“Can’t Get There From Here”
Dueling Over Density Continues; No End in Sight
For the past 18 months, members of the Santa Barbara planning commission have been wrestling with various schemes to encourage high-density affordable housing in mixed-use developments built along existing transit lines and within a quarter of a mile jobs. The underlying notion is simple: By creating homes close to work, people might be reasonably able to walk, bicycle, or take the bus to work – anything but drive their cars.
The underlying motivation behind this push is both pragmatic and utopian. As to the former, congestion has already rendered 13 of the city’s main intersections severely sub-standard. In the next 20 years, city traffic engineers project that number could jump to 29. With the cost of road expansion prohibitive, traffic planners have concluded it’s far cheaper and quicker to change commuting habits. As to idealistic motivations, many activists and planners contend that automotive-based planning has spawned sprawl, pollution, and a sense of social fragmentation that’s neither healthy nor sustainable. But based on the contentious response to these plans at last Thursday’s three-hour planning commission discussion, it quickly became apparent that whatever path the commissioners might embark upon, they won’t be able to get there from here. At least not easily. Density remains very much a four-letter word in the minds of many South Coast planning activists, slow-growthers, and nimbies. The divide between the traditional slow-growthers – as represented by the Citizens Planning Association – and the so-called “smart-growthers” – as manifested by younger activists associated with the Community Environmental Council – is clearly generational in nature. Distrust is mutual, motives suspect, and there was scant evidence to suggest reconciliation of any kind is imminent.
On the table Thursday was the new acronym, MODA (Mobility Oriented Development Area). The idea is to establish pockets of high-density mixed-use development throughout the city in commercially zoned areas so that the new development will not encroach upon the character and personality of existing neighborhoods. These MODAs would be built close to transit lines and close to employment centers. One prospective location described as a “no brainer” for a MODA was La Cumbre Plaza.
As part of the MODA concept, City Hall would have to seriously relax – “decouple” is the term favored by city planners – its current parking requirements. By eliminating the space developers must set aside for parking – roughly 300 square feet per parking space – the cost of land would presumably be reduced. And with a decent public transit system in place, cars will become optional and not necessities. That, at least, is the theory.
Another key phrase used in current MODA discussions is “affordable by design.” By limiting the size of new residential units, city planners are hoping to discourage the recent proliferation of high-priced luxury condos. Through a mix of incentives and prohibitions, MODA advocates are hoping to encourage the development of smaller, less grandiose units, that would be – by dint of their more modest size – be affordable to nurses, firefighters, and others deemed to be part of the city’s critical workforce.
The $64 million question, of course, is who will build such nodules of new urban design, which are still a bit futuristic by Santa Barbara standards. Even more pressing is whether such developments can pay for themselves or compete economically with more traditional configurations. To resolve this issue, City Hall hired private consultants to figure out at what density private developers can manage to make money and build enough below-market housing to put meaningful a dent in Santa Barbara’s expensive housing market. Typically, Santa Barbara developers subsidize the cost of their “affordable” units with the gains they earn on high-end housing. Three weeks ago, the consultants released a report concluding that developers need to build at least 60 units per acre. That’s much more than existing zoning allows in most places throughout the city. This conclusion inflamed traditional slow-growthers to no end, many of whom have spent the better part of their adult lives battling development proposals they deemed inconsistent with the city’s small town character and charm.
In fact, much of last Thursday’s public comment was spent trashing the 60-units-per-acre figure, the assumptions underlying it (such as a 15 percent profit rate), and the motives of the consultants themselves. Longtime civic activist Lee Moldaver likened that rate of return to the enticements offered by billion-dollar bunko artist Bernie Madoff to lure prospective investors. An agent for La Cumbre Plaza cautioned the commissioner that the mall’s ownership structure would render any plan to make it a MODA exceptionally difficult. Architect Gil Berry provided a detailed critique of the assumptions underlying the 60-unit per acre thesis – the consultants assumed unreasonably astronomic land prices, he claimed, when cheaper real estate could be had – and concluded that densities of 22 units per acre could suffice. Also called into serious question was the ability of the Metropolitan Transit District (MTD) to provide the frequency and reliability of bus service needed for any prospective MODA plans to succeed. Looking at a map of proposed MODAs, Moldaver – who served on the MTD board for many years – commented, “If you approved everything on the table, it’s totally beyond MTD’s capacity to accommodate it.”
Critics of the MODA approach also worry that if the new “de-coupled” units are not required to provide adequate parking as part of a strategy to bring the cost of development down, then MODA residents and their visitors will park on public streets, creating a whole new planning nightmare. Mostly, they expressed profound skepticism with the basic formula by which such developments would be financed: allowing the development of luxury housing that the community does not need in order to underwrite the below-market units, which everyone agrees the community does need. While most members of the Planning Commission conceptually bought into the MODA approach, commissioner Sheila Lodge remained skeptical. “It’s a no-win game,” she declared. “If we build 60 market rate units to get 40 affordable ones, those 60 units will create 180 new jobs.” By that reckoning, any advantage created by the high-density MODAs will be more than offset by the new workers, who in turn will place more of a strain on the housing market than they’ll ameliorate. Critics of this strategy suggested that as an alternative, private employers be enticed, induced, or brow-beaten into subsiding the housing of their workforce, much the way UCSB and Westmont do.
The debate over density has roiled Santa Barbara’s once solid coalition of slow-growthers and environmentalists for more than ten years now, with both sides casting aspersions on the other’s motivations. Critics of high density development have been derides as racists, while affordable housing and “smart growth” advocates have been dismissed as developer stooges, whether wittingly or otherwise. In this vein, Micky Flacks – long an outspoken advocate of affordable housing – suggested there was something hypocritical about the argument that employers should create the housing required by their employees. “Cottage Hospital had a hell of a time providing employee housing, mainly because of those people who are now saying the employers need to do more.”
While MODA’s critics far outnumbered its supporters, the debate was hardly one-sided. “Who wants to live 60 units to an acre? Who wants to live in a dense downtown?” asked Megan Birney, a young woman working for the Community Environmental Council. “Me. I do,” she said, arguing that denser development allowed for a reduced carbon footprint. “We need to make sure there are options for everyone.” She was echoed in her concerns by co-worker Michael Chiacos, who noted Santa Barbara’s high housing costs lie at the root of environmental problems of major proportion. He blamed those costs for the fact that 30,000 people must commute into and out of Santa Barbara from other communities. That traffic creates air pollution and congestion, among other things. Plans to widen Highway 101 to ease peak hour gridlock will cost taxpayers no less than $1 billion, he stated. The same amount of relief could be obtained for a whole lot less, he said, by getting just 1,200 peak hour commuters to find an alternative to the automobile.
Architect Joe Andrulaitis, a vocal supporter of MODAs, argued that community character was not defined soley by the size and scale of the buildings permitted. “It’s about people,” he said. Andrulaitis said he bought a home when before the housing market went so stratospheric. If he hadn’t, he said, he’d be one of the 30,000 commuters. “If I didn’t live here, I couldn’t be the coach of my daughter’s soccer team,” he said. “I couldn’t be active with the [American Institute of Architects].”
Dick Jensen, a former UCSB administrator and member of Citizens Planning Association, provided the viewpoint of the converted skeptic. When City Hall approved Casa de Los Fuentes – a downtown workforce housing project that provides only a limited number of parking spaces for its residents – Jensen said he expected residents to colonize the nearby public streets to meet their parking needs. After bird-dogging the project, Jensen said his worst fears never came to pass. “The garage hasn’t filled up yet,” he said. “I was absolutely incorrect.”
Ultimately, the Planning Commission took no action. Some commissioners expressed frustration it’s taken too long for such a public dialog on MODAs to occur, and that the meeting was cut short on Thursday to make way for another gathering of city administrators. While there remains a clear divergence of opinion among commissioners as to the best way to proceed with MODAs, it’s equally clear they intend to move forward in that general direction. Commissioner Charmaine Jacobs, typically a moderate voice and vote, was both emphatic and passionate when it came to the fate of the 30,000 commuters. “We need these people,” she declared. “We can’t tell them to go get a job in Oxnard and leave us alone. We need these people.”