Big Plans Downtown

Credit: Fred L. Sweeney, architect

There are big plans for Santa Barbara’s downtown. And by “big,” I mean tall. If you grew up here or moved here and appreciate the relatively small city vibe, be prepared for that to change. If you like the people-friendly, human scale and atmosphere of the current downtown, get ready for an explosion. If you like the current downtown San Francisco, you’ll love the future Santa Barbara.

Some of the changes are due to developers’ natural inclination to take advantage of already popular places. Why wouldn’t someone rather live and work in Santa Barbara than commute from out of town? Some of the changes will be due to state pressure to increase housing across California, something that has been difficult in a city physically hemmed in by the ocean, mountains, and other municipalities.

Recently the City Council agreed to seek an outside consultant to determine the economic feasibility of private development according to height tiers in prescribed City areas. The suggested tiers were based on staff research and the results of a cranky online public survey over a 13-day period, during which 48 Santa Barbarans placed pins in a map to suggest building heights.

After a prolonged meeting scrum led by two Councilmembers to increase the tiers presented to the consultant, the Council settled on using the numbers presented by staff and supported by that tiny group of citizens. Nevertheless, the suggested starting point for feasible buildings in the downtown will be a stark four stories. In contrast, Planning Commissioner (and former mayor) Sheila Lodge noted in public comment that there currently only a dozen buildings over two stories on State Street in the 14 blocks from the ocean to Victoria Street. BIG change.

Here’s a final, relatable point, understandable even if you are unclear about Floor-Area-Ratios (FARs) that will become the new metric for building size, bulk, and scale. The historic Brinkerhoff Avenue Landmark District is a two-block area filled with early-20th-century cottages, each with surrounding yard. Due to those yards, each parcel has an FAR of approximately 0.5, meaning half of the lot has a one-story building on it. In the future, right across Chapala Street could be four-story buildings. Say goodbye to any views of the mountains those cottages had a century ago.

Big changes are coming to Santa Barbara. Contact your City Councilmember if you have an opinion.

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