The new and improved expansion plans by Hillside House — a residential treatment center for the developmentally disabled on Veronica Springs Road — were not sufficiently new and improved from the old ones to win the hearts and minds of the City of Santa Barbara’s Planning Commission.
A majority of the commissioners expressed deep concern that the project — which calls for the development of 121 units of rental housing — remained too big for the surrounding neighborhood and that it would generate too much traffic for nearby Las Positas Road. The development scheme reviewed by the Planning Commission, in a six-hour public hearing Thursday afternoon, was strictly conceptual. Thus far, Hillside House and the Santa Barbara County Housing Authority (its partner) have not submitted a formal application.
Hillside House, a venerable player serving Santa Barbara’s developmentally disabled community since 1951, has been pushing various housing development schemes on its 24-acre site for many years now, arguing that the proceeds would generate the funds necessary to sustain operations there in perpetuity. First, Hillside House teamed up with Bermant Development and proposed a mix of 121 rental and for-sale housing units. The initial environmental analysis indicated this would generate so much additional traffic that congestion it would cause at the intersection of Cliff Drive and Las Positas Road was deemed a Class I negative impact, meaning it could not be mitigated. Since then, Bermant Development has disappeared from the picture to be replaced by the County Housing Authority.
These two are now proposing to build exclusively rental housing — a commodity City Hall is now taking pains to encourage. Of the 121 units, 10 will be occupied by Hillside House residents (six to a three-bedroom unit), 44 will be set aside for low-income tenants, and the remaining 67 units rented at whatever the market will bear.
About 35 people addressed the Planning Commission at Thursday’s hearing. Everyone spoke glowingly of Hillside House and its mission. Affordable and workforce housing advocates with SBCAN (Santa Barbara Community Action Network) came out in support of the development as proposed. But many of Hillside House’s neighbors expressed reservations about the proposal’s impact on Las Positas Road, and its size and density relative to the surrounding neighborhood. Most of the nearby homes are built one to an acre; the Hillside proposal is five per acre. Likewise, many expressed concern about locating so many rental units so far from existing transportation. MTD buses currently serve the area once an hour.
What remains uncertain is the extent to which the new plan, for rental units only, would generate less traffic and, if so, by an amount sufficient to make a difference. According to city planners, Hillside House is proposing fewer bedrooms than before even though the number of units is still the same. Because reliance on the automobile by low income renters tends to be less in Santa Barbara — for a number of reasons — project proponents hope this will help soften the traffic impacts associated with or caused by their project.
Moreover, developers say the traffic will only generate 0.01 second of delay at all intersections but one. That one would generate only 1.05 seconds. They also say that now that the city is taking control of Cliff Drive, there are plans to install a traffic signal at Cliff and Las Positas, and that might mitigate the otherwise unmitigateable Class I Impact.
Of the six commissioners present, one was impressed by the proposal on the table and five seemed more troubled by the project’s neighborhood compatibility and traffic-congestion issues. It was clear they wanted something smaller, scaled back, but it was far from clear by how much and what the sweet spot is, if it exists. They urged Hillside House to pursue an aggressive meet-and-greet outreach campaign with the neighbors. The developers had invited comments from surrounding residents, but to date, few have taken the initiative to respond. The commissioners suggested the developers needed to do more, such as hosting community meetings and forums.
Jurisdictionally, the development proposal has a less than clear-cut path. The land itself falls within the jurisdiction of Santa Barbara County, so technically, the county supervisors should have the last word. But because the land falls within the City of Santa Barbara’s sphere of influence, City Hall has insisted it have first bite at whatever apple the developers come up with. It now remains up to the developers to see how, if at all, they wish to reengineer that apple.