Attorney Steve Amerikaner addressing the Santa Barbara City Council.
Attorney Steve Amerikaner, representing the developer of a 76-unit high-density housing project at 711 N. Milpas St. in Santa Barbara, addresses the City Council, which approved the project Tuesday night on a 5-2 vote.. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

Millennials are coming to Milpas Street.

After a five-hour meeting Tuesday night, the Santa Barbara City Council approved a 76-unit high-density housing project at 711 N. Milpas St. 

The vote was 5-2, with council members Jason Dominguez and Kristen Sneddon voting no, preferring to send the project back to the city’s Architectural Board of Review.

The meeting was part Broadway theater, part courtroom interrogation and part Bible study, and was highlighted by a clash between attorney Steve Amerikaner and Sneddon, when she accused the high-profile attorney of misrepresenting the facts during his presentation. 

The meeting marked a major victory for developer and business owner Alan Bleecker, who can now convert his Capitol Hardware store into a rental apartment building designed for a “younger workforce,” with a coffee shop on the first floor. 

The project calls for 44 two-bedroom units and 32 one-bedroom units ranging in size from 575 to 805 square feet. The project has 76 parking spaces and 80 bike parking spots.

“Whether I like this building or not is not even part of the discussion,” said Councilman Randy Rowse. “I don’t know how to put the genie back in the bottle on this, but I want to make this process as fair and equitable as possible. We’re here and I think to reverse course now would be a mistake.”

76-unit high-density housing project at 711 N. Milpas St. in Santa Barbara

A controversial 76-unit high-density housing project at 711 N. Milpas St. was approved Tuesday night by the Santa Barbara City Council. (Illustration by rrm design group)

At the core of the debate over the four-story project is a deeply personal, political and cultural battle over the city’s housing future.

In an effort to create more rental apartments, the city in 2013 approved the Average Unit-sized Density incentive program, which allows developers to stack apartments on small pieces of land if they build rentals.

However, the units are market-rate, raising questions about whether the housing is meeting the needs of the community’s working-class families or just serving as a financial boon to developers to build expensive studios and small rental apartments for young millennial workers.

Some affordable housing activists say the new apartments are not affordable, and are too small for working, middle-class families, who cannot afford to buy a home in Santa Barbara. Others dispute the design of the buildings, saying they are wrecking the character of the community. Milpas Street is a vibrant business area, comprised of predominantly Latino owners who cater to locals with services ranging from immigration and tax assistance to bars and restaurants.

“This project will change the neighborhood,” said architect Fred Sweeney. 

Eastside resident Christine Neuhauser opposed the project. She said her neighborhood is elderly, Spanish-speaking and probably not aware of the project, and that the council has an obligation to look out for them. 

“This project is so huge and out of scale for the neighborhood,” she said. “This will have a domino effect for Milpas.”

Crowd at Santa Barbara City Council meeting.

Numerous speakers turned out Tuesday night to voice their views about a 76-unit high-density housing project at 711 N. Milpas St. in Santa Barbara. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

Tuesday’s meeting featured a political heavyweight matchup between longtime Santa Barbara architect Detty Peikert and Amerikaner, who were representing Bleecker. They were being challenged by project appellants Anna Marie Gott, a pugnacious community activist, and Natasha Todorovic, both of whom are steady critics of the city and its staff. They also oppose the city’s AUD program.

They argued that Bleecker allowed a 2015 modification approval for the project — the ability for motorists to back out from a private lot onto a public street — to expire, so the whole project should be negated. 

Todorovic gave a flashy, somewhat flamboyant presentation, showing Bleecker wearing sunglasses, and an X-Ray, with a pair of scissors left inside a body. 

“People make mistakes,” Todorovic said. 

She compared the project to a surgery gone bad, and said that Bleecker was trying to cover up the scissors left inside the body with a nice stitch, without removing the object. 

“Say no to 711,” Todorovic said. “Fix the process.”

She also showed pictures of children crossing the street at the site project, alleging that their health and safety would be at risk if Bleecker built his project because the project would use the street as a driveway. 

Amerikaner and Peikert were equally dramatic in their presentation. Amerikaner stepped onto hot coals with Sneddon when he showed an abridged transcript of an ABR meeting, that lent credence to his contention that the ABR denied the project based on emotion and opinion, not on facts and substance. 

Sneddon, however, disputed his summary, charging that he should have put an ellipses in his quote because he left out facts that didn’t favor his argument.

“There’s no ellipses,” she said. “That’s not a true quotation. I think this is a selective use of quotations.”

Amerikaner, who has a private law practice, but is former Santa Barbara City Attorney, responded: “This is an absolute correct transcription.”

Sneddon argued back, “I don’t believe it is.”

Councilman Dominguez, an attorney, sparred with Mayor Cathy Murillo, a frequent occurrence at council meetings, because he kept interrupting public comment speakers with more questions. After a testy exchange with Amerikaner, Murillo sarcastically told the crowd, “the witness is dismissed.”

Later, when land-use consultant Jarrett Gorin was speaking in support of the project, Murillo stated bluntly to Dominguez, “Don’t interrupt him again.”

The project was approved in 2015 and then after some changes, received a “substantial conformance” determination from the city in May 2018. The project returned to the ABR in 2018 for an “in-progress review. Then in November, the ABR voted 3-2 to deny the project, saying it was too different from the original.

Amerikaner, Bleecker and Peikert said that the opponents of the project were simply unhappy with the type of housing, but that it was too late for them to try to stop the project because the city had already approved it.

They also said the ABR erred in November by denying the project because the project had already received a substantial conformance determination and essentially was already approved. 

“Today you are going to hear a lot of comments about a lot of other issues,” Amerikaner said. “You will hear criticism of the staff, criticism of the Planning Commission. None of those issues are before you today. All of those decisions are final.”

But ABR member David Watkins told a different story at the meeting. 

He said the project that he saw in November of 2018 was substantially different from the one that was originally approved. 

He said it was full of “fake brick” and cheap paint, and that Bleecker sought a “half-hearted design approach.” Watkins said he’s seen similar developments in Saudi Arabia and Los Angeles.

“This project is intended to be unique from the neighborhood, and it succeeded only on that front,” Watkins said. “This project sets a precedent for a project that ultimately buries our past.”

Eastside resident Natalia Govoni said the project was inappropriate for the Eastside. 

“The Eastside neighborhood could use a facelift, not a lobotomy,” Govoni said. “Time to hit the restart button on 711 North Milpas.”

New Councilwoman Meagan Harmon said she has some “misgivings about the design,” but that she didn’t think it was fair to stop the project now.

Councilman Erik Friedman supported the Bleecker project. He even quoted the Bible, Matthew 19:24, “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Friedman added that the scripture should be amended to add “or the city of Santa Barbara” at the end.

Dominguez, who represents the Eastside district, said the project is a poster child for incompatibility. He said he couldn’t imagine a project more incompatible with Santa Barbara. He called it “humongous” and “dumping on the Eastside” and the area’s mostly Latino community.

“This project would absolutely never go into San Roque Samarkand or the Mesa,” said councilman Dominguez. “It is being shoved into a zip code. It makes no sense.”

Sneddon said there were too many issues that were not being addressed. She said since the modification for backing out of a driveway into the street expired, the applicant broke the rules. 

“Frankly, I am not sure why you want to build a project that has such opposition,” Sneddon told the developer. “This is messy. I don’t agree with how many things have not been taken into account that really should have been.”

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