Height Fight Turns Personal

Councilmember Williams Likens Foes to "Darth Vader"

Bill Mahan (left), and Das Williams (right) during last year's short-lived compromise deal.
Paul Wellman (file)

The battle over proposed new building height restrictions got downright personal this week during a hearing by a Santa Barbara City Council subcommittee, when Councilmember Das Williams lashed out at supporters of a strict limit on the heights of new buildings both downtown and citywide. Complaining that activists with El Pueblo Viejo-the grass-roots group that collected more than 11,000 signatures to place the matter before city voters on this November’s ballot-kept changing their bottom-line bargaining posture, Williams charged, “Bargaining with you is like bargaining with Darth Vader, where the deal gets worse and worse and worse.”

Williams’s comments were most pointedly directed at former planning commissioner Bill Mahan, who spearheaded with almost evangelical passion the initiative to limit the height of new buildings downtown to no more than 40 feet, and the height of new buildings elsewhere throughout the city to 45 feet. Mahan left the council proceedings without responding, but afterward commented, “That’s right, we’ve changed. We’ve evolved. When we started this, we were rank amateurs. But based on what we’ve experienced and learned since starting, we’ve evolved. Das, it seems, has not.”

Far more than a testy exchange between Williams and Mahan is at issue. The debate underscores a seemingly irreconcilable split within the environmental community over how much growth should be allowed, what kind, where, and for whom. Lining up behind the ballot initiative are traditional slow-growth organizations like Citizens Planning Association, the League of Women Voters, and a host of well-established homeowner associations. Also in support are traffic activists worried that City Hall is determined-as part of its push toward so-called “smart growth” in the urban core-to make driving so inconvenient that all but the most intrepid motorists will abandon their cars for mass transit or bicycles.

In opposition to the height-limiting measure are developers and architects who fret that it would adversely affect their flexibility of design as well as their bottom line. Affordable housing advocates are concerned that reducing building heights from the current 60-foot maximum will also reduce the amount of new affordable housing that gets built: Developers will have less of the financial cushion that might otherwise allow them to include affordable units, the housing advocates reckon. The sustainable smart-growth crowd has expressed grave concern that lowering building heights will promote sprawl and, by limiting the intensity of development in the city, undermine the emergence of a more “walkable,” pedestrian-friendly downtown where mass transit can supplant the supremacy of the automobile.

Making this iteration of a long festering split even more dramatic are the identities of the two chief combatants: Mahan and Williams. Of all the elected officials on the Souith Coast, none have sought to embrace the conflicting impulses of the environmental movement as much as Williams has. Williams has consistently sought to embody both smart growth and slow growth principles throughout his years in office. Certainly, he’s voted against more development than any other member of the current council. But with the proposed new height limit, Williams’s ability to straddle the two has been put sorely to the test.

And Mahan makes for an intriguingly incongruous, born-again slow-growther. Mahan, an architect by profession, was largely regarded as a solid pro-growth vote when he sat on the Planning Commission. Even so, he was always quick to criticize proposed developments that violated his intuitive sense of what was right or wrong for Santa Barbara. Mahan voted in favor of all the large Chapala Street projects that critics contend will gobble up Santa Barbara’s prized and historic skyline, and which gave rise to Save El Pueblo Viejo’s current campaign to limit building heights.

About a year ago, Williams sought to engineer a compromise deal that would have kept the height limit off the ballot, meeting with Mahan to craft an alternative that would be acceptable to both the smart-growth and slow-growth camps. Williams, an ardent supporter of affordable housing, wanted language that would allow buildings to exceed the height limit if developers provided more affordable housing than they’re currently required to provide, as well as more open space. For a brief moment, it appeared that peace might break out. To much fanfare, Williams announced at a hastily arranged press conference in front of City Hall last summer that an historic accord had been brokered. But before the ink had dried, Mahan and the slow-growthers had disavowed the deal.

Under terms of the compromise, Mahan and his confederates with Save El Pueblo Viejo would pull the petition-which had not yet qualified for the City Council ballot-and in exchange the City Council would draft its own new height-limit charter amendment acceptable to both camps. But both sides worried they’d given away the store. The architects fully expected Mahan to cease gathering signatures to qualify the original Save El Pueblo Viejo initiative for the ballot; Mahan insisted the signature gathering was essential to keep City Hall honest in its effort to craft a compromise height limit. The architects cried foul. The deal was off.

Though that particular deal went sour, Mahan and other key strategists in his group, like Planning Commissioner Bendy White, recognized that a ballot-box initiative is a crude tool with which to craft a nuanced policy change. By holding the initiative as a gun to City Hall’s head, they initially had hoped to pressure the City Council into crafting a superior ordinance. While certain die-hards within their camp might not like this, they would.

For a while, the new plan was for the City Council to craft an ordinance of its own and place that on the November ballot to compete with the Save El Pueblo Viejo ballot initiative. The council’s measure would contain exceptions for affordability, setbacks, and open space. But Mahan and White have experienced a dramatic change of heart in recent months. They have disavowed any interest in considering a City Council alternative, arguing instead that the height limit proposed by Save El Pueblo Viejo should go to the people for a straight up or down vote. In part, this change of heart was guided by the perception that City Hall’s effort to craft a substitute was half-hearted and half-assed. And it became increasingly uncertain whether there was sufficient support for creating such a measure among City Council members themselves. In addition, Mahan and White were genuinely moved by the sheer number of signatures they’d collected.

Two weeks ago, members of the Planning Commission voiced opposition to the notion of a competing height limit ordinance by a vote of 6-1, and other advisory bodies within City Hall weighed in similarly. But a joint meeting of the Planning Commission and the City Council, Sheila Lodge-former mayor, ardent slow-growther, and current planning commissioner-suggested yet another alternative. Lodge suggested the council place “a supplemental measure” on the ballot in November that could refine the height limits of the Save El Pueblo Viejo initiative, should the initiative pass.

Going into last Tuesday’s meeting of the council’s Ordinance Committee, the big issue on the table was whether to support Lodge’s supplemental approach, or the competing-alternative approach-or do nothing at all.

Even though the supplemental approach had been suggested by one of their own, slow-growthers packed the chambers to oppose anything but a straight up-or-down vote. Anything else, they warned, would look like a carefully orchestrated ruse, designed at the behest of developers and other special interests intent on pillaging the city’s skyline, to thwart the political will of at least 11,000 voters. They also objected that the specific language that would have allowed exceptions to the 40-foot height limit was open for abuse and mischief in the hands of future councils. Exceptions would be allowed for developments deemed of “community benefit,” a term they argued was far too subjective and subject to interpretation.

But it was Mahan who really sought to lower the boom. Forty years ago this March, he noted, a majority of the City Council voted to approve two nine-story buildings at the site of the present Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens. Led by civic powerhouse and now patron saint of all things Santa Barbaran Pearl Chase, the community took to the ballot box in response, amending the city charter to allow the construction of no buildings downtown taller than 60 feet. By placing this restriction in the city charter-which functions with the equivalent authority of a constitution-Chase and city voters stripped that City Council and all future councils of the ability to approve anything taller than 60 feet. (At the time, the city already had a 60-foot height limit. However, that was established by ordinance-which can be changed by any given council on any given Tuesday-rather than by charter, which can be changed only by a vote of the people.)

“Now you want to take that power and give it back to future city councils,” Mahan warned. “And we don’t know who they’ll be.” Mahan read off the names of the four councilmembers who voted in favor of the nine-story towers-which never were built. Their names, he said, have been lost to history, but they were swept out of office in the next election and the effrontery of their action has neither been forgiven nor forgotten. “What is our legacy going to be?” he asked members of the Ordinance Committee. “That City Council, nobody can remember their names anymore.”

Other supporters of the Save El Pueblo Viejo initiative pled with the council not to sell out the city’s skylines to developers. This provoked Mickey Flacks, a longtime affordable housing advocate who strenuously opposes the initiative, to sarcastically identify herself “as a developer who profits by the destruction of Santa Barbara.” Flacks, who argued that voters need to be given a clear alternative come election, also hyperventilated slightly with her own rhetoric. “It is the future,” she intoned, “that’s at stake.” As an aside, Flacks noted that if 60 feet was good enough for Pearl Chase, that should be good enough for the rest of us. This, in turn, sparked a mini-debate about what precisely Pearl Chase thought. And this prompted Councilmember Williams to ask for documentation on the seances held in which Chase, dead nearly 40 years, expressed herself on the subject.

Jim Westby of Safe Streets for Santa Barbara argued that thanks to the economic recession, no new buildings would be darkening Santa Barbara’s skyline in the next few years anyway. Given that, he suggested that the council allow the Save El Pueblo Viejo initiative to go to the ballot box unencumbered by any alternatives or supplements. If in a few years problems emerged, he said, the council could then go to the voters with whatever amendments it saw fit. Councilmember Williams responded that he’d have no reason to trust the slow-growth community given how much their position had changed already.

Williams lamented the deep distrust that’s marked the debate and dismissed the tone of the discussion as “ridiculous. … When we are threatened with ignominy and obscurity for supporting the status quo, I just feel that it’s a little insulting. I never voted for these projects and we’re being accused by someone who supported all these projects,” he said, referring to Mahan. Williams strongly objected to being compared to the council members who 40 years ago supported the construction of the nine-story towers. “I can’t tell you how heart-wrenching it is to be told that, when I’ve been an ardent foe of unencumbered development and sprawl.”

Councilmember Grant House joined Williams in voting to place a ballot alternative before voters. Williams sought to “tighten up” the language allowing exceptions to projects deemed by future councils a “community priority,” but City Attorney Steve Wiley argued that it was all but impossible to further define and restrict language that is inherently subjective. The third member of the Ordinance Committee, Councilmember Dale Francisco, abstained, arguing against any substitute measures at all, terming the effort a waste of city staff time. The matter goes before the entire City Council on March 24, where its fate is highly uncertain.


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