Bittersweet Victory

St. Francis Housing Project Approved Amid Council Charges of

by Nick Welsh

Victory has rarely left so bitter an aftertaste as it did for
Cottage Health System at last week’s City Council meeting. Though
the Santa Barbara City Council overwhelmingly approved Cottage’s
long-simmering plans to build 115 workforce condos — 81 at
substantially below-market rates — on the site of the former St.
Francis Hospital, Councilmember Brian Barnwell castigated Cottage
administrators for what he described as their high-handed and
unilateral approach. “The Cottage board is really lucky that this
council is not as arrogant as they are,” said Barnwell, who was one
of the proposal’s most enthusiastic boosters. “I think the
neighbors were correct. There was an arrogance associated with

Barnwell’s anger stemmed from Cottage’s steadfast refusal to
commit to including solar panels on the condos — or even to look
into the feasibility of solar power — as a condition of approval.
In fact, shortly before last Tuesday’s meeting, the Cottage board
of directors voted to withdraw their application and sell off the
land if the council voted to include any new solar-based
conditions. When notified of the Cottage ultimatum at last
Tuesday’s meeting, Councilmember Das Williams commented, “That’s
some serious hardball.”

Barnwell — whom Williams described as such a “cheerleader” for
the project that he all but carried pom-poms — has become urgently
concerned about global warming in recent months, sparking him to
push Cottage to include solar panels on the condo roofs. From the
start, Cottage officials refused, charging Barnwell’s request was
“a late hit” at the tail end of a three-year process and would cost
$2 million. If Cottage employees were socked for that added
cost — which translates to $15,000 per unit or $100 a month — they
warned fewer hospital workers would be able to meet the city’s
affordability guidelines. And if Cottage paid the cost out of its
well-endowed foundation, they said, less money would be available
for health care.

Responding to Barnwell’s rebuke, Cottage CEO Ron Werft denied
charges of institutional arrogance, insisting that Cottage had
consistently acted according to its “core values of excellence,
integrity, and compassion” in dealing with the council and the
neighbors who live near the St. Francis site. “The only thing we
did differently,” Werft said, “was we didn’t play the game.” By
“the game,” Werft meant that Cottage did not initially propose more
development than it intended so that it could make a show of making
concessions later. While Councilmembers Helene Schneider and
Williams — the only one who voted against the project — sounded
concerns similar to Barnwell’s, Mayor Marty Blum sought to distance
herself from such sentiments. “You need to know we don’t all feel
the same way,” Blum told Werft. Ironically, since last week’s
meeting, Cottage officials have been in contact with the Community
Environmental Council to discuss the feasibility of installing some
solar panels.

Despite his concerns, Barnwell and four other councilmembers
took pains to praise the St. Francis project for providing
desperately needed affordable housing for Cottage’s employees.
Opponents of the project — led by activists with the Bungalow Haven
Neighborhood Association — gained little traction with the council
in arguing that the project should be scaled back in size and the
St. Francis building should be considered for historic
preservation. These activists complained that the Environmental
Impact Report — which found preservation unfeasible — was
compromised because the consultant who did the work is married to a
Cottage physician. City Attorney Steve Wiley has advised that this
relationship falls considerably short of a legal conflict of
interest, though the neighborhood critics’ own ethicist argued it
constitutes a breach of public trust nonetheless. Some
councilmembers, like Iya Falcone, chastised neighborhood critics
for leveling such a personal attack; others, like Williams and
Barnwell, suggested Cottage would have been well advised to hire
someone else.

Critics also argued the St. Francis building should be retained
and redeveloped into housing. Not only would such adaptive reuse be
environmentally conscious, they argued, but it would limit the size
of the project to something more in keeping with the surrounding
neighborhoods. No councilmembers expressed much interest in
adaptive reuse, however, arguing that the existing building — four
stories high in places — creates a huge wall blocking views to and
from the Riviera. Cottage officials rejected adaptive reuse as
well, claiming their employees were not interested.

Neighborhood critics are still deliberating whether to sue to
block the council’s approval. If they do, they will argue that City
Hall, in its eagerness to approve one of the biggest privately
financed affordable housing proposals in decades, failed to subject
the St. Francis proposal to the environmental scrutiny state law


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