Alejandra Gutierrez | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

One of the most controversial housing projects to survive Santa Barbara’s planning review process has reentered the spotlight, but this time its developers are looking to drastically overhaul the original plan approved last year.

The project at 711 North Milpas Street, currently occupied by Capitol Hardware, was approved on March 2019 as a four-story, 76-unit complex of one- and two-bedroom units. The project’s style is modern, and it has no affordable units.

It received immense backlash for its potential to gentrify the mostly low-income, Latino Eastside neighborhood and for its style and height, which clashed with the older, Spanish-style businesses and homes along Milpas Street. Nevertheless, it was approved, and the developers may pull building permits to begin construction, according to Jarrett Gorin, principal with Vanguard Planning LLC. 

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But then Capitol Hardware owner Alan Bleecker realized he didn’t have the capital to actually build his approved project, so he partnered with developer Ed St. George, a prominent landlord in the region. St. George proposed adding six units, increasing the height from 45 to 52 feet, designating 16 moderate-income apartments, and redesigning it as a Spanish-colonial building.

Taking the project directly to City Council, though highly unconventional, was the developers’ approach to avoid the city’s notoriously convoluted planning review process a second time. The approach worked.

The council voted 6-0 to enter into negotiations with Bleecker and St. George for a development agreement. Councilmember Meagan Harmon was absent. The vote specified developing a term sheet that would include councilmembers’s deliberative comments.

“It is really rare to have private developers offer this high percentage of affordable housing because of the tough system we have in place and how much money they waste in the waiting process,” said Councilmember Alejandra Gutierrez, who represents the Eastside where the project is located. “I mean, let’s be honest here; they are taking a risk. They’re providing affordable housing because they are local and invested and they understand the need.”

Gutierrez, who brought the proposal to the council with Councilmember Eric Friedman, passionately advocated for the private agreement throughout the meeting. She referenced the recent Grand Jury report on housing, which slammed the city for failing to build affordable rentals. She said the units could help fill the hole left by the Average Unit-sized Density incentive program, a program that was intended to motivate developers to build more housing but created mostly market-rate units that are unaffordable to local families and workers.

But not everyone agreed. 

“When this project was originally proposed, residents screamed … because of the significant impact the neighborhood would suffer because of this monstrosity,” said Natalia Govoni, a business owner on Milpas Street. “And yet, here we are again, facing the same issue…. This project is different from the original and therefore should start over from the beginning. These developers should not get special treatment.”

The developers also said the units would be considered for police officers and teachers first, though exactly how that could be executed was unclear. Several teachers and supporters of police spoke in appreciation of the proposed preference, but other members of the public did not.

“We’ve heard real smooth and quick talking here this evening,” Rosanne Crawford said. “To be honest, it makes my skin crawl to hear that this affordable housing is going to teachers. What about the working poor and the rest of the community?”

On the virtual dais, Mayor Cathy Murillo was most concerned with receiving public input, and she asked Gorin if the developers would be willing to hold a community meeting and take the revisions to the Architectural Board of Review. 

Gorin said they intended to have the changes reviewed by the ABR, and they would hold a public presentation with questions rather than a community input meeting because if plans changed too much, it would have to go back through the planning process. But it is likely Murillo’s requests for more public participation will be in the list of terms.

“This is not a normal process, but this is not a normal project,” Friedman said. “We now have something that tries to address the lack of affordable housing.”

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