Alma del Pueblo developer Marge Cafarelli

Paul Wellman

Alma del Pueblo developer Marge Cafarelli

Rental Housing Project Survives Challenge

Village’ Trumps ‘Pueblo’ in Showdown Between Developers

Wednesday, October 30, 2013
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For years, it was the 11th Commandment among Santa Barbara developers that no one in their right mind would try building rental housing; they’d lose their shirts. But now, Bruce Corwin — one of the longtime owners of the Arlington Theater and Metropolitan Theaters chain — is threatening to do the impossible right downtown without the aid of any government subsidy.

By so doing, Corwin was challenged not just by a fellow developer but practically his next-door neighbor — Marge Cafarelli — who claimed Corwin’s proposed Arlington Village project violates City Hall rules and regulations regarding sound community planning and neighborhood compatibility. Ultimately, Cafarelli managed to get nowhere very slowly with the Santa Barbara City Council this Tuesday, which — after nearly four hours of deliberation — voted 6-to-1 to deny her appeal and let Corwin proceed with his plans to build a three-story, 33-unit apartment complex right next to the Arlington Theater.

That’s largely because both sides of Santa Barbara’s long-simmering debate over residential densities profess to support rental housing. But certainly it didn’t hurt the “Village” that the Corwins — although they live in Los Angeles — have been a major presence in Santa Barbara’s business and political life for more than 50 years. By contrast, Cafarelli — who is currently building a mixed-use project on the Victoria Street side of the Arlington dubbed Alma del Pueblo that offers million-dollar condos and indoor/outdoor market space — barely qualifies as a new-comer. Still, Cafarelli was roundly praised by all the councilmembers for identifying a serious weak spot in Corwin’s plans, one which Corwin’s agents had stubbornly insisted — until Cafarelli filed her appeal — simply could not be fixed.

Bruce Corwin, owner of the Arlington Theater and Metropolitan Theaters chain
Click to enlarge photo

Paul Wellman

Bruce Corwin, owner of the Arlington Theater and Metropolitan Theaters chain

Given that the Arlington Theater ranks among the Holy Trinity of Santa Barbara’s defining architectural gems — the other two being the courthouse and the mission — any effort to squeeze such different projects so cheek by jowl into its immediate orbit might have been destined to end in conflict. Initially, both the Corwins and Cafarelli were intent on pursuing complimentary condo projects. And they would share a driveway on Chapala Street. But as the bottom fell out of the condo market, the Corwins were persuaded to explore rental housing instead. Given that they’d owned the Arlington Theater since 1962, land costs would not be the prohibitive factor it is for so many developers.

Teaming up with architect Detty Peikert — a devotee of the “affordable by design” school of smart-growth thinking — the Corwins switched gears two years ago and submitted new plans. Not only would the Arlington Village offer rental units, but the development’s overall footprint would be smaller — the average unit size is 858 square feet — and priced to the less-than-luxury market of middle-income workers. But instead of putting all the parking underground — as the Corwins had planned when contemplating condos — Arlington Village would maintain a significant portion of street level parking.

Cafarelli, who spent nearly $4 million building underground parking for the Alma, was unhappy by this turnabout. She was especially troubled by the 55-foot trucks and buses — support transport for the bigger acts — that would continue to park in the Arlington lot competing with Alma residents for ingress and egress out of the shared Chapala Street driveway. City traffic engineers expressed similar concerns and pushed the Corwins to explore carving an additional exit onto Sola Street to prevent what looked like a foreseeable traffic nightmare from occurring. But consultants hired by the Corwins said it couldn’t be done.

Speaking to the City Council Tuesday, Cafarelli all but accused the Corwins of being cheap. If she could afford to build underground parking, then certainly the Corwins — who had owned the property for 51 years — had no excuses not to. She showed video snippets of Historic Landmarks Commission deliberations in which one commissioner — Bill LeVoie, well known for his salty judgments — complained that the Corwins proved unresponsive to suggestions because they were building rental housing. One critic sniped the Arlington Village was architecturally “ordinary.”

The big buses and trucks needed by the big acts currently descend upon the Arlington lot only about 12 times a year. What happens, Cafarelli demanded, if the Corwins were to sell to a new operator who booked more and bigger acts? And even Jack Johnson — famous as a relatively unadorned acoustic strummer — needed three big buses at his recent show, she noted. And in the snippets showed by Cafarelli, city traffic engineers described the truck management plans drawn up by the Corwins as “complicated.”

It was obvious, however, the minute Bruce Corwin opened his mouth that Cafarelli stood no chance. Where Cafarelli spoke staccato fast, Corwin was slow, measured, and confident. “We are very proud of our architecture,” he said. “The Arlington was going to be torn down until we stepped in and saved this glorious, glorious building. We love it. We love this city.” The Corwins, he said, could have cashed out by building condos, but Santa Barbara has a crying need for rental housing. “We made a decision to blaze a trail for others to follow,” he explained.

Joining Corwin was former mayor Hal Conklin, who said the eruption of State and Victoria streets as a cultural destination district — the new Ensemble Theater, the Granada, plans to remodel the art museum, a new downtown library entrance garden, Alma del Pueblo, and the Arlington Village — was the fruition of big dreams hatched by civic visionaries more than 20 years ago. Former Downtown Organization director Marshall Rose blessed the Arlington Village as did the head of the Santa Barbara Jewish Federation.

Shortly after Cafarelli appealed, the experts hired by the Corwins discovered that a Sola Street exit could work after all. Cafarelli suggested the Sola solution might not actually work because the driveway grade might cause the big rig vehicles to scrape bottom. Cafarelli had a handful of business owners expressing concern over the net loss of 86 surface parking spaces now rented out by downtown workers. City lots are nearly four times as expensive, they complained; where could they go?

That is a problem all the councilmembers agreed needed to be addressed. Why wasn’t the lot owned by the Parks and Recreation Department at the Louise Lowry Davis Center enlisted to create more parking opportunities, they all asked. The Granada Theater parking lot, it was pointed out, still has an abundance of empty stalls. Likewise, the councilmembers seemed resolved that the Historic Landmarks Commission and the Architectural Board of Review really weren’t the right venue for addressing the broader planning issues posed by such projects; the planning commission is.

Rental projects do not typically go to the planning commission, but if more rental developments are submitted in response to new city inducements or shifting market realities, that will change. At the end, Cafarelli was not given any consolation prize for her efforts, but she did receive lots of consolation. After councilmember Frank Hotchkiss heaped thanks on Cafarelli for improving the Corwins’ project, he concluded, “I don’t know if you can take any solace from that, but I offer it anyway.”


Independent Discussion Guidelines

We'll need to wait and see if this rental housing project proves to be financially viable Historically, that hasn't been the case. The only way to increase viability has been to remove much-needed parking. In this case, there will be parking for city employees that will now need to park elsewhere. Hopefully, the Sola St. entrance will help to reduce the traffic nightmare that's in the area's future.

Botany (anonymous profile)
October 30, 2013 at 8:58 a.m. (Suggest removal)

It does seem odd the Planning Commission wasn't involved in reviewing a project of this magnitude. But if the Jewish Federation and the Historic Landmarks Commission blessed Arlington Village, it must be bueno.

Seriously, we do need more rental stock. The vacancy rate has been very low during the recession. But if this area is to become a new "cultural arts" district with even more expensive restaurants and art galleries, it makes me miss Copeland's Sports and Come Fly a Kite even more.

EastBeach (anonymous profile)
October 30, 2013 at 9:12 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Would it be possible to just wait for a year or two?

How can anyone really KNOW how Alma del Pueblo will impact traffic and parking at this point?

Starting construction on Arlington Village AFTER there's a chance to evaluate what's working or not would help avoid some very long lasting results of unintentionally poor design.

What's the urgency to fill up this block all at once?

SBthinksso (anonymous profile)
October 30, 2013 at 10:16 a.m. (Suggest removal)

SBthinkso: Because Mr. Corwin owns the land, as he owns all the movie theaters in this town and many elsewhere - and what he says goes. He didn't want to wait longer (and he has been waiting to do this for a while.) Too bad he didn't choose an architect who does more interesting designs than the trademark and unimaginative Peikert stucco.

Very accurate story of yesterday's meeting --- except a better headline would have been "'Village' trumps 'Alma'". It was very clear once he began speaking that Corwin's smoothness, the longtime business owner who loves Santa Barbara so much he doesn't live here, would prevail over the sharp-elbowed San Franciscan, Cafarelli, who will live here part-time. It didn't hurt that Corwin hired Amerikaner to present his case and rounded up Conklin, Marshall Rose and other 'notables' to speak for him.

What was clear from the video clips is that it is a thankless job being on the HLC.

at_large (anonymous profile)
October 30, 2013 at 11:06 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Why does every planning entity for the City of Santa Barbara continue to under estimate the impacts of parking ?? There should be space to park 2 cars for every bedroom in each unit and 10% extra for guest parking. There should rarely be a need for street parking. That is NOT the case for any current or recent project.

mars (anonymous profile)
October 30, 2013 at 11:10 a.m. (Suggest removal)

When hasn't city rental stock been low. 40 years ago it was a joke if you read a for-rent ad in the paper, it was already rented. Unless you knew a tenant was leaving, you could never get to the head of the line.

Plus you never complained about the premises because that would bring an automatic rent increase so you laid low, stayed happy, fixed things yourself and were glad you got a roof over your head in town.

This was FORTY YEARS AGO. Proves you cannot build your way out of the rental problems in this town. Nor should we. One more area where the city needs to stay the heck out of the housing market. Their interference into the "affordable" condo market failed miserably for all concerned: except for white elephant lovers..

City have no business artificially depressing rents now too to destroy property values and the downtown business climate for their "feel-good" social engineering agenda. Almost like the city has a death wish; the same time city employees are clamoring for higher wages and benefits, the city is sticking a fork into the market economy and property values.

Egregious this was not reviewed by the Planning Commission. Thank you Dale Francisco for holding up your end of the bargain with city residents, where others failed. Rush-process cram downs are not good city planning principles regardless of some ersatz legal pass this project got.

Bendy White, ever the fool, claims the project is better for having gone through at least a minimal review process. Well, guess what that is why going through the full city review process is critical for projects as large and impacting as this one, so you do get the best project you can. Bendy again bent over and stayed clueless once more.

foofighter (anonymous profile)
October 30, 2013 at 12:06 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Marshall Rose and family owned businesses next to the Arlington Theater - Lou Rose, that Villager shop, etc. Any conflicts of interest here in his alleged "community" support?

However, driving the vagrants out of the back alleys around the Arlington Theater with any live-in project will be a good thing. Hard to know where to share priority loyalties.

The area needs revitalization. But it also does not need to be degraded out of existence with over-development and sweetheart deals masking as more "feel good" permanent Democratic voter concentration projects either.

foofighter (anonymous profile)
October 30, 2013 at 12:11 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Mars: The reason there is not space for two cars/unit is because the high density people, including Bendy, fought to have only one space, saying that that way the units could be built cheaper and therefore have lower rents. It's now part of the city zoning. When asked about what would happen if a couple had two cars, they shrugged. Obviously, the answer will be on street parking. Or paid garage parking for this development at approx. $150/month, not even chicken feed to Bendy et al but substantial to some renters.

This may not be a problem in this area since the Granada Garage remains not full most of the time. It is going to be a serious problem on Milpas, when they begin implementing higher density developments there. ...If you don't like it, then you know whom to vote for - or at least whom not to vote for: Landecker, Alley, White, Hart all favor high density housing with the one car/unit parking standard.

at_large (anonymous profile)
October 30, 2013 at 1:15 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Even worse when they put in enclosed garages for many of the new "affordable" condo units, people use them for storage (or illegal rentals) which increases on-street parking too. Reality has no bearing on planning decisions.

City refuses to enforce zoning regulations on either of these issues: using a car garage for storage of other than a car and illegal use of garages for human habitation rentals.

City planners are motivated only by some utopian, book learning agenda to force people out of cars. Instead city enforcement staff needs to force people out of using their garages to store things, instead of building even more of these micro, cram them in units with no on site storage available in them either.

Slum city, but if this results in "affordable by design" and "affordable by blight", nothing makes the city happier. God knows why. City staff will soon have to search high and wide for an economic turnaround or else it will be a lot longer than 3 years with no raises. You keep dumping on this city, and there will be nothing left to fleece.

For once, I am feeling sorry for Alma de Pueblo who had high hopes to turn things around. But the city kicked them in the teeth along with their own residents at the same time. For what, we keep having to ask this. For what?

City needs to get out of the housing business, because they are using it to carry out unproven social theories; and not responding to housing realities. This is just their scheme to increase the numbers of concentrated Democratic voters who will always vote for more handouts, as long as some one else keeps having to pay for this.

I can only hope there is a major change at city hall this election. And sanity can get back into the business of running this city before it is permanently ruined for everyone.

foofighter (anonymous profile)
October 30, 2013 at 10:13 p.m. (Suggest removal)

"At large" quoted Bendy White as saying, "that way the units could be built cheaper and therefore have lower rents..."

That isn't how it works. This is a market-rate project (no subsidies and rental price restrictions), which means that the owner is going to charge whatever the rental maket for such units will bear. It is the market that sets the rental price, not the cost of the building. The owner is under no compulsion to pass savings on to the customer (renter). Why do so many miss this principle?

So, "affordble by design"? Who says. What will the rental market price for nice units, no matter how small, be for a project in not only one of the most desired destinations in the world, but in its blossoming Cultural District? Take a guess.

joer43 (anonymous profile)
October 31, 2013 at 10:05 a.m. (Suggest removal)

We have had market based housing up until now, and where has it gotten us?

Many low-income people work in this area, are vitally needed in this area (who is going to do that work) but cannot afford to live here.

What is the solution?

I think the social-proven theory in this town, is that market-based reality has been a dismal failure. If wages were realistic, it would be a different story. The minimum wage has not kept up with inflation. McDonalds cannot afford to cover their workers for medical benefits, and have suggested some go on food stamps. Market-based economics only works when all things are equal. Wages are clearly not.

If workers are going to be paid subsistence wages, then you will get what is happening now - garages being converted into housing, etc, etc.


Think of other countries where wages are insufficient - homes made out of scrap metal, cardboard, etc.

tabatha (anonymous profile)
October 31, 2013 at 10:27 a.m. (Suggest removal)

No one is really vitally needed anywhere. That is the progressives first error when they socially plan to tell us what to do with our lives and private property.

The market finds the right balance between needs and supply. Intruding on this process only creates windfalls for the few at the expense of the many.

You cannot build your way to some amorphous social utopia using public money, that is obvious.

Nor should we even be trying. We have screwed up the demographics and economics of this community badly enough already. Just leave this town alone for a while. It will sort out on its own.

foofighter (anonymous profile)
October 31, 2013 at 11:13 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Tabatha, if you think the rest of the world lives in scrap metal and cardboard houses, you need to get out more. Please stop inflicting your cartoon views of the world on this discussion.

foofighter (anonymous profile)
October 31, 2013 at 11:15 a.m. (Suggest removal)

"And sanity can get back into the business of running this city before it is permanently ruined for everyone."
-- foofighter

That's another thing that's been going on for at least 40 years. If we do this or that the city will be ruined. RUINED, I tell you. It is a meaningless whine that is nearly detached from reality.

SezMe (anonymous profile)
November 1, 2013 at 1:16 a.m. (Suggest removal)

From the media today:

"City councils in the early 2000's "increased pension benefits by 50% which turned a $45 million budget surplus into a $280 million deficit."

Yes, one can call this the ruination of our city. When the city now has to dedicate over $200 million (and growing every year) its resources to those no longer working for the city, and deny those same limited resources to those that do work for us presently.

More importantly city revenues are now denied to fund fundamental services and infrastructure repair and maintenance for the benefit of all residents. Yes prior progressive city councils in the 2000's did leave this city in shambles. They spent our future; and the future has now arrived.

Dan Walters underscored these points in his Economic Forecast talk yesterday in town, also condemning decisions made by prior policy makers during this same period:

"Many policy makers also are unrealistic, believing there is an ascendent industry on the horizon and the economy will somehow heal itself in time, which is a risky presumption."

Prior progressive city councils, well-compromised by partisan litmus tests, city employee union campaign funds and endorsements took those risks with our city's future.

They lost and now we pay the price, while these same city council persons and mayor walk off with city pensions themselves we are now stuck with paying.

This sort of long-term incestuousness between special interests and progressive city council decisions, now that the bills are due and those decisions makers are now long gone, has ruined this town for now, and well into the future.

Just thought would like to know this, on the eve of an election that sees several of those same faces now asking for a second chance to do additional damage.

Due to past decision making primarily by the 2000 progressive era city councils, we now face well over $400 million in unfunded pension and infrastructure repair and maintenance obligations. Yet well over 80% of all city revenues currently go to present city staff salaries, paid days off, perks and benefits.

If finding ways now to pay off those massively growing unfunded liabilities is not "ruination", tell me a better term to use. Perhaps bankruptcy?

foofighter (anonymous profile)
November 1, 2013 at 8:42 a.m. (Suggest removal)

All of this new development around the Arlington is creating another Disneyland , not unlike the rest of the Chapala corridor.
It's become so gentrified, not usable for moral Santa Barbaran's. More divide in the divided class.
Chapala One is being redone before it's ever been used. Such failure and risk in a tenuous climate. These approvals that have moved on are irresponsible and greedy. Since the redevelopment money stream dried up, they now look for the old cash cow.
I't a failed equation. Time to vote out the council and Mayor.

easternpacific (anonymous profile)
November 1, 2013 at 9:15 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Mortal, not moral

easternpacific (anonymous profile)
November 1, 2013 at 9:16 a.m. (Suggest removal)

The city council election may end up being a referendum on stuff like this. Party affiliation will likely not be translated into votes in local elections like this one. (which is supposed to be non-partisan anyway) Issues like density, traffic and parking hit much closer to home than the national issues do.

Botany (anonymous profile)
November 1, 2013 at 9:23 a.m. (Suggest removal)

easternpacific, moral works also, as in Santa Barbarans whose morals prevent them from accepting anything new and wanting to stagnate Santa Barbara.

discoboy (anonymous profile)
November 1, 2013 at 9:36 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Never overlook the election day shock troops the local Democratic Party machine (aka public employee unions) deploys using our very own police and fire personnel, off duty of course, to make sure their favored candidates win.

The employee unions hate having to negotiate their employment contracts with people they have not previously showered with campaign cash and endorsements. They have more of a direct stake getting their "friends" elected, than anyone else who shows up at the polls.

Except we residents and taxpayers, who keep getting the short end of this very unholy alliance.

foofighter (anonymous profile)
November 1, 2013 at 11:55 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Public employees are voters, taxpayers and resident/citizens as well. They too are impacted by crumbling infrastructure and starved schools. Even if you were successful on privatizing everything you'd still need the workers for labor and consumption. And they'll still demand better decent compensation plus they'd be able to go on strike.

Some people like to try and dehumanize public employees as some enigmatic alien force when the aliens are all in their heads.

Public employees are your neighbors, they are the people who stop your home from burning, they are the people who shop in your stores. They are the people who keep this DisneyLand going.

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
November 1, 2013 at 12:09 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Public employees are our good neighbors, but the unions aren't. The public employee unions are parasites that gouge both the employee and the taxpayer. They buy the politicians to curry their favor at the expense of the taxpayer. Public service employment is a noble cause. Public employee unions are the scum of the earth and are parasites on our society.

Botany (anonymous profile)
November 1, 2013 at 12:17 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Sure union members are people and residents and taxpayers and voters. We know that.

It is when that same person also wears the hat of a union member or a union boss later during collective bargaining contract negotiations with the city, that this dual role as a private citizen and a materially interested party becomes ethically confused.

When public employees contribute to union PACs and the union PACs endorse and fund certain candidates they have already scrupulously vetted for their "cooperation" to the union goals, is when we have a very unholy alliance.

All perfectly legal, but voters need to ask themselves why do public liabilities keep going up, and public services keep going down. Why do we keep getting the same old, same old no matter who we vote for.

If you keep voting for city employee union friendly candidates, you will continue to get the same old same old cronyism that has put this city into such and unsustainable fiscal mess.

Look for candidates who can bargain fairly and at arms length with city employees which is the way it should be.

Most of all look for candidates you best feel have the seasoned experience and courage to say no, look the crowds of city employees in the eye and convince them a balanced budgets are far better for them in the long run than these decades of unfunded promises made by union-friendly council persons in the past.

We have duties to residents, employees and the city infra-structure. The balance sheet cannot always be settled in only in the favor of the city employees, term after term. But this is what you will keep getting if you keep electing and re-electing candidates who were willing to compromise themselves upfront in return for city employee union cash and endorsements.

Be that Police POA, Fire or SEIU. Which candidate can take their money and then also seriously reform city employee compensation at the same time. Which candidate has the courage up front to not want their money because they understand what a conflict of interests this imposes upon them. Lesley Wiscomb is on record for doing just that.

Frank Hotchkiss is on record supporting more police on our streets and gained the POA endorsement the last time he ran. Yet did not get POA endorsement this time, even though he was strongly instrumental in getting more police hired.

But Hotchkiss also wants to balance our budget, so the POA withdrew their prior support for him and went searching for greener pastures for their own union self-interests; not for us at large.

Local Politics 101.

foofighter (anonymous profile)
November 1, 2013 at 3:35 p.m. (Suggest removal)

A lot of well-intentioned (and some not so) like to hold up New York City as an example of the "horrors of density". Yet the least populated areas of NYC have the most crime and blight.

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
November 11, 2013 at 5:11 p.m. (Suggest removal)

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