Wants, Needs, and Two Lots of Land

S.B. School District Weighs Development Options

by Ethan Stewart

It has been almost exactly two years since the Santa Barbara School Board decided to explore the possibility of developing their two open-space property holdings in the name of district revenue and perhaps employee housing. However, as the final report on the feasibility of building out these two properties was being presented to the board Tuesday night by the UniDev Corporation, it was abundantly clear to all those in attendance that the journey toward a decision on the future of the holdings has — for better or worse — only just begun. Or as board member Laura Malakoff said, with no small amount of consternation, “It’s going to be a long process and I’m not sure I want to start that tonight.”

Faced with a truly impaired elementary district budget and a secondary schools budget that is just a shade or two healthier, the district can no longer afford to pay the nearly $100,000 in annual taxes on the properties — not to mention the fact that, in an age of declining enrollment and gridlocked teacher salary negotiations, the allure of a possible new revenue stream has never looked better. Add to that a local real estate market that pretty much prices out any would-be buyers who make their living teaching, and you have a situation that practically deman ds that the board do something with their golden-egg acreage.

Looking to better understand the options, the district hired UniDev — a Maryland-based consulting and development firm with experience in education housing — in the summer of 2005 to explore four possible paths: the as-is sale of the 12-acre Hidden Valley and 23-acre Tatum properties; the “fully-entitled” sale of the properties; building the properties out with market-rate housing and selling them; or using the sites for employee housing that may or may not have long-term ground leases. After more than 16 months of surveying local teachers about their needs and desires, researching the complex beast that is Santa Barbara real estate, and holding workshop-style meetings with the general public, UniDev representatives unveiled their final findings Tuesday night, complete with financial projections of what each option would generate in cash and what type of development they felt the sites could handle.

Based on the legal constraints on specific actions the board can take, UniDev Vice-President Peter Smirniotopoulos downplayed the attractiveness of an as-is sale, as well as a fully-entitled sale, of the properties while painting a picture of a variety of high-density housing projects that would potentially earn millions for district. According to his numbers, Hidden Valley could take up to 98 units and generate up to $16.2 million, depending on the amount of employee-only housing and whether or not long-term land leases are used. For the Tatum property in the Goleta Valley — which Smirniotopoulos characterized as “the place” for the school board to make a commitment to workforce housing — the numbers varied from 90 units to a 276-unit development earning the district up to $20.5 million. On both parcels, the average price of affordable workforce housing was estimated around $360,000. However, to Smirniotopoulos, nothing can happen until the board makes a policy decision about what it values more — making money or creating affordable homes for district employees.

According to Superintendent Brian Sarvis, that choice could be made as soon as January — when the board will revisit the issue — though he was adamant Tuesday night that, “At this point it is completely wide open as to what the district can do.” Despite Sarvis’s sentiments, residents from both neighborhoods were outspoken in their opposition to the developments and highly critical of the feasibility study itself, citing loss of open space, increased traffic, and most importantly, the high-density nature of the hypothetical projects. Speaking specifically about the Tatum property, David Kloos — who lives in the neighborhood — perhaps summed up the opposition best when he told the board, “It would be disastrous to proceed with these types of developments. We don’t want to live in density and this is an overwhelming feeling in the community … You bring in density and you just bring in more social problems.”

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