Thursday, March 13, 2008

Commission hears from public on Coast Village project


After four and a half hours of public comment and presentations, the Santa Barbara Planning Commission left the audience hanging on Thursday after voting unanimously to table deliberations on a contentious mixed-use condo project on Coast Village Road.
With the public hearing dragging into the evening hours, the commissioners decided the process would be better served by waiting until next week to discuss and vote on the proposal to build a three-story development at 1298 Coast Village Road.

“There’s a lot of discussion that we need to have here, and the hour is late and the ability to focus clearly and think clearly starts to diminish after four or five hours,” Commissioner Addison Thompson said. “I think we’d do a better job if given a chance to digest this new information.”
The continuance will allow city planning staff to research issues of contention that cropped up during the public hearing as well. Commissioner Stella Larson also made a point to emphasize that the public comment period is closed and that no further contact should be made between the public and the commission.
“At this point, we just need time to think,” she said. “…Believe me, we hear you out there.”
When the commission convenes again on March 20 at 1 p.m., the project will be up for discussion among the commissioners and likely put to a vote.
The proposal in question calls for a 17,270 square-foot building at the corner of Coast Village Road and Olive Mill Road on a lot currently occupied by a gas station. With approximately 5,000 square feet of commercial space and eight two-story condos, the project would stand at 35 and a half feet tall.
At the western-most point of Coast Village Road — the tip of an area annexed by the City of Santa Barbara in the 1950s — the project falls under the purview of the city’s Planning Commission. The site is seen by many as both an entryway to the stretch of shops, restaurants and office complexes along that roadway, as well as to the community of Montecito.
Since the developer submitted his pre-application in July 2004, the project has sparked intense debate in the community. In addition to receiving 200 letters from the public, the Planning Commission also received more than 75 requests to speak, a turnout Chairman George C. Myers called “remarkable.”
Many opposed, including neighbors and Montecito residents, called the proposal out of step with other buildings along Coast Village Road, describing the project as a “behemoth” and a “blight on the neighborhood.”
Project supporters spoke out in favor of the developer’s proposal to remove a gas station they view as rundown and unsightly, and to replace it with a building they called architecturally “top-shelf” and “first-rate.”
Jeff Gorrell, an architect representing developer John Price, said the other option for the property is to renovate the existing 12-hour gas station and operate it 24 hours a day. Instead, he said, Price is taking the opportunity to “do something special with this site.”
“We recognize that this is a gateway project and we’ve treated it as such from the start,” Gorrell said.
As he ran through a flashy presentation including simulated images showing the proposed building from a number of angles, Gorrell described how it would be surrounded by landscaping and a pedestrian plaza. A tower that stretches to 39 and a half feet serves to break up what he said would be a “very boring third-story roof.”
In response to arguments that the building will block mountain views, he said a two-story building would have similar impacts. He also pointed out that the project is 10 feet below its allowable height of 45 feet.
“We’re at 35-foot-six, which could possibly be the shortest three-story building ever proposed in Santa Barbara,” he said, calling the project fitting for the area.
Derek Westen, an attorney for the neighbors immediately to the north, took issue with that characterization, telling the commissioners that the project will “completely dwarf” the single-family home.
“If you approve a gateway project this massive, it is the first step that kills the goose that laid the golden egg,” he said. “…This does not fit in with Montecito standards.”
He emphasized that the project is discretionary — the commission does not have to grant zoning changes or modifications that would allow it to move forward.
“There are many fine features to the project, but we thing, and this is the main issue, that the size, bulk and scale is out of character with the neighborhood,” Westen said.
The owner of the neighboring property, John Wallace, also came forward to address the commission.
“The developer’s problem is he’s trying to put two pounds in a one-pound bag,” he said.
Although the design meets or exceeds setback requirements at most points, the project would require modifications to several zoning standards in order to proceed.
Along the rear portion of the property, which abuts the Wallace residence, the developer is requesting a modification to allow storage space on the first floor and portions of a condo unit on the second floor to extend into the required setback space. City associate planner Peter Lawson said staff supports the alteration due to the fact that the majority of that side of the building meets or exceeds the setback standard, windows are minimal, and balconies are oriented away from the neighboring residence.
On the south-facing wall of the project, along Coast Village Road, a second-story balcony also juts out into the required 10-foot setback, Lawson said.
“It was simply a way to break up some of the mass and provide architectural interest,” he said, explaining his support for its approval.
Another modification is requested along the Olive Mill Road edge of the project, where a proposed emergency stairway also encroaches on the setback area. Lawson said that since the stairway does not create any pedestrian impediments and is not adjacent to a residential area, staff supports the modification.
The final modification would allow the developer to locate the required 10 percent of open space on the second floor of the building in a central courtyard.
“We found that appropriate because the residential space begins on the second level,” Lawson said.
After the applicant and the primary opponents, including a group known as Save Coast Village Road, made their presentations and arguments to the commission, a series of public speakers made their way to the podium, roughly half speaking in favor and half in opposition to the project.
Those opposed also addressed issues beyond size, bulk and scale concerns, such as traffic impacts, the need for an environmental impact report, and increased water usage.

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