Chihuahuas in the Microwave

SUPERSIZE THIS: Should I get a notice that my water bill’s a couple months past due and they’re thinking about shutting off my spigot, my palms would sweat, my eyes would twitch, and I would go into gastrointestinal overdrive. But when developer Bill Levy is notified by his lender that he has defaulted on his $35 million loan — $10 million of which is the interest that accrued in just one year — he’s cool as a cucumber. That money was due, by the way, in July. Say what you want about Bad Boy Bill, the man is pucker proof. For those tuning in late, Levy is attempting to transform the portion of lowest State Street — around the Californian Hotel — into a beehive of Ritz-Carlton time-share condos, each fetching a modest $350,000 per three-week use. In his own ingenious and determined way, Levy’s been pursuing this Levytown dream for more than 30 years. But now that he’s at the finish line, it will all be snatched away, barring divine intervention. Talk about your karmic comeuppance. Levy’s been abusing investors for years, and it’s biting him on the ass. I suspect this is one of the reasons he’s had such an impossible time securing financing on this project, which everyone says is a surefire money-maker. According to his permits with City Hall, Levy has until December 12 to break ground, begin construction, and get his $200 million show on the road. And without financing, he can’t meet this deadline. Unless someone buys him out, the project is dead in the water. Frankly, that would suit me just fine. I never liked it in the first place.

Around City Hall, there are a number of councilmembers who feel the same way. The question, of course, is what happens afterwards. Chances are, lots of litigation. In the meantime, one idea put forward by City Councilmember Helene Schneider is that maybe Levy’s land could be used as a “receptor site” in a complex scheme known as Transfer of Development Rights, aka TDR. Among eco-minded policy wonks, TDR has become the hot, sexy buzz word du jour. The idea is that the development of big beautiful open spaces along the Gaviota Coast — like Naples, for example — might be prevented outright or minimized by transferring their owners’ development rights to some more suitable urbanized location, such as lower State Street. In the abstract, it’s an incredibly cool concept, a psychological salve that offers hope, however dim, that Gaviota won’t soon be gobbled up by mega mansions, Tudor castles, and other architectural delusions of grandeur. To that end, the City Council quietly appropriated $15,000 Tuesday to pay for part of a $45,000 new study about TDR, and how they might save Naples from a fate worse than Ritz-Carlton condos. The county supes kicked in $15,000 and so did Matt Osgood, the Orange County developer who wants to build a few dozen tastefully overwrought estates at Naples.

The trick is finding socially acceptable receptor sites. As soon as you start getting down to specifics, the trouble starts. Wherever and whatever it is, somebody’s not going to like it. Thus far, the City of Santa Barbara has proven the most receptive to the idea. But everyone agrees this scheme can’t work if the City of Santa Barbara is the only player. Goleta? Somehow I can’t see the good people of the Good Land rushing forward with open arms. NIMBYs there are in a state of perpetual revolt and, last I looked, they deport people for installing backyard clothes lines. The real issue, of course, is the d-word. That stands for density. Many of us, myself included, have warmly embraced the concept that increased urban densities are essential — desirable even — if we ever hope to see anything affordable produced on the South Coast again. It’s when it involves our own neighborhoods that we all turn into screaming NIMBYs. The d-word is animating many debates that on their surface seem to be about other matters entirely. For example, the kooky revolt against those mini-roundabouts — highly functional despite obvious aesthetic shortcomings — is inspired by an almost paranoid conviction that they’re part of a smart-growth conspiracy concocted by City Hall to cram higher residential densities down our collective throats.

One of the problems confronting those of us subscribing to so-called smart-growth notions is that too often we allow increased densities without getting much, if any, affordability. Million-dollar condos are chewing up residential neighborhoods on the East and West sides. These new products may be darling and delicious, but not to a whole lot of families they’re displacing in the process. Thus far, City Hall has not seen fit to get a grip on this problem. In the last five years, 171 duplexes or apartment houses have been proposed or approved for demolition to make way for new condos. Some have already been torn down. And some have been the victims of the two-step flimflam. That’s when developers obtain permits to demolish existing rentals on the pretext of building new apartments, but then decide to build condos instead. This dodge has become popular because the regulatory oversight involved with apartment-to-apartment projects is significantly less cumbersome than converting apartments to condos. The loophole should be fairly simple to plug. Let’s hope the council doesn’t wait until it gets around to amending the city’s General Plan several years hence to do so. And of course, none of these numbers include all the condo conversions that involve no demolition. Councilmember Das Williams made a great point about all this at a recent council meeting. If neighborhoods are being asked to suck it up and accept higher densities all in the name of increased affordability, Williams warned, City Hall and the powers that be will undermine what limited credibility they possess by allowing the wholesale destruction of existing rental housing, which happens to be among the most affordable housing we have. Until the council figures this out, people will have every reason to be suspicious whenever the d-word comes into play. Until that changes, we can kiss a castle-free Gaviota goodbye.  — Nick Welsh

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