One of downtown Santa Barbara’s most high-profile corners is in store for a major makeover.
A developer wants to build a mixed-use project at 800 Santa Barbara St., next to El Presidio de Santa Barbara Historic Park in the city’s El Pueblo Viejo District.
The project includes underground parking, commercial space and 23 apartment units – studios, one- and two-bedrooms.
The proposal comes as part of the city’s Average Unit Density incentive program, which allows developers to build dense projects to meet community housing needs. All of the units would be rentals.
“I’d love to live here,” said Planning Commissioner Jay Higgins. “I think it is a great site for housing.”
The Planning Commission did not vote on the project; it was a conceptual review.
But the commissioners gave feedback that the applicant, Hochhauser Blatter Architecture & Planning, will heed before returning to the Historic Landmarks Commission, which has jurisdiction over the project since it is in El Pueblo Viejo.
The project has morphed through several incarnations since it was first approved in 2008. At that time, it was intended to be a six-unit luxury condo project.
The development team, however, did not pursue the project then, and instead returned in 2015 with a 26-unit project.
The Planning Commission in May said the development was too large and asked the applicant to reduce the size. The Historic Landmarks Commission in August had similar concerns about the proposal.
In response, architect Jan Hochhauser returned on Thursday with a scaled-back plan of 23 units, and an entire story lower – dropping the size form 44 feet, 6 inches, to 35 feet.
He also cut the size of the commercial area by about 1,200 square feet, and eliminated a courtyard in favor of a paseo through the project.
“We believe the apartment project before you is an opportunity to do great in-fill rental housing,” Hochhauser said.
Commissioners were mostly supportive of the project, although they said that it still has a ways to go to be fully compatible with the surrounding neighborhood, including the historic buildings in the area.
Commissioner Deborah Schwartz questioned opposition from The Trust for Historic Preservation, which opposed the 2008 luxury condo project and the 2015 rental project.
“I think this project is headed in the right direction,” Schwartz said.
She said that it is clear that something will eventually get built on this site, so the Trust should work together with the city and the developer to find a solution for the development at that location.
“I haven’t heard what would satisfy the Trust,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz said the city already has a variety of buildings and uses near historic buildings downtown, so it isn’t as though a needed rental-housing project is going to exacerbate the day-to-day issues that already exist.
“I am not getting it,” Schwartz said. “I am not understanding where the angst lies.”
Mary Louise Days, a board member for the Trust, said at the meeting that she was “shocked” that this project would go before the Planning Commission before returning to the HLC. She suggested the developer was attempting to “manipulate” the system.
“We are concerned about the effect of this large project on the nearby historic buildings,” Days said.
Gordon Sichi, headmaster at nearby Anacapa School, said he couldn’t comment specifically about the project’s changes, only saying: “You have a very big challenge with that corner.”
Commissioner Michael Jordan said that he generally supported the direction of the project, but he too was confused about the process, several typos in the city’s staff report, and why the project was before the Planning Commission when the HLC has the final say.
He said the presentation was “a mess.”
“It’s like playing Whack-a-mole,” Jordan said.
“This project is such a moving target and poorly presented I am hesitant to even stab at it,” Jordan said.
Hochhauser said he asked the commission to review the project so that he could return to the HLC would a strong direction.
But for public speaker Ed Clark, the project was crystal clear.
“We need more apartments,” Clark said. “I think it is a great location. I think we need as many apartments downtown as we can get. We have a lot of condos but not a lot of apartments. You could go five stories as far as I am concerned.”
— Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.