Streets signs throughout the Santa Barbara waterfront warn pedestrians and motorists alike of impending tsunamis, but last Thursday the city’s Planning Commission found itself wrangling with the impacts of the much-heralded “Silver Tsunami” on a 1.76-acre chunk of mysteriously undeveloped land far from the ocean between La Cumbre Plaza and the row of car dealerships on Hope Avenue.
The developers of a proposed affordable senior housing complex — dubbed Gardens on Hope — packed the commission chambers with supporters in hopes of persuading the planners to approve a major rezone of the land to allow the three-story, 91-unit project and not to impose new rules and regulations regarding creek setbacks recently adopted by the City Council. At issue is the size of the buffer between the 1,800-foot stretch of Arroyo Burro Creek that runs along the backside of the lot — vacant the last 30 years — and the proposed development.
The new general plan adopted by the City Council in 2011 — after five years of intense negotiation, brinkmanship, and compromise — calls for 50-foot creek setbacks, except in cases where the creek has been channelized. In those instances, the requirement is only 25 feet. Although the stretch of creek under contention is currently channelized, the council voted to designate this site as one of its four top priorities for creek naturalization. Therein lies the rub.
Cameron Benson, the city’s creek czar, argued that 50-foot setbacks are described in the scientific literature as the absolute minimum to maintain creek function and health. Anything less, he warned, would jeopardize ongoing efforts to restore the channelized creek to its natural state. Other creek advocates noted that some of Santa Barbara’s neighboring cities require even greater setbacks. Goleta, for example, has a 100-foot rule. But developer and architect Detlev Peikert argued the 50-foot requirement would kill the project economically. “The creek setback is a make-or-break issue for this project,” he said. “If we have to do the 50-foot setback, it would really decimate the project.”
Making the Planning Commission’s deliberations problematic is that the results of a key study on the creek’s potential for restoration and the costs involved is one month away from completion and release. City planners sought a delay from the developers — a partnership between the Housing Authority and the Garden Court senior housing facility — so that the study’s results could be incorporated into the discussion, but the developers insisted on proceeding with last week’s conceptual review. Bettie Weiss, City Hall’s lead planner, suggested that the Planning Commission should reexamine Gardens on Hope for conceptual review once the study is complete. She also suggested the either-or equation suggested by the developers might be premature. “I don’t know the two objectives are on a collision course,” she said. “I don’t think that they’re necessarily mutually exclusive.”
Concern over creeks aside, the four planning commissioners who could participate — two reported conflicts of interest and one was out of town — gave the project a warm pat on the back, a hearty handshake, and a kiss on both cheeks. The proposal remains very much in the preliminary stages, but the commission made clear it would support any rezoning effort required to allow the maximum density on the site while imposing the least restrictions. The land is currently zoned to be used as an auto dealership, but because of site constraints, the property has sat largely empty and unused for the past 30 years, except as a pumpkin patch before Halloween and a Christmas tree lot.
The project weighs in at 91 small units, each about 350 square feet. Low-income seniors are the target audience. As Rob Pearson, head of the City Housing Authority, noted, aging baby boomers are the fastest growing demographic in the country, and many are not financially secure enough to afford retirement. There are 5,000 seniors in the tri counties, he said, who depend on entirely on Social Security payments of $990 a month. That’s not enough to cover the cost of a typical studio in Santa Barbara.
Garden Court — a 98-unit affordable senior housing complex on De la Vina Street — has a waiting list of 425 people, and, he added, the Housing Authority has 1,483 senior applicants on its waiting list. To not allow Garden Court to replicate itself in the face of such need, Pearson argued, would be “morally and fiscally irresponsible.” He concluded by challenging the commissioners, “If not here, then where?”
The Planning Commission expressed eagerness to rezone the land — now designated for an auto dealership — to whatever land use allowed the greatest density. Under the city’s most flexible zoning, the developers would be allowed to build 47 units. They’re asking for 91. A typical development of this size would be required to provide 47 parking spaces. The developers are proposing to provide 33, arguing that most low-income seniors don’t drive or can’t afford to own a car. Shuttle service, they said, will be provided.
The big fly in the ointment is the issue of the creek setbacks. Planning Commissioner Sheila Lodge suggested that the setback problem might be obviated by building four stories instead of three. The developers, gun-shy about attracting neighborhood opposition, expressed little enthusiasm for that solution. Commissioner Michael Jordan said he loved the project and described the land in question as “an eyesore.” But he said he was torn between his love of creeks and his support for affordable housing. He suggested there was enough land for the developers to pull farther back from the creek if need be. “You have more work to do there,” he said.
Commissioner Addison Thompson, a self-described outdoorsman, expressed skepticism about creek restoration, noting that the creek lies between a shopping mall and car lot. In that context, he saw little advantage in burdening the housing proposal with crippling costs. If it came down to a showdown between creeks and people, Thompson said, “I’m going to go with the people.” Commission chair Deborah Schwartz was the most outspoken in her support for the project and chided city creek czar Benson by name for not displaying more flexibility. “I haven’t seen any compromise from the creek’s part, Mr. Benson, in figuring a way to get to ‘yes.’”
While Benson did not respond directly, a creek supporter in attendance replied, “Creeks don’t know the meaning of compromise. They either work or they don’t.” In an interview afterward, city planning chief Bettie Weiss stressed that creek restoration was a means of achieving many goals: flood protection, water-quality improvement, erosion control, and habitat enhancement. She said the channelized portion of Arroyo Burro Creek has sped up water flow during heavy rains, causing flooding for people living immediately downstream.
While a naturalized creek channel might seem out of place in its current context, she said the planners should be thinking long-term, not just right now. Car dealerships, she pointed out, are shrinking in response to market changes, and La Cumbre Plaza will not remain the way it is forever. In that eventuality, she questioned whether City Hall really wants to — or needs to — preclude the naturalization of a priority creek.
One partial solution is to reduce the width of the sidewalks that the developers are proposing from 10 feet to six, a more standard size. In addition, there was talk of eliminating outright a proposed greenway between the street and sidewalk. Both changes would conjure more setback space for the creek but still not achieve the 50 feet called for in the city’s policy.
How valuable such creek restoration would be remains speculative until the engineering study is released next month. The cost, inevitably, will be quite expensive. Weiss has suggested that another conceptual review will be required once that information is available.