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Landlord and developer Ed St. George wants to demonstrate that it is in fact possible to fight City Hall and win. In past months, St. George has emerged as an outspoken critic of City Administrator Paul Casey and has gone so far as to spearhead a campaign to have Casey fired. Casey, St. George contends, has not provided adequate leadership in a time of crisis and more specifically has failed to tame the red-tape dragon that he contends the city’s Community Development Department has become. St. George is now seeking City Council support for major changes he hopes to make to a four-story development plan approved — but not built — at 711 North Milpas Street.
In going directly to the council, St. George is hoping to bypass the city’s traditional development review process. To date, two councilmembers — Eric Friedman and Alejandra Gutierrez — have indicated they think the changes proposed by St. George are beneficial enough that they justify the unusual path he’s seeking. The project — on the site currently occupied by Capitol Hardware — would be considerably higher — by seven feet — than the development project approved by the council last year after a knock-down, drag-out meeting five hours long. It would also designate that 20 percent of its 82 rental units would be affordable. Under the current approved plans, none of the rental units are affordable. All can be priced at whatever the market will bear.
St. George’s proposal would also give preferential weight to applications by police officers and teachers. In addition, St. George is proposing to change the boxy, modern architectural style of the approved plans with the white stucco walls and red-tiled roofs of Santa Barbara’s ubiquitous Spanish-colonial style.
With the entry of St. George, the convoluted and contentious saga of 711 North Milpas Street now has more wrinkles than a litter of waterlogged Shar-Peis. St. George became a partner-investor in the Milpas Street development when Alan Bleecker, owner of Capitol Hardware and a fixture on Milpas Street for more than 30 years, discovered he could not secure the capital necessary to get his four-storied mixed-use plans actually built. So Bleecker teamed up with St. George, a major landlord throughout the South Coast who is now on a hotel-building streak.
Capitol Hardware bought Santa Barbara Plumbing half a block down Milpas recently. In a couple of months, both plumbing and hardware stores will be combined “in a perfect marriage of two businesses,” Bleecker said.
St. George is a big guy with a big personality, big muscles, and big plans. He proposed adding six new housing units to Bleecker’s approved plans and 22 new parking spaces. To make this work, the elevations would have to jump from 45 feet to 52. Forty-five happens to be the maximum height allowable without special dispensation from City Hall.
He also proposed giving the proposal a radical makeover in terms of architectural style. The sharply edged contemporary style proposed by Bleecker was a tough sell in the neighborhood. It was, in fact, the focus of intense opposition by some neighborhood activists who bird-dogged the project with relentless passion and vitriol.
The path Bleecker walked to secure final approval was long, tortured, and convoluted in the extreme for all involved. Neither he nor St. George have any appetite for taking their new plans back to “square one” of the city’s traditional design review process. But the changes they’ve proposed are far too large to qualify for the bureaucratic blessing of “substantial conformance” that are routinely bestowed for minor changes. To get where they want to go, St. George and Bleeker are seeking what’s known as “a development agreement,” an outside-the-box legal and planning tool to which City Hall has availed itself about two times in the past 40 years.
Councilmember Alejandra Gutierrez says she was first approached by Alan Bleecker; she represents the district and had been critical of the previous iteration of the plan. The selling point of the new proposal was the change of architectural style and the inclusion of 16 units of affordable housing. That’s 20 percent. Under city guidelines, housing developments submitted as part of the city’s high-density housing regulations must set aside 10 percent of the units built as affordable. But because Bleecker’s original project was first proposed before those rules had been adopted, he was not required to provide any affordable units.
According to the letter submitted by councilmembers Gutierrez and Friedman, the key selling point for the St. George proposal is the affordable housing. Only because of that, they argued, would they propose this novel approval path.
“Our city’s community planning processes are in transition,” they wrote in their council memo. “Until we have defined these new streamlined systems, it is incumbent upon the City Council to lead the effort, particularly when we are presented with solid opportunities for real, capital ‘A’ affordable housing.”
Gutierrez and Friedman added a cautionary note, stating they would not normally intervene in the city’s traditional development review process: “As we noted at the outset, this project has been highly unusual since its inception and it has already been to the council on appeal. In the context of this request to the Council, we wish to emphasize that all project negotiations must be conducted by and through our professional staff.”
Correction: An editing mistake stated Capitol Hardware was “formerly” at 711 North Milpas; it is still going strong at that address and will be combined with Santa Barbara Plumbing half a block away in a couple of months. This story was changed on June 27 to state it was Alan Bleecker, not Ed St. George, who first approached Councilmember Alejandra Gutierrez.
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