Jim Knell, SIMA’s founder and chairman, said it will take several years before the development is approved and built. He added that the project represents the direction in which Santa Barbara officials have said they want to go, and he pushed back on those who said downtown needs affordable housing.
“The problem that we have in Santa Barbara is that affordable housing isn’t affordable,” he said. “You have to ask yourself why it isn’t affordable, and that’s because of the cost of building in Santa Barbara.”
Knell said developers will not invest capital unless they get a return on that investment.
“If you want housing, you are going to have to allow these things to take place, unless you give incentives to developers so they can make their projects more affordable,” he said. “The average cost to build in Santa Barbara is in excess of $500 a foot.
“There isn’t much profit, or really a lot of motivation, unless you have economies of scale. This project doesn’t have that with only 36 units. This is not a money grab. This is taking retail space and replacing it with housing.”
Commissioner Jay Higgins said new housing, even if it is market rate, helps with the housing shortage.
“This is a project that is part of a whole in terms of our entire city housing stock,” he said. “There’s move-up opportunities with new projects that, in theory and in practice, does release existing units on the market that are, in turn, affordable.”
— Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.