Wednesday, August 20, 2008

New process for building review lauded


In an attempt to strengthen the lines of communication between city boards and commissions, Santa Barbara leaders expressed support for a new set of review criteria they believe will help address concerns about the size, bulk and scale of recent building projects.
The legislation would further empower design review boards to make their position clear on the size, neighborhood compatibility and overall impact of proposed buildings early in the review process.

“This is something that we’ve needed for a long time,” said Louise Boucher, a member of the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission (HLC). “It will make us be more clear in the very beginning, which is something that maybe we haven’t been as much as we should be.”
All new projects and major building additions must first go to the HLC and the Architectural Board of Review (ABR) for what is termed a “concept review” before heading to the Planning Commission for official land-use approvals.
Projects then head back to the HLC and ABR for further architectural and aesthetic tinkering before preliminary and final approvals are granted.
City leaders, concerned that the design review boards may be hesitant to criticize a project after the Planning Commission had already signed off, decided to give them a bit of reassurance.
“What was needed back then, as now, was clarification as to the powers of the ABR and HLC,” Councilmember Das Williams said. “…There was really this sense that people were cautious about saying no.”
Under an ordinance still being finalized, the two design review boards would examine projects and comment on consistency with guidelines; compatibility with the city and neighborhood; size, bulk and scale; sensitivity to adjacent landmarks; impact on public views; and open space and landscaping.
Those comments would come during the conceptual review stage and be specifically delineated in information considered by any board or commission that examines the project down the line.
“What this ordinance does is to say to the design review boards, we want you to talk about certain things,” City Attorney Steve Wiley said.
He said city officials begin noticing that the HLC and ABR might be feeling constrained by land-use approvals last summer. Wiley expressed hope that moving the discussion of size, bulk and scale in particular to an earlier stage in the process would ease that sense of discomfort.
“That’s fair for all concerned,” he said, adding that applicants will also know early on if city officials have issues or concerns about their projects.
However, Joe Andrulaitis, a representative from the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, said the legislation might potentially add difficulty to an already-lengthy approval process.
He expressed concerns that opinions could change at the HLC or ABR between when a project receives conceptual approval and when it returns from the Planning Commission for final review.
“It’s hard when the climate changes at [HLC] to go back and then we have to start all over again,” he said. “…Then we’re subjected to another round of redesign that wasn’t anticipated.”
Wiley agreed to an extent, saying that while there are always exceptions to the rule, any design board decision at the conceptual review should generally be followed through on during subsequent reviews should no dramatic changes in the project occur.
Members of the city’s Ordinance Committee agreed unanimously with the legislation as a whole after tweaking language in a few sections — sending it along to the full City Council for a final vote.
The committee also received an update on the progress of an interim ordinance that would further address concerns about the size, bulk and scale of new buildings going up in Santa Barbara.
Leaders envision the interim ordinance as a way to tide the city over until the Plan Santa Barbara process, an overhaul of the city’s guiding principles, is completed.
City Planner Bettie Weiss said she would prefer to hold off on discussing the interim ordinance until the Planning Commission responds to public comments and policy options gathered and drafted thus far in the Plan Santa Barbara process during a meeting in September.
“Staff feels it’s extremely important to have that information,” she said. “…Once that overall direction is provided, that will really provide a better path towards how to consider this.”
Williams, while agreeing that officials shouldn’t rush decisions on land use and planning, urged city planners to get moving on the interim ordinance as soon as possible following the September meeting.
“Staff should not delay discussion of the interim ordinance any longer than is absolutely necessary,” he said.

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