While we sympathize immensely with proponents of Measure B-the citywide ballot measure that would lower the maximum allowable building heights in Santa Barbara’s El Pueblo Viejo from 60 feet to a mere 40 feet-we feel they’ve proposed a chainsaw solution when a scalpel is clearly called for.
The obvious and compelling inspiration for Measure B is the three large buildings that recently sprouted up along lower Chapala Street. Like many, we looked on with alarm as these new edifices came slowly to life. However finely wrought, these structures are decidedly out of sync with Santa Barbara’s small-town character.
Proponents of Measure B-who are known as Save El Pueblo Viejo-have argued that the city’s historic skyline can be saved from future assaults only by reducing the allowed heights by one-third. In addition, they’ve proposed limiting new development to 45 feet outside of El Pueblo Viejo. To do so, they seek to amend the city charter, an act akin to changing the city’s municipal constitution.
If the solution were really that simple, we’d support it. Unfortunately, it’s not.
Save El Pueblo Viejo’s cure does little to address the disease at hand. The problems associated with these Chapala Street structures stem only partially from their height. Rather, there are multiple design defects, the most conspicuous being a glaring lack of setbacks from the street. All three buildings meet the street and the public with a sheer wall face. Typically, City Hall requires developers to soften that face by what architects call “stair-step” or “wedding cake” tiers. For complex reasons, that was not required in these cases, which, in hindsight, clearly was a mistake.
In addition, each of the three Chapala buildings sprawls out laterally, which contributes significantly to their sense of mass. This sprawl occurred because the developers were allowed to combine several lots into one. While this practice can accommodate certain-perhaps desirable-economies of scale, City Hall needs to cast a much sharper eye on this practice in the future.
What also concerns us about the new developments is their target market: retired millionaires, multimillionaires, and perhaps a billionaire or two. This is not eat-the-rich class resentment, as Santa Barbara’s wealthy have a long tradition of generous civic participation. But given the South Coast’s limited housing opportunities, we believe every effort must be taken to secure some toehold for middle- and low-income wage earners. To the extent this is even possible, we believe City Hall should focus its efforts on what’s known as “affordability by design.” In this approach, undertaken in cities like Portland and Los Angeles, municipal governments limit the average size of a development’s units. Smaller units, the theory goes, will be more affordable than those with extravagantly spacious floor plans.
To our way of thinking, these are the real problems posed by the new mondo-condos on Chapala Street. On all but height-and the proposed 40-foot limit seems decidedly capricious and arbitrary-Measure B is utterly silent. (It should be noted, however, that state law only allows initiatives to address a single issue.) As such, Measure B barely rises to the level of placebo politics, its good intentions serving as handmaiden to the empty gesture. We fear that if passed, Measure B could make the development of affordable housing significantly more difficult. We’re not willing to take that gamble, especially since there are other available tools to ensure that future development conforms to Santa Barbara’s scale.
When it comes to the frustration out of which Measure B emerged, there is no shortage of blame to be assigned. But several things have already been done to ensure that the mistakes of Chapala Street are not repeated. With the city’s design review guidelines for acceptable development recently clarified and crystallized, concerned commissioners will find themselves on firmer footing to say no. In addition, at a meeting of all the city design review boards, members were exhorted to use the authority now at their disposal. Too often, individual commissioners have allowed themselves to be steamrolled.
For the long term, City Hall is now updating its General Plan, which sets out the kinds of development we want during the next 20 years. This is exactly where issues of building height need to be hashed out. Many have complained that the city’s process has been unwieldy and unfocussed. That’s probably true, but good planning is complex, painstaking, and highly nuanced. It cannot be accomplished by executive fiat or by popular initiative. There simply is no substitute for creative thought or hard work. In that spirit, we respectfully recommend that Santa Barbara voters reject Measure B.