New Developments

Three months after declaring bankruptcy on his plans to develop Ritz-Carlton condos on lower State Street, Bill Levy invited investors to a February 13 meeting in which he asked them to sign an agreement not to sue him for unpaid monies. In exchange, Levy promised to include these investors in yet another investment scheme – designed, he said, to secure them a toehold in future Ritz-Carlton developments in Santa Barbara. At this point, Levy’s creditor, Mountain Funding, owns the project. Levy hopes to parlay his control of two properties potentially useful to Ritz into a re-entry in the development plans he pushed for the past decade. Levy’s critics – some of whom were barred from the meeting – have suggested he aims to shelter himself from an avalanche of lawsuits.

The Santa Barbara City Council tentatively approved a $500,000 loan to the Trust for Historic Preservation to buy the former Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens restaurant and turn it into a state museum extolling Santa Barbara’s Chinese heritage and the Chinatown that once flourished nearby. Despite the unanimous vote, some councilmembers expressed concern about getting repaid. Trust officials stressed they would repay the city with interest after three years, once the state parks department purchased the property from the Trust. But Trust officials conceded no such agreement with the state existed as yet. The Trust has been securing property near Jimmy’s for nearly 40 years in hopes of making an urban park out of the original Presidio of Santa Barbara’s Spanish colonial forebears.

Santa Barbara’s Architectural Board of Review on February 12 discussed a proposal to construct a Whole Foods grocery store in the 3700 block of State Street, where a Circuit City, Taco Bell, and other businesses now stand. Despite concerns from residents in attendance about the traffic impact of the 15 condos included in the proposal, boardmembers spoke in favor of the project, which had been amended following a 2005 proposal that did not include the construction of residential units. A public hearing will be held in the next six weeks on the pending environmental review.

With only one discouraging word, the Santa Barbara City Council unanimously approved loaning $400,000 to Habitat for Humanity to purchase a vacant Westside lot near the intersection of Cota and San Pascual streets. The loan was extended to help Habitat build up to five units of affordable housing on the 6,600-square-foot site. The deal with Habitat – and the Housing Trust Fund, which will contribute $200,000 – happened after the price tumbled from $895,000 to $495,000. Although Councilmember Brian Barnwell voted for the loan, he argued the 45-year affordability restriction was too short, noting he would have preferred City Hall be allowed to buy the property once the affordability requirement expires.

Ron Cortez, deputy county CEO, strongly recommended at the February 13 county supervisors’ meeting that the board ditch the county’s affordable homeownership program. Cortez, who has most recently been managing the much-abused program, said that the program was not worth fixing. Supervisors estimated that it would take 30-40 people to administer the program successfully – compared to the staff of 12 it now employs – and calculated that it had produced only 15.7 affordable houses per year since its inception in 1979. When the board revisits the issue in May, supervisors will examine other options, including the imposition of in-lieu fees on developers to subsidize rental housing managed by an outside agency.

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