In Housing Debate, Density Meets Immovable Object
Treasured Chumash Site Narrowly Avoids Demolition
A general anxiety over the loss of neighborhood character and history has permeated the city’s high-density housing experiment since it launched three years ago. Last week, that feeling focused into a single point of alarm as a new three-story, 27-unit mixed-use development threatened to replace a critical piece of Santa Barbara’s Chumash heritage.
As originally drafted, the building proposal for 214 East De la Guerra Street would have demolished a one-story wooden home, where in 1912 Luisa Ygnacio and her descendants began meeting with anthropologists Alfred Kroeber and John Peabody Harrington to pass along everything they knew about Chumash history, mythology, life, and language. Ygnacio was the daughter-in-law of Maria Ygnacia, for whom the San Marcos Pass creek and canyon are named and who was the last living person born in the village of Syuxtun at the mouth of Mission Creek.
“I don’t exaggerate when I say this is really one of the most important landmarks in the City of Santa Barbara when it comes to our Chumash heritage,” said John Johnson, the Museum of Natural History’s curator of anthropology, at a Historic Landmarks Commission meeting last Wednesday. He was backed up by Kristina Foss, the Santa Barbara Mission’s museum director, who stated the home represents one of only two instances where Chumash people managed to hold on to their property into the 20th century. That makes it “remarkable,” she said.
Early into the meeting, the project’s architect, Brian Cearnal, said he and his partners had decided not to raze the house, given its significance. The site is owned by Alberto Vollmer, who built the Honor Bar in Montecito. Cearnal said the mixed-use development — a collection of studio and one-bedroom rentals designed under the city’s Average Unit-size Density (AUD) Incentive Program — would instead go up around the small home. City officials said it will soon be considered for landmark status.
The following Tuesday, the Santa Barbara City Council received an update on the number of AUD projects in the planning pipeline. The program, designed to incentivize the construction of rental and workforce housing by allowing more units and fewer parking spaces per acre, has generated far more interest than expected, with 55 projects totaling 966 units proposed since July 2013. City staff estimated that at that rate, the program’s trial period — the occupancy of 250 units in a specific high-density category — will end in the next two years, after which surveys will be taken to determine who occupies the apartments, where they moved from, and where they work.
While the AUD’s rapid popularity thus far may help alleviate Santa Barbara’s chronic housing shortage, it’s also given some city councilmembers pause. Bendy White and Jason Dominguez have voiced concerns that proposed developments could irreparably alter the charm of city neighborhoods by eating up on-street parking, looming over one-story homes, and erasing treasured structures forever. They’ve proposed a reexamination of the program to ensure its immediate drawbacks don’t overshadow down-the-road benefits. “Our job here is to true up the system and make it sustainable, adaptable,” said White.
White was nevertheless quick to highlight that the program is accomplishing what it set out to do. He pointed to the The Marc property on upper State Street. The site was originally slated for luxury condos but is now being filled with apartments. “We got a project that is better,” he said. “Is it perfect? No,” he went on, referencing the relatively high rental rates expected there, “but I prefer to see upper-end rental units as opposed to market-rate condos.” Later in the meeting, a public commenter complained rent rates at the mixed-use development scheduled for 711 Milpas Street will be similarly steep — $2,600 for a one-bedroom, she claimed.
Thursday morning, the council holds a joint meeting with the Planning Commission to discuss some of the AUD’s finer points and perhaps move toward amending the project approval process. Councilmember Gregg Hart said he welcomed the opportunity to air grievances publicly, conceding, “There is a lot of fear about this program.” But he also noted a “disconnect between the rhetoric and reality” as very few neighborhood complaints have evolved into formal appeals.
Nick Welsh contributed to this report.