Upper State Lofts in Limbo

Berkus’s Uptown Project Deemed Too Much of a Good Thing

The Santa Barbara City Council sent a tough message late Tuesday to developers with plans on the drawing board for upper State Street: The rules of the game are changing dramatically, and City Hall intends to craft a new vision of what sort of development will be allowed there. After six hours of intense deliberations, the council voted 6-1 to reject architect Barry Berkus’s controversial State Street Lofts proposal, a three-story mix of commercial space and 55 one-bedroom condominiums slated for a spot now occupied by the deteriorating Plaza Inn and adjoining office building at the congested intersection of State and La Cumbre streets. In so doing, six of the councilmembers — only Roger Horton dissented — rejected the recommendation of their own planning staff, and snubbed a 6-1 vote in favor of the project by the city Planning Commission last December.

Councilmembers praised Berkus for his creativity and integrity, and hailed his attempt to provide affordable housing; in the end their concerns were too great that Berkus’s plans were simply too big and too much for the traffic-plagued location to bear. Given that there are several other major proposals currently in the works for upper State Street — or “uptown,” as it was frequently referred to during deliberations — councilmembers expressed an urgent need for a comprehensive public planning process to address upper State’s long festering problems and to achieve a new consensus of what’s desirable there. The council scrambled to not reject Berkus’s lofts outright, and tried to devise a measure that would free him from starting from scratch or paying the city’s substantial development fees should he submit revised plans for the site in keeping with the yet-to-be-determined new vision for the neighborhood. But Berkus was having none of it. Visibly anguished by the council’s decision, the developer said, “It seems to me there’s a de facto moratorium and that many projects on State Street will be stopped here tonight.” Berkus also indicated that if he were to try again, he’d propose precisely what the zoning now allows for and seek none of the special modifications and variances he’s spent the past 18 months trying to secure. And that, he predicted, would be 34 multimillion-dollar condos and only five “affordable” units, as opposed to the 17 below-market units in his now-dead plan.

In recent weeks, Berkus and his project inspired supporters and critics alike to flood the council offices with emails, faxes, and phone calls. At Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, 55 members of the public were registered to speak, and dozens more showed up after the registration deadline expired. They were split fairly evenly for and against the project. Supporters stuck closely to Berkus’s own script; the project provided three times the affordable housing that was required and at prices — from $175,000 to $219,000 — that were genuinely within the reach of middle-class professionals who would otherwise be forced out of town. Not only would the “greenest” of building technologies be used in constructing the Lofts, but residents of the Plaza Inn — most of them living on fixed incomes and struggling with various challenges — would be relocated. In addition, $10 million of Berkus’s proceeds from the land sale would be donated to literacy programs. The package was attractive enough that Berkus’s threat of withdrawal gave councilmember Roger Horton serious pause. Councilmember Helene Schneider worried the rejection would send a negative message to developers trying to give City Hall what it claims to want. The opposition countered that upper State Street was desperately crying out for a comprehensive plan, and that by issuing “piecemeal” approval of big projects like the Lofts before such a plan was in place, the council would effectively preclude that from occurring. They noted that the Lofts would serve as a precedent for other major projects — like the Whole Foods store proposed for the Circuit City plaza and the dramatic expansion proposed for the Sandman Inn. They took heated exception to bland assurances by traffic engineers that traffic congestion on upper State Street was not getting worse and that projects like the Lofts would actually improve it; such pronouncements not only defied logic, they argued, but contradicted their personal experience. And many critics charged that City Hall needed to tighten its relocation requirements — for displaced businesses as well as the indigent motel dwellers. Perhaps most striking about the opposition were the disparate and often feuding factions that Berkus managed to unify. Not only did it include the usual slow-growth and no-growth suspects such as the Citizens Planning Association, the League of Women Voters, Allied Neighborhood Association, and Citizens for Sensible Planning, but also prominent affordable-housing advocates, like Mickey Flacks, who have actively pressed City Hall and the Board of Supervisors for increased housing densities that neighborhood preservationists insist will destroy their quality of life. Three candidates for the 2nd Supervisorial District — Joe Guzzardi, Janet Wolf, and Das Williams — weighed in against the Lofts; only Dan Secord, a close personal friend of Berkus, avoided the fray. In addition, former Santa Barbara mayor Sheila Lodge voiced her opposition, as did former councilmember David Landecker. It was Councilmember Das Williams who made the motion to deny the project, but it was really Councilmember Brian Barnwell who eviscerated the Lofts during a detailed dissertation on its shortcomings. A former planning commissioner, Barnwell had encountered Berkus projects before and found that their reality — once construction was complete — sometimes exceeded expectations in terms of size, bulk, and scale. Because of this, Barnwell said he studied the Lofts plans in considerable detail and concluded that their height, mass, and visual impact was out of character with the neighborhood, and its traffic plans insensitive to the serious circulation needs of the area. The $64 million question remains: What now? It will be hard enough for city planners to craft a public planning process capable of finding consensus for upper State Street’s future, harder still to do so quickly. In the meantime, what happens to Berkus? What happens to Whole Foods and the Sandman Inn? And is there a de facto moratorium in effect, as Berkus charged? “I don’t buy that for one minute,” said Barnwell, “but I sure as hell hope the other developers out there are paying attention and get the message.”

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