For five and a half grueling hours, the Santa Barbara City Council dissected the byzantine permit history of a sprawling four-story boxy, perpendicular, modern-looking mixed-use, high-density rental housing project that will forever alter the profile and course of development of Milpas Street. At times, the council proceedings felt more like a forensic autopsy; the only thing missing, it seemed, was a corpse. Ultimately, the council would vote 5-2 to give project developer Alan Bleecker and his architect Detty Peikert the green light that the city’s Architectural Board of Review (ABR) had voted last November to deny.
The showdown — simultaneously theatrical, entertaining, confusing, infuriating, and exhausting — highlighted the intractable tensions on the South Coast between the desperate need for additional rental housing and Santa Barbara’s historic insistence on low-impact, smaller-scale development. Inflaming this tension further are new state housing laws — passed in response to California’s escalating housing emergency — that threaten to strip local governments of all discretionary authority over housing developments.
It will take a long time for the dust on Tuesday night’s vote to settle, if it ever does. Both sides argued that their due-process rights had been violated. Both sides accused the other of bad-faith and bait-and-switch tactics. Both sides, in their own ways, were right. Both walked away nursing wounds of outrage. After Tuesday night, the city’s controversial, experimental, high-density AUD rental housing program — short for Average Unit-Size Density — just got even more controversial. Lining up against it were not just the surviving remnants of the city’s original slow-growth establishment — for whom “quality of life” was a mantra — but a new breed of neighborhood activists who are uncommonly tough, smart, confrontational, theatrical, and, when it comes to City Hall, totally distrustful.
Also highlighted were the political fault lines of race and class, brought more to the fore since the City Council has recently transitioned to district representation rather than at-large. Councilmember Jason Dominguez, in whose district the proposed development lies, accused his colleagues of treating the Eastside as a “dumping ground” for big projects because his constituents were largely low-income and Latino. The council voted to kill other similarly oversized projects, he charged, in neighborhoods that were predominantly white and affluent. “This project is the poster child for neighborhood incompatibility,” he charged. “There’s no way this project ever gets built in San Roque, Samarkand, or the Mesa.” Councilmember Eric Friedman, who represents San Roque, shot back that that two very large housing developments — The Marc and the Estancia — lie in his district.
Ultimately, a clear council majority agreed that Alan Bleecker — who has run Capitol Hardware at 711 Milpas Street for more than 30 years — played by all the rules in seeking the city permits needed to build rental housing he says his own employees can afford, but that members of the ABR changed the rules on him last November when it voted to kill his project. In June 2016, the ABR voted unanimously to give Bleecker what’s known as project design approval, an arcane term of art meaning that the development is essentially approved. The proposal was to knock down Capitol Hardware and several of the buildings next door, replacing them with four stories of commercial and rental housing.
Initially, Bleecker proposed 73 housing units and nearly 6,000 square feet of commercial. But when city officials notified Bleecker his project was in a floodplain, he changed his plans, reducing the square footage devoted to commercial by about half and adding three additional rental units. Last November, he took his plans back to the ABR to get final approval for the changes. The ABR was instructed that city planners had already determined that Bleecker’s new plans “substantially conformed” to the old ones. The boardmembers were told the only issue they could consider when voting for final approval was “substantial conformance.” The board had other ideas. New members had joined the board since 2016, such as Dave Watkins, who savaged Bleecker’s proposal Tuesday night, describing the project as “an uninspiring island” that succeeded only in “being unique.”
During the November vote, Watkins argued the proposal “did not reflect the character or the human scale of the immediate community” and objected to last-minute design changes that would make the project’s air conditioners visible from the street. While some councilmembers may have agreed with Watkins’s critique, they argued the time to make it had come and gone. If developers cannot rely on permits they have been given, asked councilmembers Rowse and Megan Harmon, who in their right mind would invest the millions of dollars needed to build rental housing? In this case, Bleecker had spent $800,000 on detailed construction plans after having secured the project design approval.
Naturally, the story is not quite so simple. Neighborhood critics of the project — and opponents of the AUD program — argued that the ABR process was clear as mud and that the public would have had no way of knowing what actions the ABR might be taking at any given meeting, given how cryptically the agendas were written. Their big beef was with the half block of Ortega Street that runs along the side of the project and dead-ends at Santa Barbara Junior High School. Under Bleecker’s plans, that public street will be reconfigured to function as a private parking lot for a private developer. That decision, they complained, was made by a city planner without any public hearing or public notice.
City traffic planners insist the new design will make the street safer, but neighborhood critics insist otherwise. Perpendicular parking will be allowed, meaning more cars can be parked into the available space and more cars backing out of their stalls at the same time as students from four nearby schools make their way to and from school. The much-debated Ortega Street dead end happens to be an entryway to Santa Barbara Junior High School. City traffic planners say the project will have better, wider sidewalks, but neighborhood critics charged the new configuration “is an accident waiting to happen.” Making matters worse, they charged, Bleecker had allowed special modifications he secured to create the parking and sidewalks on Ortega Street to expire last April.
City planners agreed to voluntarily extend those modifications on the grounds that they never notified Bleecker that they had expired. Project critics termed this extension — unnoticed and never the subject of public hearing — another violation of their due process. City Planner Renee Brook conceded Tuesday night that city planners typically do not notify project applicants when their modifications are about to expire. That’s something, she said, they are expected to track.
Project opponents claimed they were told they could not appeal the final approval, but they couldn’t say by whom. They then said nobody ever told them they could appeal. For Councilmember Friedman — already inclined to support the development — that was the last straw. They had multiple opportunities to appeal the project and they never did. When they pleaded ignorance and inexperience, he chided them, “You look pretty savvy to me.” At the end of the day, said Mayor Murillo, Santa Barbara needs 76 new rental units.