Ed St. George has yet to get canonized, but late this Tuesday afternoon, he performed at least two miracles in front of the Santa Barbara City Council. First, St. George — one of the biggest landlords in Isla Vista and throughout the South Coast — packed the chambers with supporters who testified so glowingly of him that anyone might have expected him to be assumed into heaven. More prosaically, St. George managed to forestall what looked like the certain defeat for the bitterly fought three-story hotel he’s proposing for the 300 block of West Montecito Street.
Thanks only to a last-minute change of heart by Councilmember Meagan Harmon, St. George was given a one-month reprieve to reduce the size of his proposed hotel, change the architectural style, and come up with a plan to offset the loss of the four rental housing units that now occupy the site. But for Harmon, the proposal would have been denied as per the city’s Planning Commission 5-1 vote to deep-six it.
At the heart of the Planning Commission’s denial was housing. Planning commissioners Sheila Lodge and Leslie Wiscomb objected that the project would eliminate four desperately needed rental units and replace them with new hotel rooms, of which, they claimed, there is a glut. To approve such a project, they argued, would clearly violate the tenets of “sound community planning.” They also objected that the dramatically modern project — 45 feet high in places — would dwarf and clash with the immediate neighborhood.
St. George appealed the commission’s decision to the City Council, arguing the denial had been arbitrary. His supporters — more than a few of whom were tenants — complained City Hall was violating the process by changing the rules midstream on a project that would improve the values of nearby properties and revitalize a rundown neighborhood. The proposed hotel, with its coffee shop and rooftop patio area, conformed to existing zoning, they noted. St. George, who did not speak Tuesday, sought no modifications.
Where St. George impressively packed the chambers with supporters who said things like “Ed’s a visionary” and “Ed is a really good-hearted guy,” his critics gathered 500 signatures on a petition against his project and suggested more unscrupulous intent. St. George, they argued, had played the system to secure permits for 32 hotel rooms, far more than the 15 housing units he could have gotten according to existing zoning rules. But his hotel rooms, they argued, were much bigger than most — more than 500 square feet. Some included adjoining rooms and kitchens. St. George, they suggested, would quickly convert the hotel rooms into housing units and fill them with City College students, exactly as he had done, they claimed, with a nearby vacation rental he owns.
In addition, they noted the plans approved by the Architectural Board of Review (ABR) differed in key details from the plans rejected by the Planning Commission. To the extent anyone violated the city’s process, they insisted, it was St. George, not the planning commissioners. City planners dismissed concerns, stating St. George had played by City Hall’s rules and regulations.
Ultimately, the councilmembers were torn. Jason Dominguez, Mayor Cathy Murillo, and Randy Rowse believed St. George’s project should be allowed because it complied with existing zoning, though Rowse and Dominguez had qualms about the size and style. Initially, it appeared there were four votes to kill the project: Kristen Sneddon, Oscar Gutierrez, Eric Friedman, and Harmon.
Friedman cited planning scripture chapter and verse. But Harmon’s opposition was based in part on aesthetics and design, as well as housing. When it was clear the proposal could be conditioned to require the lost housing be replaced elsewhere and that St. George could modify the more intrusive design features, she changed her position.
Friedman argued there was no way St. George could re-engineer the project and engage the community in a meaningful way in just a few weeks, one of which being Thanksgiving. Harmon countered that a month would be enough time to see if St. George was on the right track. At that point, she said, the project could be sent back to the ABR for further review. The project is next slated for council review on December 17.