Santa Barbara Community Development Czar Vacates Hot Seat

George Buell, Under Fire, Announces Departure from City

George Buell, director of Community Development for six years, announced his resignation on Thursday at a time when the City of Santa Barbara has faced pressure to do more to support the main commercial corridor of downtown State Street. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

George Buell, the City of Santa Barbara’s increasingly embattled Community Development Department Director, announced today that he’s stepping down from his post effective July 16 and will soon take a post with an as-yet unnamed real estate development company.

Buell’s resignation came as calls for his termination have grown increasingly loud — both outside and inside City Hall — by those critical of his inability to reform the development review process to make it less time-consuming, complex, unpredictable, and overwhelming. Buell, a soft-spoken man, took the helm of one of the city’s most high-pressure posts in 2014, moving to Santa Barbara from the sleepy seaside towns of Oceanside and San Clemente, where red-tile roofs and white stucco also dominated the aesthetic landscape.

The Community Development Department was just savaged by a recent Grand Jury report for lack of leadership at the top and an anti-growth bias by many on staff. The same day that report came out, the council was mulling over a private consultant’s report that detailed — though much more obliquely — many similar complaints leveled at the department. Buell took over just as the Amazon effect was starting to really hit downtowns everywhere, as droves of shoppers increasingly went online to satisfy their retail needs and empty storefronts emerged as a serious issue. (Macy’s and Nordstrom are now both shut down in Paseo Nuevo, Sears has cleared out of La Cumbre Mall, and La Cumbre is struggling to maintain a pulse.)

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For the past three years, downtown property owners, business owners, and merchants have grown increasingly restive over the lack of action by City Hall to address these issues.

Under Buell, the city initiated a program called Accelerate — to speed up the time required to get permits approved — but according to those in the business community, that effort has had little impact. Last year, City Hall appointed a longtime staffer, Marck Aguilar, to act as an in-house go-between for permit applicants concerned their project had fallen through City Hall’s sometimes labyrinthine cracks, but again, reviews for that initiative are mixed.

Frustration with Community Development and Buell has spilled over in recent months with certain high level property owner-developers — like landlord Ed St. George — have been threatening to launch a recall campaign to have Buell’s boss, City Administrator Paul Casey, fired. Local city-watcher James Fenkner has led a high-profile online campaign to cut the salaries of high-ranking administrators, like Buell and Casey — in response to the economic devastation wrought by the COVID crisis, supported loudly by property owner Ray Mahboob.

City Administrator Paul Casey

As the COVID virus hit and city businesses were ordered into indefinite lockdown mode, Buell and Casey found themselves under even more outspoken criticism. Privately, many councilmembers made it clear that they needed to see big changes at Community Development and, even more privately still, that they thought Buell needed to go. That being said, councilmembers are statutorily empowered to hire and fire only two city employees — that’s the city attorney, Ariel Calonne, and the City Administrator, Paul Casey. 

Although frustration with Buell was at times quite intense, it was rarely accompanied by personal animosity. His challenges, admittedly were quite enormous. Not only was downtown retail going dark, but City Hall has found itself perpetually embroiled in debates over issues of housing density, housing affordability, community character, and neighborhood compatibility. Ultimately, there was little safe ground on which any Community Development director could stand. Buell’s lack of boldness in this regard certainly did not help.

Compounding the confusion, the members of the City Council themselves are all relatively green and not nearly as steeped in planning issues as councils past. In addition, all members of the council represent separate districts now, and only the mayor is elected to represent the city at large. In this regard, Mayor Cathy Murillo has struggled with her mayoral function as orchestra conductor, and the council has rarely spoken with clear, unified voice on key planning issues. On many occasions it has sounded like it’s playing out of key. In this context, City Administrator Casey has been reluctant to be more openly directive.

City of Santa Barbara Mayor Cathy Murillo

For all the criticism of City Hall, the business community has been just as fractured and dysfunctional. The Santa Barbara Downtown organization has now gone through three new directors and one name change in the past two years, and the Chamber of Commerce was functionally without a director for many moons and has been sufficiently weakened that it is merging with the Goleta Chamber.

Casey is expected to fill Buell’s shoes with an interim appointment, and already there’s no shortage of intriguing names being whispered about.

In his letter of resignation, Buell highlighted many of the accomplishments have taken place, and they are many and significant. He noted that 1,300 units of new residential housing was built during his tenure, that the Hotel Californian development — long a vast, lumbering hole in the ground — was not just built but opened. Likewise, a multi-site campus for Sonos, a new and improved Museum of Natural History campus, and, last but not least, an Amazon office building — for research and development — where Saks Fifth Avenue once stood. 

Whoever replaces Buell, many of the problems will remain the same. But in recent months, City Hall’s inclination to take swift action had grown significantly more pronounced. In recent months, Paul Casey has hired the city’s first ever economic development director — a position sought by those in the business community for more than three years.

Working with Casey and the new economic czar — Jason Harris — the council shut down most of downtown State Street to automobile traffic, the planning equivalent of a Hail Mary pass in an effort to reboot the central business district. That effort seems to have paid off extremely well, at least in the short term. The illusion of street life, if not the reality, now abounds — even if the cash registers are not ringing as loudly as they once have.

The first time that idea was proposed — in 1984 — only one councilmember was willing to discuss it. In 1992, then-mayor Sheila Lodge suggested talking about it and was nearly run out of town by the Chamber of Commerce and other downtown business interests for her efforts. Now — in the height of the worst public health and economic crisis in living memory — the impossible has been made not just possible but almost inevitable and irresistible.

Correction: This story was revised to note James Fenkner, not Ray Mahboob, has led the charge to cut city officials’ salaries.

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