A nearly empty State Street | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

It’s hard to be optimistic these days. It’s hard enough simply staying safe and sane. There is immense uncertainty about our economy and how soon we will be able to get back to normal. If we can resuscitate our economy from this coma we are in, things may not collapse into a depression. If we are able to do the things we must do to achieve this resuscitation, like adequate testing and ultimately a vaccine, there is reason for hope. 

With essentially every other industry in lockdown, the construction industry is actually building right now, which is good. It is one reason for hope. However, it’s been said that architects are “the canary in the coal mine” relative to the future health of the construction industry. If we are not designing and drawing projects now, then a year from now the construction industry is not building. And that’s not good.

For architects to design and draw projects, we need clients with the courage to believe in our community’s future. To believe and invest in the future, developers need certainty. Yet we are in the jaws of immense uncertainty! Not a reason for hope….

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What we need right now, amid this uncertainty, is to press forward with a master vision for our community, especially our downtown, that incentivizes the creation of housing, ensuring our future economic and social vitality. We know that housing will remain a crisis well after this COVID-19 crisis subsides. We know, from many studies, that housing is fundamental to our downtown’s health and survival. In November 2017, the American Institute of Architects, Santa Barbara (AIASB), conducted a charrette focused on creating visions for our downtown. Housing was identified as a critically missing piece. 

The council, in December 2019, based on a long process of community engagement, directed staff to amend, via a list of recommendations, the Average Unit-size Density (AUD) program. Some of these recommendations should happen immediately! For example, increasing the allowable density in our Downtown Central Business District, which is a critical incentive mechanism to encourage developers to build housing. 

However, there are some recommendations that will require more effort. These include revised development standards that would eliminate density (units/acre) as the measure of development and replace it with a form-based measure, such as a ratio of total square feet to lot area. Called Floor Area Ratio (FAR), this approach would not dictate number of units, but instead volume of building. In fact, there could be additional incentive mechanisms to encourage more, smaller units inside the same volume, which would result in more affordability.

The AIASB and Community Development staff are embarking on a collaboration to work together in creating revised development standards, such as FAR (floor area ratio) zoning, that is appropriate yet incentivizes the creation of housing. As visionaries, architects are uniquely suited to aid in the visualization necessary to communicate to our community what these new standards mean. Planners are uniquely suited to vet the various options and to create a safe and productive venue for community dialogue and consensus. 

This is an amazing opportunity, amid the looming drudgery of survival, to paint a vision for a better future and to create a plan for our community and our downtown that ensures vitality and beauty. We simply cannot delay. Now is a good time for some optimism. 

At the Santa Barbara Independent, our staff is working around the clock to cover every aspect of this crisis — sorting truth from rumor.  Our reporters and editors are asking the tough questions of our public health officials and spreading the word about how we can all help one another. The community needs us — now more than ever — and we need you  in order to keep doing the important work we do. Support the Independent by making a direct contribution or with a subscription to Indy+.


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