Change is here to stay: City planners (from left) Rob Dayton, John Ledbetter, and Bettie Weiss delivered a set of policies to guide the 2010 update of the City of Santa Barbara General Plan.
Paul Wellman

Santa Barbara City Councilmember Dale Francisco started the proceedings out with a bang on December 16 by trying to shoot holes in the new land-use blueprint lovingly crafted by the city’s planning staff and Planning Commission over the past two years. The set of policies is meant to guide the city’s development through the year 2030.

The council officially received the Plan Santa Barbara General Plan Update Framework: Draft Policy Preferences at a special December 11 meeting. The council also received public comment from about 30 speakers, who were pretty evenly divided between those who thought the policies didn’t do enough to house Santa Barbara’s workforce and those who thought it encouraged too much density at the expense of Santa Barbara’s historic charm. Most had been involved in the dozens of public workshops that helped inform staff’s drafting of the policies.

The draft policies use sustainability as the focus for updating the city’s general plan, identifying “equity, environment, and economy” as the fundamental principles of the city’s sustainability. Francisco, the most recently elected councilmember, cast the lone vote against the document and dismissed it as “utopian.” He took particular exception to the creation of “mobility oriented development areas,” (MODAs), a term from the planning vernacular that he repeatedly over-enunciated for the sake of derision.

The planning staff and Planning Commission envision the MODAs as high-density residential development areas located within a half mile of transit corridors-which would be friendly to cycles, taxis, and buses as well as private cars-connecting a series of nodes that would serve as transfer points and commercial centers. Car use would become optional. Dwellings would be more affordable, partly because they would be smaller and more densely packed, and partly because developers would not have to provide as many parking spaces. Indeed, some parking lots would be converted into car-share lots. Residents could walk to area restaurants, markets, dry-cleaners, and other community-serving businesses, and there would be plenty of parks or community gardens, all contributing to public health.

“Part of it reads like science fiction to me,” Francisco said, referring in particular to the suggestion that urban gardens would help Santa Barbara be self-reliant in case imported food supplies became scarce due to oil shortages. “We live in one of the richest agricultural districts in the world,” he said incredulously. “Sure, eventually we’ll run out of oil,” he said, “but we will find new ways to power cars.”

Primarily, however, Francisco objected to what he perceived to be a general attitude pervading the document that “cars are evil,” and he accused the staff of confusing land-use planning with “behavior modification.”

“I do think that’s an extreme interpretation,” responded Councilmember Helene Schneider. And Councilmember Grant House added that 25 percent of the city’s population didn’t have cars and that he represented them as well. They and the rest of the council generally praised the policies, though they had numerous suggestions for tweaking them-in some instances to make them even more idealistic. House wanted to add policy language addressing the “arc of life,” from infancy through death, so that, among other things, people would “not have to be displaced or warehoused : in their later years.” Along the same lines, Councilmember Roger Horton, noting that he was the former president of the Downtown Organization, called for targeting the education of youth to meet the needs of area businesses. Schneider asked that encouragement of the arts be included as critical to the city’s economic health.

The next step is for the Planning Commission to start determining the precise scope of an environmental impact report (EIR) on the policies. The EIR will also study the potential impacts-ranging from traffic congestion to water use-of four additional alternatives, representing different ratios of housing to commercial development.

Although several councilmembers spoke in favor of housing Santa Barbara’s workforce, none of the alternatives is expected to actually accomplish that within the planning period ending in 2030-not even the alternative calling for the greatest number of new housing units at the highest density. Planners predicted that their preferred draft policies, if fully realized in the long range, would add 7,000 new dwelling units, but the average daily number of commuters into the city at present is 15,000, according to the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments. However, councilmembers expressed hope that the policies could reconfigure housing in favor of the workforce and long-term residents who might otherwise be forced out, or into substandard conditions.


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