Bittersweet Victory

St. Francis Housing Project Approved Amid Council Charges of Arrogance

by Nick Welsh

Victory has rarely left so bitter an aftertaste as it did for Cottage Health System at last week’s City Council meeting. Though the Santa Barbara City Council overwhelmingly approved Cottage’s long-simmering plans to build 115 workforce condos — 81 at substantially below-market rates — on the site of the former St. Francis Hospital, Councilmember Brian Barnwell castigated Cottage administrators for what he described as their high-handed and unilateral approach. “The Cottage board is really lucky that this council is not as arrogant as they are,” said Barnwell, who was one of the proposal’s most enthusiastic boosters. “I think the neighbors were correct. There was an arrogance associated with this.”

Barnwell’s anger stemmed from Cottage’s steadfast refusal to commit to including solar panels on the condos — or even to look into the feasibility of solar power — as a condition of approval. In fact, shortly before last Tuesday’s meeting, the Cottage board of directors voted to withdraw their application and sell off the land if the council voted to include any new solar-based conditions. When notified of the Cottage ultimatum at last Tuesday’s meeting, Councilmember Das Williams commented, “That’s some serious hardball.”

Barnwell — whom Williams described as such a “cheerleader” for the project that he all but carried pom-poms — has become urgently concerned about global warming in recent months, sparking him to push Cottage to include solar panels on the condo roofs. From the start, Cottage officials refused, charging Barnwell’s request was “a late hit” at the tail end of a three-year process and would cost $2 million. If Cottage employees were socked for that added cost — which translates to $15,000 per unit or $100 a month — they warned fewer hospital workers would be able to meet the city’s affordability guidelines. And if Cottage paid the cost out of its well-endowed foundation, they said, less money would be available for health care.

Responding to Barnwell’s rebuke, Cottage CEO Ron Werft denied charges of institutional arrogance, insisting that Cottage had consistently acted according to its “core values of excellence, integrity, and compassion” in dealing with the council and the neighbors who live near the St. Francis site. “The only thing we did differently,” Werft said, “was we didn’t play the game.” By “the game,” Werft meant that Cottage did not initially propose more development than it intended so that it could make a show of making concessions later. While Councilmembers Helene Schneider and Williams — the only one who voted against the project — sounded concerns similar to Barnwell’s, Mayor Marty Blum sought to distance herself from such sentiments. “You need to know we don’t all feel the same way,” Blum told Werft. Ironically, since last week’s meeting, Cottage officials have been in contact with the Community Environmental Council to discuss the feasibility of installing some solar panels.

Despite his concerns, Barnwell and four other councilmembers took pains to praise the St. Francis project for providing desperately needed affordable housing for Cottage’s employees. Opponents of the project — led by activists with the Bungalow Haven Neighborhood Association — gained little traction with the council in arguing that the project should be scaled back in size and the St. Francis building should be considered for historic preservation. These activists complained that the Environmental Impact Report — which found preservation unfeasible — was compromised because the consultant who did the work is married to a Cottage physician. City Attorney Steve Wiley has advised that this relationship falls considerably short of a legal conflict of interest, though the neighborhood critics’ own ethicist argued it constitutes a breach of public trust nonetheless. Some councilmembers, like Iya Falcone, chastised neighborhood critics for leveling such a personal attack; others, like Williams and Barnwell, suggested Cottage would have been well advised to hire someone else.

Critics also argued the St. Francis building should be retained and redeveloped into housing. Not only would such adaptive reuse be environmentally conscious, they argued, but it would limit the size of the project to something more in keeping with the surrounding neighborhoods. No councilmembers expressed much interest in adaptive reuse, however, arguing that the existing building — four stories high in places — creates a huge wall blocking views to and from the Riviera. Cottage officials rejected adaptive reuse as well, claiming their employees were not interested.

Neighborhood critics are still deliberating whether to sue to block the council’s approval. If they do, they will argue that City Hall, in its eagerness to approve one of the biggest privately financed affordable housing proposals in decades, failed to subject the St. Francis proposal to the environmental scrutiny state law requires.

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