Right Place Wrong Size

New Downtown Transit Village Plan Draws Praise, Scorn

by Nick Welsh

MTD.jpgA classic cautionary tale played out at this
week’s Santa Barbara City Council meeting, where a cadre of Los
Angeles consultants gave city councilmembers reason to be careful
what they wish for. Several months ago, the councilmembers
enthusiastically announced their plans to dramatically reinvent the
Metropolitan Transit District’s (MTD) downtown bus depot, adding
room for more buses, affordable housing, shops, offices, and maybe
a new downtown park and day care center.

On February 27, the consultants hired by City Hall to conduct a
feasibility study of this wish list unveiled six alternative
development scenarios that left most councilmembers stunned and
reaching for adjectives to hurl. The plans ranged from big to
bigger to biggest, leaving the council — and MTD boardmembers who
met jointly with them — only to wonder about the feasibility of
less intensive and intrusive options.

All sketches showed most of the block bounded by Chapala,
Carrillo, State, and Figueroa streets engulfed by a four-story mix
of bus bays, a transit center, shops, and housing units. Four of
the six alternatives also involved building two levels of
underground parking. The smallest plan involved 124 housing
units — a mix of affordable rentals and market-rate units for
sale — and required a subsidy of $18 million. The most
ambitious — which also incorporated the space now occupied by the
adjoining Greyhound bus station — included 176 housing units and
required a $29 million subsidy.

Of all the councilmembers, Das Williams was the most
enthusiastic, urging his colleagues “to have some courage,” and
arguing, “If we don’t build a significant degree of housing in
downtown that’s affordable, it can’t happen anywhere.” But even
Williams blanched at the sketches, warning that if they were shown
outside council chambers, “We’ll get burned in effigy.”
Councilmember Brian Barnwell stated bluntly, “It’s not only too
dense; the building is too large for its mass, and it has too many
units in it.” Roger Horton agreed, saying, “I’m particularly
concerned the size, bulk, and scale are just terrible here.” And
Councilmember Helene Schneider suggested that sexpot Mae West’s
adage “Too much of a good thing is wonderful” definitely did not
apply in this case. A strong proponent of affordable housing,
Schneider admitted, “What I saw here today turned me off. If I saw
this for the first time, I’d be very scared of it.” She also asked
why the consultants did not include market-rate rental housing in
their fiscal analysis.

Councilmember Iya Falcone and Mayor Marty Blum both expressed
concern that the consultants suggested ways to physically segregate
occupants of affordable housing from occupants of market units.
Falcone, like several others, offered no enthusiasm for including
market-rate units at all. But Councilmember Grant House said
including such units would help underwrite the costs of the
affordable units.

MTD boardmembers were glad that most of the plans included 16
new bus bays. (Currently, the depot has only four.) They were also
happy — as were the councilmembers — that the consultants concluded
the only feasible location for the transit center was where it
already is and that the Amtrak depot was too small and
inconvenient. But Tom Williams of the Downtown Parking Committee
charged the consultants did not include nearly enough parking to
accommodate the proposed housing and shop space. City guidelines,
which formerly called for two parking spaces per unit, have
recently been reduced to one per unit. In at least one alternative,
the consultants suggested requiring 0.6 of a space per unit. “I’d
like to see someone park 0.6 of a car,” Williams declared, adding,
“My concern is real-world parking, not wished-for parking or
mythical parking or any other kind of parking.”

MTD boardmember Brian Fahnestock shot back, “I hope we build
this in the ‘real world’ of today, not the ‘real world’ of the
1950s. It needs to have solar panels and to accommodate alternate
transit of the future.” He was echoed by MTD’s Logan Green, who
recalled that the proposed new development had been dubbed “the
anti-parking lot” by former city planning czar Dave Davis, now an
MTD boardmember. Davis tried to soften his previous rhetoric,
suggesting the tag “mobility center” instead.

Regardless of nomenclature, Davis cautioned the proposals tried
to do too much at the expense of future transit functions. He
objected that the consultants did not include space for a
car-sharing operation, a bike station, or a new day care facility.
City Hall hopes to circulate a request for another proposal
sometime early this summer.


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