Santa Barbara Is Not the Balkans

I grew up in Santa Barbara and have followed from afar the debate about the behemoth Munger Hall proposed to house some 4,500 UCSB students. Reading a recent piece in the Independent where Charles Munger responds publicly to some of the design, size, environmental, and psychological critiques of his 1.68 million square-foot building one phrase jumped out at me: Munger’s design had received UCSB’s with no public review.

If true, this absence of a public comment and design review period smacked of the arrogant, undemocratic paternalism I am very familiar with having lived and reported from Serbia, where a despotic authoritarian leader invoked lex specialis, usurped the powers of Belgrade’s urban planning institute, and thumbed his nose when a group global architects condemned the scale and design of two 168-meter-tall mixed-use residential buildings on the topographically fragile banks of the Sava and Danube rivers.

Residents of Belgrade took to the street for months and months of massive, but peaceful, protests. All for naught. These colossal towers now near completion. Contemptuous residents called it “Dubai on the Danube.”

But Santa Barbara is not the Balkans. UCSB and area planners should not shrink from a period public review and commentary. Open debate usually yields good ideas from people who really care about the shape of their community.

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