All But Certain Victory

Planners to Consider Historic Housing Project

by Nick Welsh

Barring the mass abduction by space aliens of Santa Barbara’s planning commission this Thursday afternoon, Cottage Health System will get a green light for its plans to build the biggest and most affordable housing development downtown Santa Barbara has seen in decades. If remarks made by several commissioners after last Thursday’s marathon meeting are any indication, the planning commission will overwhelmingly and enthusiastically endorse Cottage’s proposal to tear down what until five years ago was St. Francis Hospital, and in its place build 115 new condos, 70 percent of which will be sold at far below market rates to the hospital’s nurses, pharmacists, and other healthcare professionals. According to Cottage CEO Ron Werft, two-bedroom condos will sell for $294,000, well within the grasp of households earning $80,000 a year. Initially, Cottage had hoped to break even. But to stem the exodus of skilled health professionals from Santa Barbara, Werft said the Cottage Foundation was willing to lose up to $10 million, subsidizing each unit to the tune of $120,000.

Some nearby residents, led by authors Cheri Rae and John McKinney, objected to the plan on the grounds that it would create a traffic nightmare, and that the diesel fumes and dust kicked up during construction would render the neighborhood a living hell, generating serious health risks — asthma, heart disease, and cancer — to older residents and others with compromised health. They charged that City Hall became so intoxicated by the social benefits the St. Francis project promised that it turned a blind eye to the project’s impacts. And they complained that the consultant hired by Cottage to determine the historic merits of the St. Francis building failed to disclose she was married to a Cottage doctor, and thus had a conflict of interest. Ideally, Rae and McKinney argued, Cottage should keep the St. Francis building intact, replacing its guts with housing units. And they said Cottage should build no more than 89 units, the number identified in the Environmental Impact Report as the environmentally preferable alternative.

None of these arguments made much of a dent with the commissioners. Commission chair John Jostes dismissed the conflict of interest charge as “a red herring,” stating that the building’s architecture — a hodgepodge of additions and remodels cobbled together over the decades — lacked historic significance. Nor did he think it should be reused for housing. “It ain’t a beauty queen,” he said. Cottage has rejected the idea of adaptive reuse, arguing that very few Cottage employees want to live in the same sort of building where they work. Further, Cottage architect Brian Cearnal said Cottage could squeeze only 89 units into the old St. Francis building.

Bill Mahan, the reigning graybeard of the Planning Commission, said normally he’s torn about the sort of spirited mix of public testimony he saw last Tuesday night. But Mahan said he was put off by one opponent of the housing plan who complained that her $1.8 million home might lose value if the Cottage project were approved. Or another who argued that by concentrating so many health professionals in one place, the city would be at risk if a terrorist targeted them for attack. Like Jostes and other commissioners, Mahan was troubled by the weakness of the mitigations proposed in the Environmental Impact Report. Too many, he said, contained “to the extent feasible” verbiage, rather than stating “shall” or “will.” Jostes is hoping he can persuade Cottage to make a stronger commitment to green building than it has so far. To the extent there’s much debate this Thursday afternoon, it will be about whether he can get support from his fellow commissioners on such conditions. But as for the project itself, there’s little question of the outcome. As Mahan said, “This is easy for me. It’s all black and white.”

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