Kicking General Plan’s Can

It remains to be seen whether any changes to the City of Santa Barbara’s General Plan is capable of garnering the five votes needed for passage, but the City Council voted to keep trying for at least another three months and to hash out the well-publicized differences between so-called “smart growthers” and “slow growthers” in subcommittee. Failing resolution, City Hall will have spent $3 million and about five years on a comprehensive planning exercise as fruitless as it’s been exhausting.

At issue are competing visions of what the city’s development future should be. The smart-growth contingent — Mayor Helene Schneider and Councilmembers Grant House and Bendy White — wants to change the zoning rules to discourage the development of overpriced and oversized condominiums and to instead encourage the development of smaller and less expensive units. To accomplish this, however, they are pushing for increased zoning densities in certain areas of town: downtown, the Haley-Cota corridor, Milpas Street, and near La Cumbre Plaza.

The slow growthers — Counciilmembers Dale Francisco, Michael Self, and Frank Hotchkiss — worry that increased densities will ruin the city’s historic charm and fail to provide the affordable housing promised.

Playing man-in-the-middle is new Councilmember Randy Rowse, who weighed in on the hotly debated issue for the first time Tuesday. Rowse expressed skepticism that downtown workers are paid enough to afford even the sub-market prices — $500,000 to $600,000 — that the increased densities might allow. He also expressed doubt that rental housing could ever be the solution to housing affordability that the slow growthers argue it is; developers, Rowse noted, simply do not build rental housing. He cautioned against allowing too much density along the Milpas corridor, saying such development might mar views of the Riviera and the mountains. But no matter which way Rowse eventually tilts, five votes will be required, not just four. Francisco’s proposed compromise is to allow a few experimental high-density developments to proceed according to smart-growth precepts and then determine their impact on the community.

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