A Santa Barbara Planning Commission hearing on a 66-room hotel project proposed for a series of parcels at the corner of State and East Ortega streets turned into a fiery condemnation of the city’s housing policies. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)
A Santa Barbara Planning Commission hearing on a 66-room hotel project proposed for a series of parcels at the corner of State and East Ortega streets turned into a fiery condemnation of the city’s housing policies. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

A Santa Barbara Planning Commission hearing for a State Street hotel project took an unexpected turn Thursday when the commission’s chairwoman unloaded on the mayor and City Council for what she called their “disgraceful” housing policies.

Roxana Bonderson, the chairwoman of the unelected commission, said her hands were tied in approving a development plan for the hotel proposed for the 700 block of State Street at East Ortega Street.

She said the elected council’s policies favor hotels over housing in the downtown area.

“I don’t know what it is going to take and how much more dire the housing crisis has to get before our council is motivated enough to take effective policy action,” Bonderson said.

“It’s disgraceful that our elected officials have not taken needed action in the years that they have collectively been on City Council.”

She added that “most of them are on their second term with nothing to show on their résumés to demonstrate the realization of increased housing in the city that they serve.”

The jarring comments came during a hearing to decide the fate of a proposed 66-room hotel with a restaurant and bar across six lots downtown.

The four-story hotel is to be built at 710 State St., where Restoration Hardware is currently located, and 15 E. Ortega St., home to the Press Room. The project also includes 714 to 720 State St.

The developer, SIMA Management Corp., turned to a hotel project after initially proposing housing. The development team had concluded that the housing proposal would need more density than the city currently allows to make it financially feasible.

“Unfortunately, current zoning did not allow for sufficient density on this parcel, including all the other parcels that were assembled and encumbered, to make this project feasible,” said Kevin Moore, the project’s architect.

“Everybody would prefer to have this be a housing project, but the reality is that some of these downtown sites just don’t make sense.”

Thursday’s vote was 4-1, with commissioners, Bonderson, Don DeLuccio, Sheila Lodge and Lesley Wiscomb in favor of the hotel project. Commissioner Lucille Boss dissented.

Boss unabashedly opposed the hotel project, so much so that City Attorney Tava Ostrenger had to steer her back on track as she questioned Moore.

Reading from notes, Boss asked him, “Can you tell me how you define the principles of sound community planning?”

Ostrenger flipped on her microphone and stopped Boss’ line of questioning.

“That is actually my job, as the city attorney, to interpret our ordinances,” she said.

Ostrenger explained that she interprets it as a project that complies with the general plan’s policies, is being implemented through the zoning code, and that the City Council sets the policies and procedures that it thinks are compliant with the general plan.

Boss then turned her attention to city planner Allison DeBusk.

She peppered DeBusk with four rapid-fire questions, quizzing her on the number of times hotels are prioritized over housing in the general plan, how many times affordable or workforce housing is prioritized over “all other development” in the general plan, and what programs the city has in place to prioritize housing over hotels.

She also asked DeBusk how many programs are designed to incentivize affordable housing in the 2015 Housing Element Update.

DeBusk politely answered the questions.

Although Boss and many of the public speakers accused the developer of putting profit over community needs, Ostrenger stated that it was not the commission’s role to discuss private finances.

“It’s really not the purview of this body to get into financial information as to why this project might not have penciled out economically,” she said.

Most of the public commentators said they wanted housing at the site.

Josh Ellis, owner of M. Special Brewing Co. at 634 State St., opposed the hotel project.

“One of my biggest challenges is recruiting and retaining good staff,” he said. “I strongly believe that having full-time residents at that location as opposed to transient occupancy, especially in the shadow of one of the worst tourism winters we have ever seen in Santa Barbara, I believe that is a sounder way to increase critical mass.”

Joe Rafferty, read a letter from his father, the owner of the Press Room.

“This hotel project will likely put us out of business for good,” he said.

Rafferty said the Press Room opened in 1995 and that it has become a local meeting place for the community. He noted that the building was built sometime in the 1890s and had historical significance.

At a recent meeting, Moore said SIMA and the Press Room had signed an agreement for relocation fees once the development is approved. But Rafferty said Thursday that the statement was misleading.

“This was a take it or leave it offer in the midst of a global pandemic,” he said, reading from the elder Rafferty’s letter.

Ron Robertson, one of the owners of The Balboa Building at 735 State St., supported the hotel.

“Yes, Santa Barbara needs housing, no dispute, but what would help the 600, 700, 800 block of State Street more, housing or hotel,” he said.

“I would argue that even a partially full hotel adds more shoppers to State Street than full-time renters who eat out or shop occasionally.”

A majority of the commission, however, said that the panel could not deny a development plan because the project was consistent with the general plan.

Bonderson called it an “unfair burden” to place on the commission.

“As a planning commissioner, my hands are tied because the council has not incentivized new rental housing projects,” she said. “Let’s be crystal clear here: It’s much easier to get a hotel project approved than a new rental housing project.

“The City Council, unfortunately, only has themselves to blame by not enacting new policies that truly incentivize rental housing applications.”