The Santa Barbara City Council’s alleged down-and-dirty, drop-dead date over future housing densities was put off this Tuesday to allow Councilmembers Das Williams, Dale Francisco, and Frank Hotchkiss to meet one more time this Friday to see if a possible compromise over changes to the city’s General Plan can be hashed out. The council met until 9:20 p.m., when the mayor declared the council had met its “cranky point.”
Williams has argued the new General Plan must actively encourage increased housing densities in certain sections of the city if new affordable housing is to be built over the next 20 years. Francisco and Hotchkiss, by contrast, doubt any affordable housing can or will be built absent direct government or employer subsidies no matter what densities are allowed. But they fear the increased densities Williams seeks will undermine Santa Barbara’s historic character. Williams speaks for himself and three others on the council. Francisco leads a minority of three. Because changes to the city’s General Plan — the basic blueprint for growth and development — need five votes, Francisco holds the trump card. Or, as Mayor Helene Schneider said, addressing Francisco directly on the dais, “Really, you’re it.”
Tuesday’s council meeting had been billed by City Hall officials as the deadline for a vote on changes proposed to the General Plan. Divisions between councilmembers have mirrored those among longtime environmental and civic activists concerned about growth and development. Prior to Tuesday’s meeting there was little optimism anywhere that a deal could be had. But in the face of apparent intransigence between the dueling parties, a spirit of compromise seems to be breaking out.
Mr. Francisco, you’ve taken a lot of blood out of me, but I’ve got more to give.— Santa Barbara City Councilmember Das Williams, agreeing to meet one more time with Councilmembers Dale Francisco and Frank Hotchkiss to see if a compromise over housing densities can be worked out.
Two weeks ago, Francisco, Hotchkiss, and Williams met as an ad hoc subcommittee and came close to reaching accord, however tentatively and conceptually. (All agreed the existing rules encourage the proliferation of luxury condos, and that the rules should be changed to encourage smaller, more affordable, and less bulky developments. To the extent higher densities should be allowed, Francisco and Hotchkiss agreed they should be concentrated along Haley and Cota streets. In exchange, Williams agreed there should be no density increase throughout Santa Barbara’s historic downtown, and that certain neighborhoods might be eligible for a de facto down-zoning to keep future development densities in check.)
After that, a group of eight community organizations that have long been deeply divided over the issues of density, affordability, and neighborhood preservation got together and negotiated a compromise plan of their own. Over the years, the League of Women Voters and Citizens Planning Association have pushed hard for neighborhood preservation in the face of increased density; arguing just as hard for housing affordability — and increased densities — were groups like the Community Environmental Council, SBCAN, PUEBLO, and the Coastal Housing Coalition. Making this deal happen was Lee Anne French, the new executive director of Citizens Planning Association, who made the phone calls, convened the meetings, and invited the right representatives of the rival factions to the table.
Councilmembers and city planners were mixed in their response to details of the plan — some worried it would allow substantially bigger and bulkier developments — but all were impressed by the compromise. Williams called it “incredibly significant.” Whether that’s enough for the councilmembers to do the same remains to be seen. When Councilmember Francisco sought another meeting with the ad hoc subcommittee, Mayor Schneider expressed skepticism as to whether the extra time would be fruitfully spent. Williams all but accused Francisco of obstructionism. Francisco insisted, “This is not a delay tactic on my part,” but argued that after spending five years on the process, the end result would not be compromised if the council spent a bit more time to “get it right.” Councilmember Michael Self — who argued vehemently against much of the changes proposed for the general plan — responded to the “obstructionist” charge, stating, “If I stopped a bulldozer from mowing down your house, I’d be proud to be called an ‘obstructionist.’”
When a man knows he’s going to be hanged, it concentrates his mind wonderfully. — Councilmember Dale Francisco, paraphrasing Samuel Johnson, likening the end of the General Plan Update process with meeting the business end of a rope.
Self delivered a sprawling 49-point critique of the proposed changes to the General Plan, taking exception to language stating that plans should be guided in part by a desire to improve public health — code for a walking, clean-air, cycling, pedestrian-friendly city.
Schneider said she’d have a hard time budging on that. Hotchkiss had better luck with his 12-point critique and got many of his objections codified by the council, including language eliminating any possibility that parking meters might be installed downtown. That language, according to city planner Betty Weiss, had already been changed.
Later, Hotchkiss distributed edited versions of his critique to fellow councilmembers, warning them how much “fun” they’d have reading it over the weekend. “I already read it, and I was amazed,” retorted an uncharacteristically grumpy Councilmember Grant House. House is a strong supporter of alternate transportation strategies, and Hotchkiss, Self, and Francisco made clear they wanted as little as possible in the new General Plan supporting such strategies. It was at that that point Mayor Schneider declared “the cranky point” had been breached.