Santa Barbara’s City Council chambers were packed Tuesday afternoon with architects and land use planners unveiling two weekends’ worth of volunteer design work—developed during sessions known as charrettes—that they hoped would prove that genuinely affordable housing could be built without assaulting the city’s essential architectural soul if City Hall allowed for higher densities and required less parking. As architect Detlev Peikert presented what he hopes might become a new planning future less driven by parking considerations, he confronted a City Council beginning to revel in its historic traditions, dressed to the nines in Fiesta finest.
By requiring only one parking space per unit—as opposed to two as the zoning rules now require—Peikert argued developers could dramatically reduce the cost of mixed-use housing projects. Likewise, by allowing greater densities and putting limits on unit sizes, City Hall could make a meaningful dent in housing costs. To make his point, Peikert enlisted 55 architects over two weekends to design real projects for various lots off Milpas Street and by Figueroa and De la Vina streets. Depending on the densities, he reported he could build mixed-use projects that sold for as low as $366,000 per unit, but most closer to the $500,000 range. This, he said, could be accomplished with no government subsidy and still allow developers to make 18 percent in profits plus management fees.
This planning exercise was inspired by the city’s dramatically paralyzed General Plan update process that’s left the council fiercely divided over issues of density and parking. It’s doubtful that the architects’ planning jam session will unclog City Hall’s political log jam. Councilmemember Michael Self expressed concern that if parking requirements are reduced, the streets and neighborhoods will suffer. And she rejected any suggestion that social justice and increased densities are intertwined. “I don’t call it social justice to demand that we degrade what Santa Barbara is by having over-development.”