Project planners typically dread the gauntlet of city review hearings in the notoriously picky boardrooms of Santa Barbara, but for some projects — like the 82-residential-unit mixed-use development proposed at the Capitol Hardware location on Milpas Street — a development agreement with the city all but guarantees an approval, essentially leaving members of the Architectural Board of Review (ABR) with their hands tied during design review.
On Tuesday, the designers behind the 701 Milpas Street project — a joint effort between the property owner, Alan Bleecker; and Santa Barbara mega-developer Ed St. George — revealed the project’s latest plans for the first time since last year, now with the armor of the development agreement to protect them from the sharp claws of the ABR.
In the previous hearing, boardmembers called the design “awkward,” “repetitive,“ “monolithic,” and inconsistent with the surrounding neighborhood. The project was moved forward with the intention that it would address the board’s comments and bounce back for further notes.
Since then, the City Council and Planning Commission have entered into a development agreement with the project planners, granting exceptions for height, setback modifications, and parking modifications, as long as the development meets certain other requirements like offering at least 16 “moderate-income” affordable units (moderate-income level is between 80 and 120 percent of the average median income). The agreement all but guarantees that the project will be built as is, and drastically limits the scope of design review.
Jarrett Gorin, of Vanguard Planning, knew as much when presenting the project to the board, and said that any “substantive” changes suggested would be met with a “hard no,” because “it’s inconsistent with the development agreement that we have signed onto with the city.”
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Many of the boardmembers expressed concern over the restrictions of the agreement, and the blurred lines it created between what could and could not be addressed in the hearing.
“I’m sure you can sense the board’s consternation and frustration,” said boardmember Dennis Whelan. “It’s as if the City Council, the developing agent, and Planning Commission have asked us to do plastic surgery, but we can’t use a scalpel.”
Despite having its purview and scope of review limited, and being prevented from addressing the overall size and shape of the building, the board found plenty of criticisms to leave for the project’s designers, from its “spindly” tower to its “too-white” exterior.
Eventually, the board unanimously decided to continue the project indefinitely, saying the project’s updated Spanish Mediterranean look was a step in the right direction, but that there were still a few ways to make a building of that size work on Milpas. They suggested different shading elements, changing the hard corners, and using several off-white colors to separate the otherwise unbroken building.
“Subtle detailing differences can go a long way in making this appear a little bit more like individual buildings,” said Chair Kevin Moore.
The project will be scheduled to return for another design review, where it is expected to meet the criteria for full design approval.
Correction: The Architectural Board of Review meeting was held on Tuesday, September 6, not Wednesday, and the Capitol Hardware store is still operating at 711 Milpas Street.