Developer Ed St. George and his partners got the green light from the Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday to proceed with plans to build a four-story mixed-use development on Milpas Street that exceeds the city’s 45-foot height limit in exchange for a binding commitment — lasting 90 years — that 16 of the building’s 82 rental units are priced to be affordable for middle-income earners.
Under the terms of the deal — technically known as development agreement — that St. George negotiated with City Administrator Paul Casey, the revised plans for the new development at 711 North Milpas Street, the current site of Capitol Hardware, will be allowed to be as high as 52 feet in certain spots and 48 feet in others. In addition, Casey and the City Council have approved St. George’s request to add six more rental units to the proposed development than the plans approved by the council last year.
That recent development history of the site has been fraught with intense controversy over its size, design, and neighborhood compatibility, not to mention financial-uncertainty delays. When the previous developer, Alan Bleecker, failed to secure funding to get the proposed development built, Bleecker brought in St. George as a partner to get the project over the goal line. St. George and Bleecker concluded that the project as approved could not garner the funding needed, so St. George led the charge to change the design and size of the project.
For starters, he proposed a total architectural makeover, offering a far more traditional Spanish colonial look as opposed to the more contemporary industrial chic design Bleecker proposed and many neighbors found unduly harsh. But the project needed to be bigger, they also maintained, to pencil out. It needed more units. That in turn, they insisted, required a higher profile on the skyline. Rather than submitting new plans and starting from scratch, St. George asked the council to bless the development before going through the lengthy rigors of the city’s design review process.
While his application for a development agreement is not unprecedented, it’s extremely rare. St. George’s ace in the hole was his offer to set aside 16 units as affordable housing. The proposal the council previously approved included no affordable housing units. For good measure, St. George said he would seek to give preference to applications submitted by teachers and employees of the Police Department.
St. George has emerged as a high-profile player on the local political stage in recent years, and he has been outspoken in his criticism of what he terms the weak leadership style of City Administrator Casey. St. George has gone so far as to threaten a recall campaign against Casey, and he recently wrote an editorial in Noozhawk detailing all the things he’d get done — in just one day — were he to be made City Administrator. For all that, St. George had nothing but kind words for Casey, with whom he negotiated the terms of the new development agreement, offering to give the City Administrator a big “COVID hug.”
Under the terms of the development agreement, St. George still has to take his new plans to the Architectural Board of Review, the Planning Commission, and the City Council again for review and public comment. It’s not clear, however, how much leverage these bodies can exert on the more detailed plans given the council’s vote this week.
The council vote was 6-1 on favor of the development agreement. Councilmember Alejandra Gutierrez — whose district included the proposed site — led the charge on behalf of the deal; Councilmember Kristen Sneddon — the councilmember typically most concerned about size, bulk, scale, and neighborhood compatibility — cast the sole vote against.
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