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City Plan Steps into Limelight

Planners Tout Sustainability as Organizing Force


Thursday, December 4, 2008

The draft of a new blueprint for the City of Santa Barbara will be presented by planning staff to the City Council December 11. Forty-two pages long and two years in the making, the proposed General Plan Update Framework would make sustainability the organizing principle for all future development in the city. “Santa Barbara is an ecosystem,” the policy report states, identifying “equity, environment, and economy” as keys to its sustainability.

The culmination of almost two years’ worth of Plan Santa Barbara public workshops, and unanimously approved in November by the city’s Planning Commission, the framework identifies unaffordable housing prices as an enemy of sustainability, along with overuse of single-occupancy vehicles both within the city and regionally. Accordingly, the framework would create more affordable housing by allowing more second or “granny” units, requiring downtown residential developments to provide only one parking space per unit, and reducing the size of dwelling units. It calls for each neighborhood to develop a unique Sustainable Neighborhood Plan to map out such features as housing types, neighborhood-serving businesses, street trees, creek restoration and access, and community gardens on vacant lots. It proposes a series of multimodal transportation hubs throughout the city.

In addition to these policy statements, the City Council will be asked to refer five potential growth scenarios for environmental review, each representing a different amount of commercial and residential development by the year 2030. One of these, known as the PlanSB Project, is the scenario described in the draft framework, the one that planning staff claims represents the consensus-or at least a happy medium-of the views expressed in the community workshops.

The PlanSB Project became the subject of some alarm on the part of the Planning Commission in late September, when commissioners noticed that it kept the very same, lopsided jobs-to-housing ratio that currently exists and that would be expected to persist without any change in general plan policies. This more-jobs-than-housing situation exists despite a general agreement that more Santa Barbara workers should be living in the city rather than driving in from Ventura and North County, as they now do at the rate of about 15,000 commuters daily, according to Gregg Hart of the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments. As a result, the number of new dwellings expected under the Plan Santa Barbara Project has been increased from 2,000 to 2,800. The higher number is a result, planner Bettie Weiss explained, of staff looking more closely at the new policies’ effects, though she noted that the lower number reflected the average number of homes built per year in Santa Barbara, which has been 100, decade after decade, due chiefly to market forces.

Another alternative to be analyzed in the Environmental Impact Report is the one favored by Santa Barbara for All, a coalition laden with architects and other aficionados of so-called smart growth, who call for smaller dwelling units, at higher densities, with fewer parking requirements, and easier permitting for developers building affordable housing. That alternative would result in an estimated 4,500 new dwellings by 2020. Santa Barbara for All has praised the sustainable policies written by staff except, said member Lisa Plowman, that the staff’s preferred project still relies heavily on “exporting its workforce to outlying areas.”

Of the remaining two alternatives, one would slow growth from its current pace by, among other things, reducing building heights and increasing parking requirements. This would result in just 2,000 new dwellings, according to staff. This alternative, which also calls for the least amount of commercial development, was favored during the community meetings by a strong contingent of Santa Barbara preservationists.

The final alternative recommended for thorough environmental analysis is full build-out, beyond the year 2030, to 7,000 new dwelling units, assuming a continuation of PlanSB project policies.

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