The development of housing that provides for multiple tiers of income has long been a priority for the City of Santa Barbara. In keeping with this policy, the City of Santa Barbara applied for a grant to develop a “Specific Plan” for the site currently known as La Cumbre Plaza. Zoning for nearly 2,000 residential units was included a number of years ago in our General Plan Update, the largest and most ambitious housing effort in our history. Because of the “transformative” nature of a project of this scale, our grant proposal was recently scored in the top tier of all grant applications. The committee tasked with awarding these grants deemed that this project was appropriate and would truly provide significant housing for our community.
Despite this grant being recommended through normal procedures, it was denied at a meeting of the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments. SBCAG’s Chairperson, Das Williams, stated that the grant committee had erred and that the project “didn’t qualify.” At a preliminary hearing the previous day, Chair Williams had demanded that Santa Barbara City planning staff return with “proof” that a Specific Plan would not delay the project. The next day he chastised planning staff for not having brought any legal counsel, exhibits, or evidence that it wouldn’t result in delay. This demand of “proof” about a complex planning procedure was unusual and demanded of no other applicant on the grant award list.
Ultimately, the SBCAG board never voted on whether to fund the Specific Plan, as it was taken off the table and the money redistributed to the other grantees. The vote on the entire grant list, the only vote taken, was 10-1 and cannot truly be said to reflect the rejection of the city’s grant award.
Santa Barbara City’s staff, administration, and City Council has, in this past decade, overseen the most robust production of rental housing within the city for more than 60 years. Council has recently formed an “Affordable Housing Trust Fund” in order to support our Housing Authority, Habitat for Humanity, and other affordable housing producers to encourage public funding as well as private philanthropy participation. Labeling our citizens and staff “anti-housing” was unfair and incorrect. It is not, as was expressed, a matter of simplistic binary thinking where one is “either for or against housing.”
Chair Williams and the developer claim that planning for the entire site, i.e., the “Specific Plan,” would unnecessarily slow down their development, which comprises about one-third of the site, including Macy’s department store. As noted in the media, Macy’s announced that they would be open until 2028 when their lease runs out. A specific plan is estimated to take between 18-24 months to complete. That begs the question: Is there some other element other than “delay” in play here?
The surrounding community deserves deliberate and sustainable planning. A project of this magnitude will have impacts that will transform the north side of the city well into the next century. The common desire is to develop a neighborhood that provides the intended workforce, senior and market-rate housing, while preserving and enhancing our quality of life.
Honest debate over elements of a project this significant is expected and productive. Negative depictions of staff, volunteer citizen design review boards, and neighboring citizens are not. I am confident that the project proposed by the developers can go forward and provide much needed housing and a new neighborhood, without gaslighting honest efforts at good planning. Ideally, it will proceed as a collaborative effort and one that the community will celebrate.
Randy Rowse is mayor of the City of Santa Barbara.