Two nearly life-size crucifixes sprout off the walls of the Holy Cross parish auditorium, located at the heart of Santa Barbara’s Mesa neighborhood, and developer Ed St. George might well have thought he’d been nailed to one himself after a roomful of unruly, rambunctious, and decidedly dubious Mesa residents got through expressing their many doubts about his intentions late Monday evening. But St. George, 59, was hardly fazed. “I get the emotion,” he declared. “I love it.”
In person, St. George has almost as much self-confidence as he does money, which is to say a lot. During his 30 years as a big-time Isla Vista landlord, St. George managed to make enough to pay $34 million in cash to buy a cluster of seven apartment buildings last year at the intersection of Cliff Drive and Loma Alta Street on the Mesa. Now he wants to convert this holding — located on seven acres wedged between the east and west campuses of Santa Barbara City College — into a self-contained dorm community capable of housing up to 1,500 students. By contrast, less than one-third that number now occupy the 97 units that compose St. George’s recently refurbished Beach City, a much spruced-up incarnation of what had long been the accessibly dumpy Harbor Heights Apartments.
In their place, St. George hopes to create a legacy project he calls “Playa Mariposa” — Spanish for “Butterfly Beach” — which he described as “full service, high amenity, live-learn student housing.” In addition to the pods and clusters of dorm rooms, St. George is proposing to build a dining hall, café, mini mart, fitness center, playroom, and movie theater. Tenants will not be allowed to own cars, but their transportation needs will be served by Zipcars, ride shares, and bike shares.
The complex will feature its own quasi-judicial system to handle noncompliant behavior issues. The plans — still very much on the drawing boards — boast inclusion of two new roundabouts designed to slow traffic on Cliff Drive while creating far more hospitable entrances into the City College campuses. All this, St. George estimates, will cost about $100 million to build. And, yes, he acknowledged, he stands to make gobs of dough. But really, he insisted, it’s all about “creating a sense of community” among new generations of students who’ve come of age knowing nothing but their cyber cocoons. The need, he said, is urgent.
Not buying any of it is longtime Loma Alta Street resident Sue Mellor. She described St. George as “a good-looking dude” and “utterly charming.” She also said he was “utterly unconvincing.” Mellor is leading the backlash against St. George and took her case to the Mesa Neighborhood Association Monday night, drawing a packed house.
City College has already grown too big for the neighborhood, Mellor charged, drawing students from out of state and around the world. Too often, she complained, she is woken up at 2 a.m. by the howling hilarity of drunken students winding their way up Loma Alta Drive. Her mailbox has been smashed. Since St. George bought Harbor Heights, she said, the problem has not gotten better. By adding 1,000 more students away from home for the very first time, it would get only worse. St. George, she charged, would create an Isla Vista annex on the Mesa. Based on many of the comments from the crowd — many delivered by way of interruption and catcall — Mellor is far from alone in her fears.
Also in the audience was City College President, Lori Gaskin, who, when asked to respond to several questions, proved almost as fervent about her sense of mission as St. George was in his. Contrary to popular misconception, she stated, City College enrollments have dropped 7.5 percent in the past five years and plunged another 5.5 percent this year. City colleges, she stated, are legally required to accept any applications from state residents; 63 percent of the school’s current enrollment — nearly 13,000 — hailed from the tri counties; 43 percent of high school graduates from Santa Barbara, Goleta, and Carpinteria attended City College.
But under hostile questioning, it would turn out that figure translated to about 800 students. By contrast, roughly 1,400 are international students, and another 1,200 come from out of state. With such figures in mind, more than one member of the crowd would demand, “Who are we serving?”
For St. George, the answer is simple. The students, he said, are already here. They need housing. Many will find their way into what he described as “Animal Houses,” home to six to 10 unsupervised students crowding into single-family homes and disturbing the peace throughout the Mesa. Or, he said, they could find supervised housing in his Playa Mariposa. “Let me finish, let me finish, let me finish,” he said in response to multiple critical interruptions. He praised the crowd’s intensity, adding, “I’m here. I’m listening.” When it’s over, he promised, “I want something to be under the tree for everybody.”
To date, no plans have been submitted to City Hall for review. That’s expected to take place early next year. To accommodate St. George’s proposal, the City Council must first approve a zoning change, a new conditional-use permit, and a coastal development permit. The California Coastal Commission has to sign off on it, as well.