Let the Height Wars Begin

Signatures Submitted to Limit Buildings to 40 Feet in Downtown SB

Now it’s official: Former city planning commissioner Bill Mahan launched the first blow in what will soon evolve into the main event in the Santa Barbara height wars. He delivered a packet of petitions early Friday morning, August 15, signed by 11,252 people who want to limit all new buildings going up in downtown Santa Barbara to no more than 40 feet, and to limit structures elsewhere in the city to a maximum of 45 feet. The current height maximum for downtown-El Pueblo Viejo–is 60 feet.

If the city clerk determines that at least 6,480 of those signatures were signed by registered voters in the City of
Santa Barbara, then the proposal will be slated-as a charter amendment–for next year’s November elections.

In the meantime, it’s expected that the City Council will craft a new and less restrictive height limit-one more flexible, for example, for affordable housing proposals-and place that on next November’s ballot as well. In that instance, whichever measure garners the most votes will prevail.

Mahan and Planning Commissioner Bendy White in front of the 60-foot tall Chapala One building, which started the whole fight.
Paul Wellman

Standing outside City Hall, Mahan warned that downtown Santa Barbara stood in peril of losing its historic charm and character to the proliferation of big buildings he said were ready to leap off the drawing boards and into reality. “It’s not just a couple of big buildings,” Mahan said. “but more big buildings and more big buildings and more big buildings. They’re coming.” Mahan makes for an unlikely, if intriguing, Jeremiah in this debate. During his long tenure on the city’s planning commission, Mahan-an architect by training and profession-frequently asserted himself as the architectural equivalent of a pitch pipe for what constitutes the Santa Barbara scale and style. In this role, he was quite effective. But at the same time, he was regarded as one of the more consistently pro-development votes on the commission.

In fact, Mahan voted for the two controversial Chapala Street developments that have since galvanized broader community interest in lower height limits. (Mahan says now that commissioners were not given adequate tools and staff support to say no to projects, especially those that have been under environmental and design review for some time.) Since leaving the commission a year ago, Mahan has been seized by the need for lower height limits and was worked with the feverish intensity of a religious convert.

Mahan may be very much the man-on-a-mission, but he’s hardly alone. Joining him Friday were Mayor Marty Blum, City Councilmember Dale Francisco, and Planning Commissioner Harwood White. Also present to lender her support was former mayor Sheila Lodge, who said that Harriet Miller, the mayor immediately preceding Blum, supported the initiative as well. One-time planning commissionerand now head of the Allied Neighborhood Association-Judy Orias endorsed the measure, as did representatives from Citizens Planning Association, Santa Barbarans for Safe Streets, the League of Women Voters, and a smattering of prominent neighborhood preservationists, mostly from the upper East Side.

Former mayor Sheila Lodge prefers shorter buildings, smaller rooms, and interior gardens such as those at Casa de Los Fuentes, affordable housing for downtown workers.
Paul Wellman

Former mayor Lodge argued the building height issue was as much about economics as aesthetics. Most money comes to Santa Barbara though retirees who move here, she said, tourists who visit, or high-tech companies who locate here. “They all choose to be here,” Lodge said. “We need it [the initiative] to preserve our economy. It keeps us different.”

Opposing the proposed new height limit have been Santa Barbara’s architects, affordable housing advocates, developers, and green building advocates who contend that bigger buildings are more sustainable, especially from an energy consumption standpoint. They argue that the height limit would discourage developers from putting affordable units into their mixed-use development plans.

Mahan takes issue with the notion that affordable projects can’t co-exist with 40-foot and 45-foot limits. He insists that developers can still build four-story structures, but no longer can they include such opulent extravagances as 14-foot ceiling heights. He recalled raising a family out in Goleta where everyone had eight-foot ceiling heights. “And we did OK,” he said. Limiting the heights, he argued, would compel developers to build smaller units-as opposed to the expansive and expensive studios now being processed by city planners.

Longtime affordable housing advocate Mickey Flacks isn’t buying it. “Nobody will want to live there,” she said. “People want 10-feet ceilings.” Likewise, she contended, developers would maximize their returns by building luxury three-story units within the 40-foot height limit Mahan is proposing. Flacks’s fears seem to be borne out by the changes already made by the Orange County developers proposing a new mixed-use project at the older strip mall near De la Vina and Carrillo streets. In that instance, the developers reduced the proposed height of their development to comply with the petitioned-for limit, under the assumption that the initiative will pass. But jettisoned from the plans were the affordable units initially proposed.

If Mahan has enough signatures-and Flacks suggested that he might not, because he hired signature gatherers who, paid per name, are not fussy about who they sign up-it’s likely that the City Council will put a competing measure on the November ballot. This interim measure, coming before the city’s ordinance committee on Tuesday, August 19, would call for a 45-foot height limit throughout the entire city. It would also deal with other factors that affect a building’s visual impact, like set-back requirements and open space, and contain exceptions that would enable taller buildings under certain conditions. “If the courthouse were to get knocked down in an earthquake,” Flacks said of the Mahan proposal, “we couldn’t build it back up again. What Mahan’s proposing wouldn’t allow that. There are no exceptions. Likewise, the Cottage Hospital remodel could never get approved.”

Privately, some of the people who accompanied Mahan to City Hall Friday morning admitted to preferring the interim ordinance the council is now working on to the charter amendment they’ve put forward. “It’s like using a scalpel instead of a ball-peen hammer,” said one. If the council does place a competing measure on next November’s ballot, the unity of the coalition now backing the new 40-foot height limit would be sorely tested.

Bill Mahan (left), leader of the Save El Pueblo Viejo petition drive, was the spokesperson for a short-lived compromise orchestrated by Councilmember Das Williams (right).
Paul Wellman

In fact, Mahan himself seemed eager to embrace the provisions of the so-called interim ordinance earlier this spring, when he held a much publicized press conference declaring that a historic accord had been struck between Santa Barbara’s strict slow-growthers and the so-called smart-growthers who dislike the height restriction. Before the ink was dry, however, the terms of that peace treaty-brokered by council member Das Williams–had been publicly disowned and disavowed by Mahan. His supporters from the Citizens Planning Association and the League of Women Voters had not participated in the discussions, and they objected that Mahan should have consulted with them first. The deal was dead on arrival.

Neither of the two members of the current council now preparing to run for Mayor next November-Iya Falcone and Helene Schneider-has embraced the initiative as proposed. Falcone said she’s mindful that traditional strategies to achieve affordable housing have generated building densities and heights that are making some in the community very nervous, but said she did not sign the petition. “I think a more complete conversation needs to be had in which we look at all the factors, like set-backs-not just building height. I am looking forward to having that conversation with the interim ordinance and the general plan update.” Schneider was out of town and not available for comment.


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