LONG DAZE JOURNEY INTO NIGHT: There’s something about the whole “Plan Santa Barbara” experience that brings auto-erotic asphyxiation fetchingly to mind. Only with Plan Santa Barbara, there are no fun parts. Other people have to be involved. And at the end, there is no escape, not even blacking out. I say this having endured yet another grueling marathon session by the Santa Barbara City Council on Plan Santa Barbara. That’s the catchy phrase someone concocted to describe the process of updating Santa Barbara’s General Plan, an exercise akin to rewriting the Constitution when it comes to growth and development. Mercifully, I experienced only half the deliberations this week — saved by the bell of newspaper deadlines. As a consequence, I can’t say for sure what the councilmembers ultimately decided. Or more likely — given their polarities of politics and personality — what they decided not to decide.
On the table is how much development the City of Santa Barbara should allow over the next 20 years, what kind it should be, where it should go, and for whom — what income brackets — it should be built. I have a hard enough time deciding where to hang pictures in my office or what I’m doing in two days. So I can see how drafting a blueprint to guide a city of 85,000 know-it-alls might seem overwhelming. Still, this thing has been slithering through the peristaltic gyrations of City Hall’s review — well over 100 public
hearings and meetings — for more than five years now. We’re drowning in spit from all this talk. But where Plan Santa Barbara is concerned, that talk ain’t cheap. Thus far, City Hall has sunk $3 million into the process. At some point, a decision might be nice.
The good news, it’s finally to the City Council for an actual vote. The bad news is that for anything to pass, five votes are necessary. And this council is split 4-to-3 on practically everything.
On the table is a proposal — massaged by a million hands — that would turn the gas way down on new commercial development, while turning it way up for new housing. With limited space available for new development of any kind, the thinking is housing opportunities should be maximized wherever possible. Not only is the housing desperately needed, but housing causes a lot less congestion than new liquor stores or office complexes. There’s also a recognition that current zoning rules don’t work. They encourage developers to build mondo-condos for gazillionaires. These tend to freak people out with their in-your-face size, over-the-top ostentation, and stratospheric price tags. The hope is to change the rules to give developers new incentives to build smaller, more modest developments instead, housing that might be remotely affordable to the proverbial nurse, firefighter, or teacher. It’s worth noting that über-architect Barry Berkus — whose oversized projects have generated much of the recent backlash among slow-growthers and no-growthers — dispatched an underling to Tuesday’s council meeting to speak against the proposed new rules. These, the council was warned, would discourage rich people — a k a “the philanthropic community” — from moving downtown. With a message like that, I can understand why Barry didn’t show up himself.
The rub, of course is density. To build this new — and presumably more affordable — housing, increased densities would have to be tolerated, allowed, and actively encouraged. In certain areas. Given that many Santa Barbara environmentalists spent 40 years fighting density in all its guises, this is tough for a whole lot of people to even contemplate. Even so, there are four solid votes in favor of this new approach. But five are needed. Council conservatives Dale Francisco, Michael Self, and Frank Hotchkiss have all balked. They worry that such densities will beget gridlock, slums, and congestion. They don’t want to roll the dice with Santa Barbara’s quality of life. And it goes beyond that. Philosophically, they all have serious doubts how far government should go to expand housing opportunities. Some see the effort as futile, others as downright dangerous.
In this context, Councilmember Francisco — not only the most experienced member of the conservative faction but also the most strategic — finds himself clearly in the driver’s seat. It’s definitely not where he’s used to sitting. As a councilmember, Francisco is the Mario Andretti of backseat drivers. A devastating counter-puncher, Dale is great at articulating what he doesn’t want. Now it’s up to him to figure out what he actually does want, what he’s willing to accept, and what he’s willing to trade to get it. On Tuesday night, you could see he was trying. But you could also see what an alien experience it was for him. Francisco’s first effort was to airbrush out critical and contentious details from the deliberations at hand — like how much additional density could be allowed and where — and focus on general areas of agreement instead. We could hammer out the specifics down the road. What’s two more years, he asked, when the community has already spent five? It was a nice gesture, but without actual numbers, it would be all gums and no teeth. Developers would have no clue what they could and could not build. No one would know the rules of the game. What would be the point? Two more years, answered Councilmember Bendy White, would be torture. Mayor Helene Schneider sought to alternately coax and yank Francisco from out of his shell. What is it you want? she asked. Her approach was at times a little abrupt. Dale declined to be drawn out. The hour was getting late. For all our sakes, I’m hoping he got a good night’s sleep.
The alternative, of course, is for the council to do nothing. Or wait until after next November’s elections to see who gets elected. But that’s a lot of time and money down the drain. Nobody winds up looking good. In the meantime, I’ll be hanging out in the council chambers, waiting to see what happens. I’ll be the guy with the blue plastic bag over my head.