It’s no secret that Santa Barbara is in dire need of housing, but as more three- and four-story housing developments make their way through the city review process, it’s becoming more common for project planners to ask for exemptions on building height, setbacks, and parking requirements.
And while it’s become par for the course for projects to be granted these exemptions — typically a few feet above the city’s 45-foot max height in exchange for providing more units of much-needed housing — a recent hearing for a 23-unit mixed-use development on De la Guerra Street was an example of developers asking too much, even if just a few more feet.
The development, which stretches from 113 to 117 De la Guerra on property owned by John DeWilde — currently the home of Elsie’s Tavern and Green Table vegan restaurant — has been in the works for more than five years and received a conditional approval when it last came across the commission in February 2020.
Since then, the design team from DHMA Architecture partnered with the Kibo Group, which helped with the development of the Honor Bar on Coast Village Road, and made some revisions to the design, the biggest of which being three feet added to the overall height. On Wednesday, October 12, DHMA architects Ed De Vicente and Ryan Mills presented those latest plans to the Historic Landmarks Commission, where they explained why the team was asking for a height exemption after previously being approved for 45 feet.
Mills said that meeting the 45-foot height limit is “extremely challenging and full of compromises” and that extending the extra few feet would allow the units to have higher ceilings.
This comes as Santa Barbara is struggling to meet its quota for the state-mandated Housing Element program, in which the city must account for how it will build 8,000 housing units over the next eight-year cycle. To do this, the city’s review boards have been approving exemptions on many of the major developments, including an 82-unit project on Milpas Street that cruised through the review process with a development agreement that trimmed the claws of the usually nitpicky Architectural Board of Review.
“We’re moving into this uncharted territory, “ said Commissioner Cass Enberg. “We’re trying to bring in all this housing.”
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Like the majority of the commissioners, Enberg liked the overall design concept but felt that the added height was not as necessary as developers argued. “I think three feet is a lot,” she said.
Debates over the city’s building height requirements have gone on for decades and recently sparked a discussion on Reddit a few weeks ago with more than 70 comments delving into the pros, cons, and history of the city’s current limits — 60 feet or four stories in the commercial or industrial zones, three stories or 45 feet in multiple-family zones, and two stories or 30 feet in single- or two-family zones — which have been in place with minimal changes for nearly a hundred years.
On Wednesday, the debate continued as to whether three feet of height was worth “jumping up and down” over, as Commissioner Ed Lenvik put it, or if the need for housing was greater.
“I’m not sure that as we walk down the street, anybody would be able to see the difference between 45 and 48 feet. It’s going to be almost impossible to say that the building is three feet too high,” Lenvik said. “It’s a real dilemma,” he added. “This city is being pushed for housing, being pushed hard for housing.”
But as discussion went on, the commissioners decided that, in this case, three feet was enough to bring the mass, bulk, and scale to a point where it was too large for the neighborhood.
“Three feet is something — it’s not the end of the world — but also it’s something substantial, and it has some weight to it,” said Chair Anthony Grumbine. “So the question becomes: what are the units getting out of it that is so important that it needs to go up that amount?”
He suggested that designers could lower the proposed unit ceilings from 9’8″ closer to nine feet, which would still give tenants plenty of room.
“I would be able to support something that was a foot or two lower,” he said, “but at least showing the effort to really try to come down in size.”
The commissioners voted unanimously to continue the item four weeks to early November, where the design team will come back with revisions based on comments from the meeting. Specifically, the board asked designers to address the overall height, nail down details on the garage and roofing, strengthen corners on the third floor, and address the too-thin and spindly south-side arches.