An experimental eight-year plan to determine whether increased housing densities actually pave the way for significant improvements in affordability went before the City Council’s Ordinance Committee this Tuesday for its first legislative test drive. No action was taken as details of the complex plan were unveiled, poked, and prodded by members of the subcommittee, not to mention several of the planning commissioners who’ve spent the last five years hashing out the fine print.
As proposed, the new ordinance would allow greater housing densities with fewer building guidelines and would lapse after eight years or after 250 units of housing were built, whichever came first. The ordinance — which will apply downtown, along the Haley-Cota corridor, and near the La Cumbre mall — is seeking to encourage private developers to build more and smaller units, which presumably will be more affordable to Santa Barbara’s middle-class workforce. Likewise, the hope is to discourage developers from building pricey high-end condos. To this end, setback, parking, and open-space requirements will be substantially relaxed in service of flexibility and affordability.
This new approach generated bitter opposition as the council deliberated over changes to the city’s general plan two years ago. Neighborhood preservationists argued increased densities would destroy Santa Barbara’s character without providing the housing affordabilities promised. When no side could garner the five-vote supermajority needed to pass an updated general plan, Councilmember Dale Francisco proposed this limited experiment as a compromise. The Ordinance Committee will get first crack at the new rule, but the entire council should take up the issue late this summer.
At Tuesday’s meeting, affordable-housing developers and architects were generally supportive, though some argued even greater flexibilities were needed to give developers the necessary inducement. Planning Commissioner Sheila Lodge argued against a provision that would greatly reduce open-space requirements for new developments located within two blocks of a city park. Putting a few trees in pots on some third-story roof garden, she argued, was not nearly as beneficial as plants in the ground. “People with lesser incomes, they deserve decent surroundings as well as everyone else,” Lodge said. Lisa Plowman, a land-use agent and affordable-housing advocate, countered that two blocks was not too far for people to walk. “We need to be out and walking,” she said. “This country is getting fatter and fatter by the day.”