With mental health and homelessness at the forefront of Santa Barbara’s toughest dilemmas, the Planning Commission received a standing ovation Thursday after it unanimously passed a motion to allow the Sanctuary Centers of Santa Barbara’s proposed mental-health mixed-use building to exceed the city’s 45-foot height limit, giving it up to 60 feet of leeway. The proposed building will provide approximately 34 residential apartments for adults with mental illness and substance abuse disorders, many of whom are homeless, as well as nonresidential space for mental health, dental health, and other support services and offices.
Throughout the three hours of a few dozen public comments and commissioner deliberations, not a single person in the over-crowded room spoke in opposition to the Sanctuary Centers’ mission, although about half of the public commenters spoke in opposition to the height or location at 115 West Anapamu Street.
“We are working with Sanctuary Centers to mitigate any negative impact while supporting a truly worthy cause,” said John Doordan, past president and current member of the proposed building’s neighbor, the Santa Barbara Club. “Our concerns are two-fold: the construction period first, and second the height of the proposed building in its fifth floor. … Both might disrupt our events and daily business by reducing the participation and subsequent revenue. We are, after all, only a small two-story building.”
Architect Christine Pierron’s current plans for the building include four stories of residential studio units and one story of 6,600 square feet for a “co-occurring disorders center, offices, meeting rooms providing mental health and support services for residents, and an integrated medical and dental care clinic focused on serving people with mental illness.” The organization currently offers low-income health-care to clients at a small clinic on the site with two examination rooms — one for mental care and the other for dental. The new first-floor setup would give three exam rooms each to both mental and dental care.
Floors two and three of the building will contain smaller studio units, and floors four and five will contain larger units for the elderly or handicapped in need of 24-hour care with an additional communal living area and communal kitchen. The building is being proposed under the Average Unit-Size Density Incentive Program and the city’s Density Bonus Program.
There were about 10 commenters who identified themselves as clients of the Sanctuary Centers and spoke to the critical need for the building. As of now, there are already more than 80 people on the waitlist to get into the two existing Sanctuary Center apartment complexes. The building would be located behind one of them, a two-story, eight-unit complex on the front of Anapamu— allowing the five-story building to be “hidden” away from street view. It would also closely neighbor with Garden Court, a senior housing facility standing 35 feet in contrast.
“I came to Sanctuary Centers in ’92 and got my sobriety there,” said client John McNairy. “In ’93 I had a slip and was given a second chance. Since then I’ve got 26 years of sobriety, and I’ve been to AA, NA, CA, all the other As, and have picked myself up and got on my feet. I got my driver’s license back and I have a car now.
“I’m living in 115 West Anapamu, and it wouldn’t bother me at all to have more neighbors, especially when a time of need is present because so many people are out on the streets and don’t want to do anything else but drink and use, so this is a chance for them, too,” he said.
The organization’s president, Barry Schoer, really drove the point home, so much so that his comments caused Commissioner Deborah Schwartz to shed a few tears during her deliberation. “Every time one of our clients graduated from the program and tried to rent in the community, they were told, ‘Sorry, we really don’t want you in our building,’” Schoer said about his client’s experiences when he began working for the organization in the ’80s. “If you think the stigma went away, you’re mistaken.
“Last week, we tried to rent some office space across the street on West Anapamu … I got a letter back saying, ‘Sorry, we don’t want your use in our building after we looked at your website …’ If we tried to rent space for our housing, we’d be turned down right and left. We were left with no other options.” His comments clearly outlined the demonstrated need for the project, one of the four findings needed to be made by the commissioners in order for them to allow the height exemption.
In addition to finding a demonstrated need, the commissioners needed to find that the project is exemplary in its design, is “liveable” as far as the amount of light and air and amenities, and that it complements the setting and the character of the neighboring properties. All five voting commissioners — Schwartz, Michael Jordan, Jay Higgins, Sheila Lodge, and Lesley Wiscomb — agreed that the four required findings were present and were overwhelmingly in favor of the project.
With the height exemption granted, the next step is for architect Pierron to submit a formal application to the Development Application Review Team before having an additional conceptual design review by the Architectural Board of Review. The project already went through a conceptual design review on March 11 and was deemed a community benefit by the City Council on April 30.
“I’ve been doing this for 10 years,” Commissioner Jordan said during his deliberation. “And I got home most times to tell my wife I annoyed 50 percent of everybody I know today — which still may be the case — but today I also get to go home and say I’ve accomplished something really good.”