Monday, March 24, 2008

Chamber votes against height limit initiatives


After hearing from both sides of the debate on a proposed height limit initiative, the Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce voted unanimously to oppose any grassroots ballot measures to lower the maximum building height in the city.
“Initiatives are not the proper way,” said Steve Cushman, executive director of the chamber. “…If there is going to be a change, and there will be change in the ordinances that govern development in Santa Barbara, it should come out of the General Plan update.”

Bill Mahan, president of Save El Pueblo Viejo, a community group leading an initiative to lower height limits, delivered a presentation to the chamber during its board meeting on Monday. Mickey Flacks and Steve Yates, opponents to the measure, argued against lowering building heights.
Mahan said he approached the City Council last year and found them unresponsive to suggestions that they take up the issue. As a result, he pursued a community-led initiative, which he admitted has to be much more simplistic than a city-led measure.
“They can do a better job,” he said, adding that a councilmember recently approached him and expressed interest in a city-lead initiative.
“We are going to proceed to discuss it,” Mahan said. “I don’t know what will result. If it happens, I will be happy.”
Nonetheless, he pushed for support of Save El Pueblo Viejo’s initiative, which would limit buildings to 45 feet in commercial zones, 40 feet in El Pueblo Viejo and 30 feet in residential areas.
“We’ve got to do something about this 60-foot height limit,” he said. “It’s too much.”
Mahan’s proposal would largely affect the Gutierrez, Haley and Milpas street corridors, along with downtown Santa Barbara. He admitted to voting for the buildings going up along Chapala Street that have sparked a community debate during his time on city planning boards and said he doesn’t have a problem with tall buildings.
“I love big buildings,” Mahan said. “The Arlington [Theatre] is my favorite building. I just don’t like too many of them.”
Flacks spoke for a group called Santa Barbara for All, which she described as an ad-hoc organization largely composed of architects who oppose the initiative.
“Initiatives are not a good way to do planning,” she said.
A city-led initiative would be better, Flacks said, since it is not limited to a single topic, such as building heights or setbacks, and also requires environmental review of potential impacts.
Yates, the director of the American Planning Association’s local chapter, further railed against a no-growth approach, calling it a threat to smart development. Although acknowledging that Santa Barbara is largely built-out, he said the city should focus on housing people in more sustainable ways.
He also criticized height limit initiatives as too simple and blunt of a tool to address complex planning issues.
“It’s a bit like cutting off your arm because you don’t like the color of your nail polish,” Yates said.
Organizers circulating petitions for Save El Pueblo Viejo initiative, as well as those planning another petition for a measure limiting heights to 38 feet citywide, will have to collect enough valid voter signatures in order to earn a place on the ballot.

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