Scott Black of American Indian Health & Services ran into the buzz saw of doubt and skepticism at the hands of the Santa Barbara City Council Tuesday night over a major zoning change he was seeking at one of the busiest intersections in Santa Barbara. By the end of the night, their request would be punted to the Planning Commission.
Black and his medical clinic — which now serves 7,000 low-income, uninsured, and underinsured patients out of a sprawling warren of offices in the El Mercado shopping complex — has just acquired the long-dormant Army Reserve property, at the intersection of State Street and Las Positas Road. For decades, the federal government owned this land, allowing it to lay fallow.
Black now wants to move his clinic operation there from El Mercado. The appeal is obvious. The Army Reserve building, which had been declared surplus property by the federal government, was once a military hospital, is located on a major bus route, and has an abundance of parking spaces.
For this move to happen, he told the council, he was seeking a change in the general plan, which now designates that land — more than two acres — as open space and park.
City Administrator Paul Casey described the clinic as “a noble use,” but also stated City Hall has officially coveted that land since 1964, when the general plan designated that property for park and open space. Casey said his office has been trying to acquire the property since 1998.
Councilmember Eric Friedman peppered Black and his attorney with questions about the financial viability of American Health and questioned whether they had the financial wherewithal to bring so expensive a land-use undertaking to fruition.
Black did little to reassure Friedman; neither did Collins, who at one point explained Black was not better known because he did not engage in high-profile fundraising campaigns the way other health-care executives did. He did not have to, she said; he ran a tight ship.
But many of the councilmembers worried about what would happen should the council grant the zoning change and American Indian fail to raise the funds necessary. What might go up in its place? The zoning change sought would also allow for the development of housing. Was that part of the plan?
Two times Friedman pressed attorney Collins on that point. “We do not have a current plan to do housing,” she answered to the first one. “Right now, we do not plan to propose housing on the site,” she answered to the second.
Councilmember Kristen Sneddon was struck by the lack of plans or any detail. She didn’t learn anything new Tuesday night that she didn’t learn two years ago when she first toured the Army Reserve building with Black. There were no plans then, either, she said, just “arms waving in the air” as she was escorted throughout the site.
Some councilmembers have made plain they would like City Hall to acquire the land to build housing affordable to middle-income residents. Mayor Cathy Murillo scolded her colleagues. The city didn’t get the land, she said; American Indian Health did. The clinic provides essential medical services to an underserved population. “I’m all for them,” she declared. “I’m surprised there’s reluctance.”
Councilmember Michael Jordan moved the matter be referred to the Planning Commission for conceptual review. Only Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez did not vote in favor, voting instead to abstain.
This article was underwritten in part by the Mickey Flacks Journalism Fund for Social Justice, a proud, innovative supporter of local news. To make a contribution go to sbcan.org/journalism_fund.