Downtown developer Jim Knell is proposing to demolish two existing structures — Restoration Hardware on State Street (left) and the Press Room on Ortega Street (right) — to make way for a four-story housing project. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

A proposal to build a four-story housing project on the 700 block of State Street plop in the middle of downtown Santa Barbara received a warm and enthusiastic — if conceptual — welcome by the City of Santa Barbara’s Planning Commission on Thursday, September 3.

Reflecting the profound need for more housing and the dubious future of retail as it’s currently understood, commercial landlord and developer Jim Knell of SIMA Management is proposing to build 36 units of rental housing in a four-story project that will stand 48 feet off the ground at its highest points. Knell is proposing to demolish two existing structures — at 710 State Street (Restoration Hardware) and 15 East Ortega Street (the Press Room) — while leaving the properties from 714 to 720 State Street still standing.

The Planning Commission hearings were strictly of a conceptual nature; such exchanges are designed to alert developers sooner rather than later of any imminent issues. In this case, the commissioners themselves were welcoming in their comments.

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Supporters of the Press Room, the iconic and much-loved Ortega Street watering hole that would be displaced by the proposed development, expressed concern about the loss of a downtown business that has consistently drawn an especially loyal local customer base. Commissioners expressed hope that Knell — the biggest commercial landlord in downtown Santa Barbara — could work out new accommodations for the Press Room.

Downtown developer Jim Knell | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

The Planning Commission hearing is the first of many design review hearings that will span many years before a final resolution is reached. The average size of the proposed units is 804 square feet. Given that Knell is applying under the auspices of the city’s Average Unit-size Density program — which allows greater building densities and less demanding requirements — 10 percent of the units will have to be affordable. To the extent there’s any push from City Hall to expand that, Knell — known as a successful, hard-nosed business operator — indicated he’d push back. The high price of real estate, he noted, does not allow for affordable development.

Knell’s is the second major housing proposal to hit State Street this year. Developer Peter Lewis has submitted plans for an 81-unit mixed-use development of rental housing and retail in the parking lot behind 410 State Street, the now-vacant site of a former Staples office-supply emporium. Currently, his plans call for maximum heights of 52 feet, which exceeds the city’s current height maximum of 48 feet.

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