Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Council OKs Chapala development


After a grueling four-hour public hearing on Tuesday afternoon, the Santa Barbara City Council unanimously decided to give preliminary approval to a condo project on Chapala Street, overturning a Historic Landmarks Commission denial many viewed as inappropriately timed.
In their deliberations, city leaders transcended the merits of the project up for discussion to examine fundamental issues raised about the city’s planning and review process. Several leveled tempered criticism at the HLC for straying away from that process.

“I really do think that we’re in this position because, out of good intentions, the HLC took an action that I find inappropriate,” Councilmember Iya Falcone said. “…I do not like it. I do not like it at all, being in this position.”
The development in question is a three-story, mixed-use condo project at 517 Chapala St. that started working through the city’s planning process in 2005. Plans call for six residential units, two commercial spaces and 17 parking spaces on two parcels currently being utilized as a used car sales lot.
After receiving favorable comments about its size, bulk and scale at an HLC conceptual review, the project received unanimous approval from the Planning Commission on July 13, 2006. After it returned to the HLC for preliminary approval, an apparent change in sentiment among commissioners resulted in requests for significant changes to the project — particularly related to the height and scale of the proposed building, as well as its compatibility with the neighboring Brinkerhoff Avenue Landmark District.
Senior city planner Jaime Limon explained that HLC conceptual review is the proper venue to bring up more substantial issues such as scale, height, compatibility, setbacks and zoning modifications. After Planning Commission approval, he said the HLC’s role is largely to make minor changes related to architecture and appearance.
“I think the process would be not well served if, in fact, our applicants are open to this type of substantial change this late in the review process,” Limon said.
In addition, the HLC initially gave the project preliminary approval on Sept. 19, 2007 before a commissioner requested a reconsideration, which led to the approval being rescinded about a month later.
“Among the mess-ups in this process, that is probably one of the biggest ones,” Councilmember Das Williams said.
He said reconsideration requests need to be made within days of the vote, rather than weeks later at another meeting. City attorney Steve Wiley agreed that the appeal highlighted concerns he has held in the past about reconsideration issues, suggesting the council consider developing guidelines restricting reconsideration requests to within 24 or 48 hours.
In any event, the project developer, represented by architect Detlev Peikert, decided to continue to work with the HLC in hopes of finding common ground on the project.
“We did try to make as many changes as we could,” Peikert said. “…We didn’t object to [the approval being rescinded], feeling again that we wanted to be cooperative.”
But after several more meetings with the HLC, he said it appeared they had come “to the end of the road” in terms of any further changes they could make without substantially altering the design approved by the Planning Commission. So Peikert requested a denial from the HLC in order to be able to appeal the issue to the City Council, which he received on a 7-2 vote.
Fermina Murray, an HLC commissioner who spoke at the hearing, acknowledged she goofed when first examining the project in 2005.
“I will admit to you the mistake we made at the very first meeting when this came before us,” she said. “…I did not raise the issue of [compatibility with] Brinkerhoff and my conscience is bad about that.”
In contrast, commissioner Alex Pujo said he did not make a mistake in approving the project at any stage along the process. He argued that the project meets guidelines and is compatible with neighboring properties, even going as far as to characterize landscaped setbacks along Chapala Street as inappropriate urban landscaping.
Commissioner Robert Adams disagreed while explaining his reasoning for requesting the HLC revisit the project following its preliminary approval.
“I went back to the site the next morning and I felt bad,” he said, adding that he felt the landscaping was inadequate. “… I’m here to fight for little pockets of open space in our urban district, and if I can’t do that, I’m not doing my duty.”
Ultimately, the council determined on a 6-0 vote that the HLC had overstepped its bounds in trying to rectify mistakes Adams and other commissioners felt they had made.
“There are a number of errors in this whole process,” Williams said. “Some of those errors have been made by the applicant. Some of the errors have been made by the project opponents. Some may have been made by the Planning Commission.
“The only mistakes we can look at today are those of the HLC.”
Many neighbors, including Karen McFadden, owner of the 1887 Victorian home adjacent to the project site, addressed the council during the public comment period, expressing concerns that the building would loom over the Brinkerhoff neighborhood and negatively impact the historic district.
But while several of the councilmembers seemed in agreement that the project is not appropriate for the area, they said the time to argue over that issue had come and gone.
“We have to respect the decisions as they are made,” Councilmember Dale Francisco said, explaining that while he found the buildings going up along Chapala to be “disturbing,” the decision on this particular project’s size, bulk and scale had been made years ago.
“Unfortunately, I feel that I do have to uphold the appeal,” he said.
Once the council had arrived at that decision, they only had to iron out a few design changes made since the project received Planning Commission approval. In order to address privacy concerns brought forward by neighbors of the project, Peikert said he eliminated third-story balconies and replaced them with rooftop gardens.
He said due to changes requested by the HLC, he also had to increase the square footage of the project in order to accommodate setbacks along one edge of the property. The council voted to send the project back to the HLC for in-progress review to settle those issues.
In order to address the larger issues with the planning process, several members of the council called for increased communication between design review boards, such as the HLC and the Architectural Board of Review, and the Planning Commission. Several planning commissioners came forward to echo those sentiments.
“I think we seriously need to bring this communication gap together so we don’t find ourselves here again,” commissioner Bruce Bartlett said.

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