After hearing from constituents and discussing the matter for almost four hours, the Santa Barbara City Council decided it will not hastily implement an emergency interim ordinance reducing building heights. The topic was under discussion on Tuesday, April 22, as a result of a deal announced a few days earlier that might have taken out of play a petition drive that would impose building height limits that several councilmembers and many architects consider draconian.
On Thursday, April 17, Councilmember Das Williams called a press conference to announce an historic compromise between smart-growth advocates and preservationists regarding the question of building heights and density. About a dozen civic activists were arrayed on the steps of City Hall like a vision straight out of the golden age of Roman democracy. They had purportedly been reasoning together for the past several weeks and had worked out their differences to the benefit of the entire community. The spokesperson for the new coalition was architect Bill Mahan, a former city planning commissioner and one of the authors of the Save El Pueblo petition, which aims to place on the ballot an initiative that would impose a 45-foot building height maximum throughout the city. (Some areas, including El Pueblo Viejo, would not even be that tall, however.) Former mayor Sheila Lodge, another leader in the signature drive, stood by his side on the steps. The two had undertaken the petition drive to stop massive mixed-use housing and commercial projects from proliferating throughout downtown. Now, however, according to Lodge, they had crafted this compromise with those who favor tall buildings downtown to prevent horizontal sprawl-including Williams, housing advocate Mickey Flacks, and high-profile architects Detlev Peikert, Brian Cearnal, and Bruce Bartlett.
Admitting the lack of nuance inherent in lawmaking by means of ballot initiatives, the petitioners said they would continue to collect signatures but would submit them to the elections office only in the event that the council failed to take satisfactory steps toward adopting the compromise ordinance. (Mahan took exception to the word “compromise,” actually, saying it was more accurately a “comprehensive” ordinance.) The proposed ordinance, Mahan explained, would impose a 40-foot height limit throughout the city. The exception would be developments in which 30 percent of units were affordable to middle-income people; those would get a bonus of 12 extra feet in height.
Hurrying back from 11th-hour arrangements with the city clerk’s office, Williams announced that the compromise had been pulled together just in time to be placed on the council agenda for the following Tuesday. This would afford the council an opportunity to quickly order up a temporary ordinance that would prevent the height-limit petitioners from submitting their signatures by the mid-May deadline for the 2008 ballot. This would also avoid a costly, time-consuming, and divisive process, added Cearnal.
But there was something wrong with the whole picture. It turned out that the compromise came as a surprise to most of those who had gathered signatures for the ballot initiative, signed it, or contributed money to the effort. Many of them found 52-foot buildings unacceptable. Although former Mayor Lodge has remained active in a number of civic groups—including the Citizens Planning Association, the Allied Neighborhoods Association, and the League of Women Voters—their boards had not signed on to the compromise and soon after the announcement on the steps, they disowned it. By the time Tuesday rolled around, both Mahan and Lodge had renewed their vows to continue the petition drive in good faith and submit the signatures. “I met with Councilman Williams to try to get him on our side,” Lodge told the council. “It didn’t work, but I urge you to send [this proposed ordinance] to the ordinance committee. It will give us breathing room and a chance to work out a good amendment to the city charter.” She later added that she herself had suggested the 52-foot roof height, but had meant for it to be the ridgeline of the roof, not the plate line (where the roof meets the wall) as it came out in the final version.
The council on Tuesday night concluded that there was no point in a temporary height-limiting ordinance if it wouldn’t stop the ballot initiative. Councilmembers as well as members of the public found much to criticize in the proposed interim ordinance as written and were skeptical that a decent ordinance could be quickly drafted. Councilmember Dale Francisco said that, as written, it would fail to stop projects such as Chapala One. “It’s just not very tough,” Francisco said. At 60 feet tall, he said, “Chapala One may be a tad over on height but it meets open space and setbacks easily.” Moreover, Francisco pointed out, 32 percent of its units are affordable to people earning no more than 80 percent of the median income. “It would be no hardship to have 30 percent of them at 200 percent of the median,” as was specified in the proposed interim ordinance. Francisco also argued that developments in which 70 percent of the residential units are luxury condos (complement to the 30 percent of units that are affordable, subsidized by the luxury units) create more need for affordable housing than they provide. Estimates of the number of service jobs created by one luxury-condo dweller range between one and six, he said.
Planning activist David Pritchett, responding earlier in the week to reports of the compromise, also challenged the smart-growth assumption that creating tall buildings will in fact prevent urban sprawl. “What assurance or mechanism exists that would regulate urban sprawl outside the City of Santa Barbara if the city allows taller buildings downtown?” Pritchett asked. “Through Plan Santa Barbara, the city can up-zone the downtown area with taller buildings and higher density, to be compensated by down-zoning the peripheral areas toward the outer neighborhoods. That approach, only within the city, might get to the theory that dense downtown prevents sprawl.” However, he noted, the city has little to no control over development in Goleta or the unincorporated county, including the Gaviota Coast, the saving of which is usually cited as a reason for accepting higher density in the city.
In a gesture demonstrating their understanding of the public’s concern about building heights, a majority of councilmembers directed planning staff to work on a height-limiting ordinance, but not to rush it. The consensus was that height limits and associated questions about open space and affordable housing were best addressed as part of the Plan Santa Barbara process, now underway, which is leading up to the update of the city’s General Plan. Staff were directed to return with a potential temporary ordinance when the results are in from community workshops and the Planning Commission is in the process of drafting the update’s Environmental Impact Report. At that time, they might even draft a ballot measure to compete with Save El Pueblo Viejo’s initiative.
By most predictions, the Save El Pueblo Viejo petitioners will have no trouble gaining the signatures needed to get on the ballot in November 2009. Although they might collect the requisite number of signatures in time to qualify for the 2008 ballot, the council is under no obligation to place it on the ballot until the 2009 election, and by that time, the city will be ready with its own recommendations-possibly even its own ballot measure.