Proposed Santa Barbara Westside Clinic Development Stalled by Gas Station
Too Few Parking Spaces Cited as Reason for Rancho Market’s Appeal
A neighboring gas station appealed the Santa Barbara Planning Commission’s approval of a new Westside clinic proposed by Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics (SBNC) hampering plans to develop the project.
SBNC’s chief executive officer, Dr. Mahdi Ashrafian, said the proposed three-story clinic — to be built across from their existing Micheltorena location — would address the increasing needs of the growing Westside community.
The new building would serve three times the number of patients as the existing clinic, offering affordable medical, dental, and behavioral health services and allowing the existing clinic to begin offering chiropractic, acupuncture, and women’s health services.
“We build our clinics in the neighborhoods where there’s a lot of need, so that our patients can come from those neighborhoods,” Ashrafian said in an interview with the Independent. “We have had that clinic in that neighborhood since the 1970s.”
However, the owner of a neighboring gas station, El Ranchero Market, appealed the city Planning Commission’s approval of the project based on limited parking.
The commission’s clinic approval included a modification allowing less parking spaces required by the city, but the gas station’s appeal claims that their business is already affected because the existing clinic does not provide sufficient parking.
According to the appeal, the clinic’s visitors have used the gas station “as a parking lot and loading zone,” blocking use by their customers, despite warnings by both the gas station and the clinic discouraging people from doing so. The owners of the gas station, Auto Fuels Inc., has already served two cease-and-desist orders to the clinic in 2022.
Currently, the only parking provided by the existing clinic is one space for people with disabilities. Ashrafian said that the new clinic would have better parking accommodations, including a patient parking lot and drop-off zone, which he thought was “actually going to help the parking situation.”
“We really want to be good neighbors,” Ashrafian said. “But I think it should be a mutual thing of interest…. There’s so many patients that could benefit from that project.”
Ashrafian said that the gas station owner did not come to their open house for the new clinic or “express any sort of opposition” before the initial December 15 Planning Commision hearing.
Andrew Hazlett, the attorney representing Auto Fuels, said at the hearing that the new clinic prompts additional parking and traffic concerns, which the parking modification does not adequately address, and that it “conflicts with all seven of the parking regulations’ stated purposes” in the Santa Barbara Municipal Code.
“To be clear, we are solely objecting to the modified parking; we aren’t here to dispute the project’s support … or anything like that,” Hazlett said. “We don’t believe that this proposal can be approved as it is.”
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As stated in the Planning Commission’s Staff Report, the project would need 44 parking spaces to comply with the city’s requirements based on the size of the proposed clinic. The current proposal only includes 11 parking spaces on-site, supplemented by 22 employee parking spaces at a church off-site with a shuttle transporting staff.
However, the gas station’s appeal also states that the suggested church for off-site staff parking is nearly two miles away from the proposed project, which exceeds the maximum distance of 500 to 1,240 feet for off-site parking set by the city’s Parking Ordinance.
The proposed accommodations are in accordance with the Parking Demand Studies submitted by the clinic that concluded the total parking demand during regular business days would be 33 spaces, supplemented by the drop-off zone.
“The yellow drop-off zone can not possibly handle the six cars the staff recognizes are going to have to be there at peak periods, plus the shuttle,” Hazlett said. “And these people are not going to have any place to park, and more importantly, the numbers don’t account for the Ubers, the taxis, and the ride shares, and those parking studies are two and a half years old.”
Commission staff also expressed concern that the current plans for parking may have a negative impact on surrounding businesses, residential uses, and available street parking, but they determined that the parking modification was justified due to the “unique circumstances” of the clinic in that it is a nonprofit, and provides a “broad public benefit,” to meet public health needs, according to their December 15 resolution.
“The new clinic will provide much needed medical care for the lower-income population within the region … regardless of their ability to pay, in an environment that fosters respect, compassion, and dignity,” the resolution goes on to state.
“I share the staff’s concern about the parking arrangement where it’s that far away and the issues that can come up,” said commissioner Sheila Lodge during the December 15 hearing, “however, this Westside Clinic provides such a vital service to the community, to an underserved community, that I’m going to overlook it all and support the project.”
City Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez said he went door to door to get the opinion of as many business owners as he could back in 2019, when the project was new, and the gas station was owned by different people, and again in September 2022, but neither time were the gas station’s owners physically on the property.
“Everyone seemed to be totally cool with it; you know, they’re looking forward to having state-of-the-art healthcare so close to home,” Gutierrez said. “But I’ve made multiple attempts to get into contact with the station’s new owners and have them contact me, but nothing.”
The city council is scheduled to consider the appeal at their regular meeting on March 14 to determine whether the proposed clinic has the city’s approval. Should the appeal be upheld, the project as proposed would be rejected.
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