Members of the Santa Barbara City Council didn’t exactly cut the proverbial baby in half Tuesday evening, July 15, after spending four hours grappling with the single-most contentious and polarizing development project to come their way. Instead, they opted to chop off a few fingers and toes while instructing another city committee-the Architectural Board of Review-to lop off the top of the scalp at some future date. Still, for developer John Price, the outcome marked a clear victory in his struggle to tear down the Union 76 gas station at the corner of Coast Village and Olive Mill roads-which sells the most expensive gas on the South Coast-and build in its place a three-story mixed-use project with eight condos and 5,000 square feet of new shops.
In terms of size alone, the Price proposal is hardly remarkable. But in terms of public controversy, it has galvanized opponents and supporters throughout Montecito in record numbers, prompting more than one councilmember to remark that they’d never been inundated by so many emails and phone calls on any other project. No less than 106 of these well-heeled combatants showed up in person Tuesday afternoon to speak their piece for or against the proposal. Most were mercifully brief. But several of those who spoke at length managed to impugn the integrity of their opponents while expressing disappointment that any of their foes would challenge their own.
The Price proposal was the target of four separate appeals. All objected that at three stories, the proposed development was way too big for the neighborhood, would block mountain views, invade the privacy of nearby homeowners, and set a dangerous precedent for future development on Coast Village Road. They questioned the ability of the Montecito Water District-which recently declared that consumption has already outpaced supply to an alarming degree-to deliver the water necessary for the project to be built. And finally, they charged that several city planning commissioners-who had been hired by Price as land use consultants-wielded improper, if informal, influence on the developer’s behalf despite having officially recused themselves from participating during commission proceedings and its final vote of approval this March.
But the only real issue for the council was size. While voicing considerable praise for architect Jeff Gorrell’s creativity, the council collectively fretted that the building still felt too big for the street, even though at 39 feet high it fell well within the street’s 45-foot limit. Councilmember Roger Horton said, “It just consumes too much bulk for me to be comfortable with,” but added that he was open to a three-story structure. Councilmember Iya Falcone explained that she couldn’t support anything with three stories, and took exception to constant comparisons between what Price was proposing and the Montecito Inn, located just across Coast Village Road. Falcone described the Montecito Inn, developed by actor Charlie Chaplin in the 1920s, as “a temper tantrum by a movie star.”
Councilmembers Horton and Grant House led the charge to send the plans back to the Architectural Board of Review for a serious shave and a haircut. House also recommended that Price pay $17,500 for each of the eight condos, to go into a fund designed to support affordable housing. Councilmember Dale Francisco-who expressed serious concern about the size-denounced this housing exaction as “borderline extortion,” but Price readily agreed to pay. Councilmember Das Williams was the least perturbed by the proposal’s size, bulk, and scale and praised Price for trying to design something beautiful. He balked at efforts by his council colleagues Falcone and Mayor Marty Blum to knock the third story off completely. “There are limits to my embrace of creeping socialism,” Williams said, “and this is one of them.”
While Price’s victory Tuesday was decisive, it was far from final. When the Architectural Board of Review finishes tweaking the design, Price’s critics can appeal the ABR’s decision to the City Council yet again.