With only three meetings left before his eight years in office are up, Santa Barbara City Councilmember Dale Francisco is going out the same way he came in: confronting popular notions of high-density affordable housing coupled with a car-optional future.
When first elected in 2007, Francisco rode a wave of voter exasperation with bulb-outs, roundabouts, and other “traffic calming devices” favored by alternative transit advocates who hoped by slowing traffic down, commuters could be inspired to abandon their cars and ride bicycles or buses, or walk to work. If people owned fewer cars, the logic went, housing developers could reduce the space devoted to parking, thus making their final product more affordable to working Santa Barbarans. Francisco — smart, unabashedly conservative, and tactically formidable — was never shy about his skepticism, dismissing such so-called “smart growth” agendas as “social engineering” and “utopian.” This week, Francisco would lead an ill-fated charge against another smart-growth initiative, this one an experimental high-density housing program designed to stimulate the development of smaller, more affordable rental housing rather than luxury condos, which were the rage when Francisco was first elected.
After 90 minutes of emotionally fraught wonk-talk at the City Council Tuesday — pitting neighborhood preservationists against affordable-housing advocates in an all-too-familiar rhetorical rumble — Francisco ended up right where he started, with only Councilmember Frank Hotchkiss at his side. When it was over, Mayor Helene Schneider thanked the two for inciting what she called a “nice conversation.”
By any reckoning, the program giving Francisco gray hairs — a high-octane variant of what’s bureaucratically known as “Average Unit Density” or AUD for short — appears to be a stunning and surprising success. When it was hatched, elected officials thought it could take as long as eight years before its mixed bag of incentives could generate even a meager 250 units of rental housing. Back then, private real estate developers were avoiding rental housing projects like the plague and had been for decades. Now, barely two years old, the program already has 319 units of small rental units in the development pipeline; 118 of those are either approved or permitted, and 89 are currently under construction. Compared to the historically glacial pace of housing development in Santa Barbara — rental or otherwise — that’s staggering.
Under the rules of the game, this “high priority rental” strain of the AUD program would be evaluated only after all 250 units are built and occupied. But by then, Francisco fears, City Hall could easily be flooded with applications for 1,200 more such units. “Is this the point at which we close the gate?” he asked. Some might quibble with Francisco’s numbers, but no one disputed the basic gist. To date, no method of evaluation nor a template of what questions to ask exists. The Planning Commission is working on it.
“My big concern is parking,” Francisco said in a recent interview. In his worst-case scenario, Santa Barbara would experience a proliferation of large, dorm-like housing developments that cater to college students rather than Santa Barbara’s downtown workers. That’s whom the program was designed to help stay in town. These new structures — typically three to four stories high — would loom large over their surrounding neighborhoods. And their inhabitants, he suggested, would wreak holy hell on city streets as they search for parking spaces that developers were allowed not to provide. City streets, he argued, would effectively subsidize private developers while denying affected residents the “peaceful enjoyment of their property.” To illustrate the potential problem, Francisco cited one developer who proposed building 19 bedrooms in three stories with 19 bathrooms and only seven parking spaces on Castillo Street. Another one, he said, proposed building 25 bedrooms, 19 bathrooms, and only seven parking spaces. Planning Commissioner Sheila Lodge, a Francisco ally, suggested limiting the number of bathrooms to two per unit.
Under-parking, Francisco said, is endemic to the program. It’s the secret sauce that’s key to its apparent success. To induce developers to build rental housing, City Hall is offering a huge break on parking requirements. Instead of building two parking spaces per rental unit — as required under conventional zoning — they can build just one. In addition, developers are absolved from providing any guest parking at all; typically they’re required to provide one for every four resident parking spaces. Combined, that’s a lot of real estate that can be used for bedrooms rather than cars. It can also be a lot of cars looking for parking spaces. The program also allows developers — in certain geographically designated areas of the city — to build at densities as high as 63 units per acre. By Santa Barbara zoning standards, that’s unheard of.
Francisco’s other chief concern is that City Hall’s design review boards — the Architectural Board of Review (ABR) and Historic Landmarks Commission — lack the punch, focus, and legal authority to whack overly aggressive AUD projects into line. They’re too focused on aesthetic agendas, he said, to do justice to broader planning issues like parking and neighborhood compatibility. If the city’s Planning Commission is not more involved, he warned, the City Council could find itself overwhelmed by appeals from angry neighbors.
Ironically, it was Francisco himself who played a key role in fashioning the political compromise out of which this program would emerge. Four years ago, the City Council finally adopted a general plan update but only after years of endless acrimonious meetings and grinding gridlock. The fundamental bone of contention was how many parking spaces should be required for residential development. Francisco insisted the line should be held at two spaces per unit. To break the impasse, he and Hotchkiss agreed to meet with Councilmember Bendy White, a strong supporter of increased densities and relaxed parking requirements. After a year of negotiations, they arrived at a compromise. It was the high-priority-rental AUD program. But that, Francisco insisted, had to be an experimental endeavor with a maximum shelf life of eight years.
Neither Mayor Schneider nor the four other councilmembers had any interest in tinkering with a program born of such prolonged political strife. Besides, they argued, the facts didn’t justify the changes Francisco and Hotchkiss sought. Of the nine high-priority-rental AUD projects proposed, Schneider argued, not one has been appealed to the City Council yet. One of the two “dorms” cited by Francisco — a four-story box proposed for Bond Avenue — was effectively shut down by the ABR because it was too big for the neighborhood. The other, a less dense variant of the AUD, was sent back to the drawing boards by the City Council after neighbors appealed. To date, it’s the only appeal the council has heard.
In addition, the Historic Landmarks Commission was willing to flex hard when a developer proposed a three-story, 26-unit housing development for the historically sensitive intersection of De la Guerra and Santa Barbara streets. “The system works,” declared Schneider. Councilmember White said “compatibility” was the magic wand to force developers to scale back the proposals too big for their neighborhoods. “Compatibility, compatibility, compatibility,” he intoned.
Where White and Schneider kept their remarks cool and collegial, councilmembers Gregg Hart and Cathy Murillo were decidedly heated in their defense of the AUD program. Some speakers, like developer Neil Dipaola, were downright scorching. Describing himself as a representative of young millennials, Dipaola dismissed concerns over adequate parking as “Old White People problems,” the sort, he said, that afflict people who fret about putting the wrong octane of gas in their BMWs. “It’s not important to the rest of the people in the world,” he declared. Dipaola is currently pushing a development in the Funk Zone that would provide 125 rental units and 179 parking spaces, though city planners say the lot can handle no more than 47 housing units and would require 291 parking spaces. His, however, is not an AUD project.
Francisco emphasized he supported the idea behind the program, adding, “There are some issues to be resolved.” To resolve them, he needed five votes. He only had two.