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Paul Wellman

Ceasefire in Downtown Height Fight

Preservationists and Smart Growth Activists Craft a Compromise


A group that has been passing around a petition to limit building heights in Santa Barbara stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the steps of City Hall with their nemesis, the “smart-growth” crowd who preach the gospel of building up-not out-to avoid sprawl. The occasion, on Thursday afternoon, April 24, was to announce that the two camps have laid the groundwork for a possible “treaty of El Pueblo Viejo.” The fight over heights, sparked by recent developments on Chapala Street, drove a wedge between former allies in urban design battles of the past. However, it appeared to be over as both sides praised the compromise they have crafted during the past couple of months. The new coalition is hoping that the City Council will adopt their compromise as an ordinance.

Meanwhile, the Save El Pueblo Viejo group pushing height limits continues to collect signatures, said their chief negotiator and spokesperson, architect Bill Mahan. If the City Council fails to make swift progress toward adopting their proposed ordinance, or something very similar to it, the height-limits group will proceed with its plans to place the height limit on the ballot.

The truth is, said Mahan, his group actually prefers the so-called compromise, which is more nuanced than the ballot measure. It would create a 40-foot height limit in all commercial zones that allow residential uses, with one major exception. Projects that include at least 30 percent affordable housing-up to 200 percent of the median income-would be rewarded with an additional 12 feet of height. It would also require more ground-floor open space than current law demands for mixed-use buildings. Landscaping, patios, or walkways open to the sky would have to take up 10 percent of the lot area, and said open space would have to be adjacent to the street. Buildings on State Street or within a block of it would be exempt from the open space requirement, though.

Affordable housing activist Mickey Flacks, of Santa Barbara for All, who was adamantly opposed to the petition’s height limits, also prefers the proposed ordinance to current laws allowing 60-foot mixed-use (housing plus commercial) buildings in all commercial corridor. That is because the proposed ordinance creates an incentive for developers to build affordable housing.

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Paul Wellman

This tackles the biggest issues in Santa Barbara in one page of law,” enthused Councilman Das Williams, whom both sides said was instrumental in brokering the agreement.

Councilwoman Helene Schneider emphasized that the new coalition was not trying to hijack the general plan updating process, and announced a work session on the update this Saturday at 9 a.m.

The proposal is on the upcoming City Council’s agenda, April 22, scheduled for 6 p.m., at which time the coalition hopes that council will send it to the ordinance committee; and they hope the ordinance committee will send it back to council for approval within two weeks. The fast timeline would prevent Save El Pueblo Viejo from placing its original height-limit charter amendment on the 2008 ballot, which has a signature deadline of May 15.

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