Thursday, April 17, 2008

Height fight opponents unite


Warring factions of Santa Barbara groups that have been at odds over plans to place an initiative on November’s General Election ballot that would change building height limits throughout the city announced yesterday a truce has been reached.
There’s only one hitch: The Santa Barbara City Council has to adopt an interim building regulation ordinance at its next meeting, or else, they say, efforts to move forward with the ballot initiative will continue.

The groups made the announcement on the steps of city hall and were joined by city council members Helene Schneider and Das Williams, who helped draft the interim ordinance. If approved, the ordinance would set the maximum building height throughout the city’s commercial zones that allow residential use at 40 feet — down 20 feet from the 60 feet currently allowed under the city’s charter.
“We all want to have a Santa Barbara that continues to be beautiful,” Williams said. “People stepped aside from pride and said ‘how can we make things best for Santa Barbara?’”
Rumblings about building height are nothing new in the city, which by most standards doesn’t have an abundance of tall buildings.
But many believe the ones it does have, 60 feet or not, are too tall. This talk got serious when the Save El Pueblo Viejo Committee announced in January its intent to place a height initiative on the ballot that would restrict commercial building heights to 45 feet in the majority of the city and 40 feet in the downtown historic district known as El Pueblo Viejo.
The drive for the initiative was fueled by a string of projects on Chapala Street that many said were too bulky for the area.
But criticism was quick to follow, and much of it came from Mickey Flacks, a local affordable housing advocate who belongs to the group Santa Barbara for All.
Flacks insisted that a more appropriate way to handle such an initiative was to go through city council, and voiced concern over how such a height restriction would promote urban sprawl and thwart affordable housing efforts.
Because the height initiative blossomed in the midst of an effort to amend the city’s General Plan, some argued that a better way to address issues like height would be at Plan Santa Barbara meetings.
One of these people was Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Steve Cushman, who voiced his disapproval of a ballot initiative last month.
Bill Mahan, chair of Save El Pueblo Viejo, said he always agreed going through the General Plan and the city was the proper route, but said he addressed the city council about the idea last summer and there was no interest.
Now there is apparently plenty of interest from the council, or at least from Williams, Schneider and Councilwoman Iya Falcone, who agreed to place the item on next Tuesday’s council agenda.
When asked what changed between last summer and now, Williams said, “Nobody was quite ready for it [then].”
Williams and Schneider both said the tone at Plan Santa Barbara meetings about the size, bulk and scale of buildings points in the direction of further restriction, as does the roughly 4,000 signatures that Mahan said his group has gathered in favor of the height initiative in the past two months.
He speculated that by November, he could have as many as 12,000 signatures — a clear sign, he said, that many are ready for change.
To the pleasure of some, the interim ordinance does a lot more than limit height.
It would mandate 10 percent of a net lot area to remain open space on mixed-use projects and 5 percent on commercial projects.
Projects where at least 30 percent of the residential units are classified affordable will be allowed an additional 12 feet of height. The ordinance would also set limitations on maximum floor areas and mandate additional setbacks of up to five feet from the property line facing a public street.
By dealing with the height issues through the General Plan, Flacks said any permanent ordinance would require environmental review. A community driven ballot initiative would not.
Mahan said the 40-feet height limit would be calculated from the ground to the top of the wall, which means a buildings roof could be several feet higher than 40 feet.
Williams said a local architect, who was once opposed to such an ordinance, called the proposed ordinance a “masterpiece.”
“This tackles the biggest issues in Santa Barbara on one page,” he said. “That’s hard.”
If approved, the ordinance would not affect projects approved by the city prior to May 15, 2008 or those deemed a “community priority.”
The City Council will discuss the ordinance next Tuesday, where Williams and everyone else at yesterday’s meeting hopes it will be approved and sent to the city’s Ordinance Committee. If that occurs, the ordinance will then return to the City Council for approval.
Williams said the ordinance is a way to stave off larger developments while the General Plan is being updated, and if approved, it could provide a framework for Plan Santa Barbara discussions.
The ordinance could be voted on as an amendment to the city charter on Nov. 3 2009.
The motivation, according to some at the meeting, was simple. To gets something better out of the process and do it together.
Over the past couple of months, those involved in drafting the proposed ordinance said they looked at their friends and neighbors, many of whom were on opposing sides of the issues, and asked one another why they were fighting.
For Williams, the day came when he realized he was at odds with his mentor, former Santa Barbara City Mayor Sheila Lodge, who is on the Save El Pueblo Viejo Committee.
“We just looked up at each other one day and said, ‘this is weird. We’ve got to come up with a compromise,’” he said.
Brian Cearnal, a local architect who was opposed to the proposed ballot initiative, said he met with Mahan at the Coffee Cat, which is located in a building higher than 40 feet on the corner of Anapamu and Anacapa Streets.
Cearnal said he told Mahan that under the proposed initiative, the Coffee Cat building, which he believes is perfect example of good building, couldn’t be built.
“We really ought to see what works,” he said. “The chop them off at the knees height ordinance is draconian.”


Anonymous said...

I just don't get this. Maybe it's because I'm a recent transplant to this town (~3 years now), but limiting a building's height in downtown to 40 feet from 60 just seems silly. It's not like you're going to ruin anyone's view, since downtown is roughly flat so that there really isn't much of a view to begin with, and I really struggle to figure out how a 60 foot building is any uglier, all other things being equal, than a 40 foot building. Finally, horizontal space is something that SB does _not_ have a lot of, so limiting building height a priori in blended commercial and residential areas like this seems really short sided from both economic and environmental health standpoints. This seems like just another aesthetically-based regulation that serves no useful purpose and doesn't really help out aesthetics to begin with. Maybe I'm missing something here?

citywatcher said...

Certainly shows the power of the people and how the City Council responds ONLY when there is a major outpouring of public effort. The ONLY reason they responded was because of the petition effort.

"The ordinance could be voted on as an amendment to the city charger on Nov. 3 2009." --- haha: Why wait until November 2009? You only need one guess on that one, on how there will be a HUGE rush to the counters to get permits for more HUGE buildings.

Make it November 2008 or sooner or at least an interim ordinance, as was done with the NPO.

Where, btw, was Marty in this gathering of notables?

Anonymous said...

Its kind of amazing how people who have lived in this area their whole lives can be so ignorant as to the real issues involved with such a discussion. By lowering building heights, we increase sprawl outside the downtown area, and I'm pretty sure these same people are on committees to stop development like that. Santa Barbara claims to be moving in a sustainable direction, but no one seems to realize that density is at the basis of all sustainability.

Eileen Hamilton said...

The real issue is that we don't want Santa Barbara to look like New York City. Would you want to live next to a 60 foot building? I know that I wouldn't. I've talked to people who live or work in near those huge buildings on Chapala and it has changed the quality of their lives. Some of them now live in perpetual shade! This is a serious problem that needs to be addressed now.

Anonymous said...

Reducing heights, saving the downtown central part of Santa Barbara does not equal sprawl. It simply means taller buildings and more middle-upper income people. It means destroying the Santa Barbara that we have known and cared for.

That may be what we, as a city want, but I don't think so. It's sort of like building wider highways to take care of traffic problems when what results is more traffic.

Sprawl results when neighboring communities allow it. Nothing that SB will do in its General Plan/zoning will cause Goleta, Carpinteria, the County to do differently than they are now doing. And all building more will do is increase the demand for more and more and more....

I think some of the members of the city council are flirting dangerously close to going against the will of the people. This was not an issue at the recent election --- and Mr. Williams is going around saying that he got the most votes and therefore he rules.

But I don't think in all of his commendable neighborhood protection efforts he said that he intended to give away the downtown neighborhoods to high rise and 70% of the residences to market rate condos.

Anonymous said...

@eileen: Santa Barbara will never look anything like New York City in our lifetimes (which really isn't necessarily a bad thing to begin with), as there are other factors that will ultimately limit growth beyond just building height (water resources, available jobs, transportation costs, location relative to other 'knowledge centers' of the world, etc.). I can completely empathize with the loss of a sense of community as the one and two story buildings of the past slowly get replaced--I absolutely love pre-WWII housing such as bungalo, craftsman, or victorian houses, and I also love neighborhoods that have a more "organic" feel that can only come from age and multiple periods of varying growth. However, I would much, much rather encourage density almost anywhere throughout the United States than sprawl, which is a primary contributor in our current environmental, ecological, energy crises. From that (admittedly more global) perspective, I think the impact on quality of life from loss of shade is exceedingly minimal, especially since everyone in downtown lives or works within a few minutes easy walk or bus of all the sun and sand they might want. The impact on quality of life that results from overly restrictive building regulations within pre-existing urban areas will be much, much greater in the long term.

(I should mention that I also posted the first comment on this thread.)

Anonymous said...

Sprawl does not result because "other communities allow it." Sprawl occurs because people need housing, and the costs of transportation, housing construction, etc. are such that developers/consumers decide to build/live in a more spread out way than they probably should. (There are also some serious cultural issues involved here in the US.) If the government would stop heavily subsidizing road construction and road widening in the way they do(a huge problem in my native state of Texas), which artificially lowers transportation costs, and similarly, if existing urban areas did not create building regulations that were too stringent (much less of a problem in Texas--they probably need a few more regulations in many cases actually), thus incentivising developers to build somewhere farther out, sprawl would be much less likely.

I'm not against building height limitations. There are many legitimate reasons for SB to have them. I just can't think of any major negative effects that occur at 60 feet that don't already occur in large part at 40 feet. I can think of several negative effects above about 60 feet that don't already exist below that, but not any below that general height.

I don't claim to know the full background of this fight, but it seems like a number of the arguments in favor of lowering allowed height center around preserving a sense of community in SB. Preserving community is a great aspiration, but building heights are _not_ what is eroding the community in this town.

(I guess I should get a login. This is the same guy from the first post again.)

moved here because i like it said...

In response to anon#1 who keeps posting about how he recently moved here and that 60 feet in not much more than 40. (Math, anyone? Sunlight, anyone? Fresh air, anyone? Elbow room, anyone???)

Message to anon#1, welcome to Santa Barbara. Want shaded crowded downtown streets? Try somewhere else. The vast majority of citizens are fighting hard to keep the quality of Santa Barbara.

Message to Das: Stop trying to kiss up to the growth industry. Your confusing the hell out of the people who voted for you. By the time they figure it out, the damage is done.

Anonymous said...

12.16 am anonymous said...
Sprawl does not result because "other communities allow it." Sprawl occurs because people need housing, and the costs of transportation, housing construction, etc. are such that developers/consumers decide to build/live in a more spread out way than they probably should."

Builders don't just "decide" to build and then build --- jurisdictions have to allow that building by permissive zoning that allows sprawl.

Zoning, of course, depends in part on the demand but more on the perceived demand by government.

Judy Orias said...

The Allied Neighborhood Association, made up of neighborhood associations from across the City of Santa Barbara, wishes to reaffirm its position regarding the Height Limits Initiative. The Association is in favor of the Initiative to protect El Pueblo Viejo (our historic downtown) and the adjacent commercial areas.

We will continue to collect signatures to insure that the voice of the people will be heard at an election. We urge city residents to continue to sign this all important petition to reduce the height of new buildings in our city. We especially want to thank the many residents who have already signed it.