Santa Barbara’s City of Tomorrow

The Future Is Here, so Let's Stop Arguing About Size and Density

As a city planning commissioner, it’s a really good day when you meet two strangers and just one agrees with an opinion you offered on a project or policy.

Such is also the case with the city’s Average Unit-size Density (AUD) incentive program, which takes on what some say is the unsolvable task of increasing affordable rental housing units that are both unsubsidized and rented at market rates.

A typical “Santa Barbara” process, it’s branded as change and growth, is fraught with political, social, and economic justice and developer interests, and comes with community impacts real and imagined. And lurking in the background is the California State Legislature’s increased practice of dictating residential development standards to cities in order to address California’s housing shortage and affordability.

One of my disappointing perspectives of discussions to date is that what’s appealing to either side of the AUD issue is only something that’s damaging to the other. It’s either we need more, more, more, regardless of the impacts, or the zombie apocalypse of new development is upon us and we need to chop its head off. Whether on purpose or not, it sometimes feels as if both sides of this issue sometimes work at keeping the issue polarized by refusing to look for and focus on common benefits that minimize impacts to all involved. Or they just flat out don’t acknowledge or are dismissive of concerns.

Left to our tendency to analyze … discuss … repeat, we certainly have the potential to look back in 5, 10, or 20 years and observe the usual. We’ll say we have an unacceptable number of local workers financially forced to commute into town. We’ll say traffic on the freeway and adjacent city streets is out of control. We’ll say we don’t have enough rental housing that rents at a reasonable percentage of a family’s income. We’ll say retail cores are suffering, not many locals present. Equally distressing to me, we’ll all be 20 years older and may see far fewer of our children or their generation living among us.

The city’s recent response to reasonable concerns with approved and in-the-pipeline AUD projects has been to simply and significantly limit the annual number of new units. This response avoids addressing the underlying issues and seemingly allows continued AUD projects, albeit fewer, regardless whether they are any better, the same, or worse than what’s been approved so far. And that annual limit is frustratingly close to the average annual number of units that have been built over the past 20 years — as if that number positively moved the goalpost.

Instead, we should resolve to work on the parcel-by-parcel impacts that come with higher density allowances — parking, views, compatibility, and residential or commercial displacement. And we should keep our emphasis on the goals — increased availability, affordability, and traffic reduction. Find locations where it works, and dismiss those that don’t.

If the AUD isn’t really part of the fix, what is? Simply limiting it, saying no, or saying it will never improve the situation dooms us to a concurrence with and repeat of the past.

As always, anything development related in Santa Barbara is always viewed uniquely by each of us relative to “our” Santa Barbara. We need to do a much better job of looking outside our individual views, worry less about what we already have, and work on agreeable points that also listen to and address the concerns and impacts. There is room for everyone in that type of discussion and whatever remedy it leads to.


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