Thursday, September 11, 2008

Survey says city on track with Plan SB


Santa Barbara leaders got their first look at a recent public opinion survey related to Plan Santa Barbara, the overarching revision of the city’s guiding principles, during a lengthy hearing yesterday.
While noting there are still obvious divisions in community opinion, officials said the survey shows the city is moving in the right direction with its ongoing overhaul of the General Plan.

“A lot has been affirmed, not only in terms of what we’ve heard from those who have been participating, but also the issues that the council asked us to examine,” City Principal Planner John Ledbetter said.
Those issues underlying the process — often the most controversial and visible topics that have been dubbed “policy drivers” — include growth management, climate change, economic and fiscal health, and historic preservation.
During a four-day telephone poll, workers with a public opinion research company interviewed 400 city residents in mid-August. The margin of error is approximately 5 percentage points.
When asked if the city is generally moving in the right direction, 53 percent responded affirmatively, while 37 percent said Santa Barbara is on the wrong track, according to the report.
Rick Sklarz, a senior researcher with Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin and Associates, said the survey revealed that top priorities for the city should include reducing traffic congestion by improving traffic flow and public transit; maintaining the city’s historic character; managing growth; and increasing the availability of housing for middle-class families.
“Residents regard improving traffic as a top priority for city government to address in the future,” Sklarz said. “That’s clear from the results.”
More than half of those surveyed, 55 percent, said solving traffic problems is a major issue.
When questioned about policies being floated as part of the Plan Santa Barbara process, respondents voiced the highest support for actions that preserve local open space and the environment, reduce carbon emissions, alleviate traffic congestion, and avoid new buildings that block views.
Survey results were more divided on policies that encourage new multi-unit affordable housing projects, new business development, more bike lanes, and more mixed-use projects.
Those surveyed offered the lowest support for changes to city principles that limit the number of parking spaces in new commercial and multi-unit developments as a way to encourage use of public transportation, bicycles or walking.
A section of the survey also quizzed participants on their knowledge of the General Plan overhaul, which has been in motion for longer than a year. Roughly two-thirds of the respondents said they had no knowledge of Plan Santa Barbara.
“This is not to be unexpected,” Sklarz noted. “People live busy lives.”
Ledbetter said that figure is actually higher than many communities going through a similar process. Of those who are aware of the project, 35% percent had a favorable impression, while 8 percent described their experience as unfavorable and 57 percent had no reply.
“You’re talking about the issues your residents want talked about,” Sklarz said when asked what the city could do to improve the process. “…It might not sound sexy or exciting, but more of the same.”
Following several rounds of community forums and hearings last summer, city officials started drafting policy options — changes that can be made to elements of the General Plan to put the city on the envisioned path for the next two decades.
In addition to the public opinion survey, the Planning Commission also looked over a “preferred policies” report that includes recommendations from city planners on specific goals of the Plan Santa Barbara process.
Those recommendations include limiting nonresidential development to 2 million square feet and limiting residential development to 2,800 new units during the next 20 years.
Ledbetter also outlined a proposal to direct development into what has been dubbed the “mobility-oriented development area,” or MODA. That slice of the city runs along State Street and largely encompasses the city’s commercial and multi-unit development zones.
Keeping new development within five to 10 minutes of principal transit corridors is one strategy to encourage sustainability, Ledbetter said. He displayed a map peppered with areas already identified as possible development sites within the MODA.
“Not all of these sites are going to be built out in the next 20 years,” he added.
The city planner also ran down a list of major issues — including growth, energy, city character and the economy — describing trends during the past 20 years and challenges going forward.
Limitations on nonresidential growth during the past 20 years, known as Measure E, were designed to encourage infill and redevelopment, Ledbetter said.
“We didn’t want to choke the economy,” he said. “We wanted to direct the development inward.”
As a consequence, the city saw more mixed-use projects spring up, in addition to large condominiums.
“That’s caused a lot of consternation across the community,” Ledbetter said of oversized condos. “That’s a major issue we’ve heard loud and clear.”
To decide the next appropriate growth increment, he said city leaders will have to ask how much growth is wanted, what kind of uses that growth should encompass, and where that growth should happen. Limits on unit size and changes in density allowances are possible options.
Protecting the city’s historic character is also an issue paramount to many residents, Ledbetter said. During the past several decades, the city’s encouragement of redevelopment, infill and transit-oriented development has led to larger, taller structures and a loss of openness, he said.
It’s also led to improved public areas and stronger design review, he noted. The question going forward is how to balance that protection of character with other goals, such as providing housing for the city’s workforce.
That question of affordable housing is another big issue for the ongoing Plan Santa Barbara process. A dwindling supply of housing has led to a loss of socioeconomic diversity, long-distance commuting, and overcrowded, illegal dwellings, Ledbetter said.
“Affordable housing continues to plague us as a real thorny issue,” he said.
Having listened to hours of public feedback yesterday afternoon from a wide array of community groups and residents, the Planning Commission will focus on their task of revising the preferred policies during a meeting today.
Those changes will eventually go to the City Council for further discussion before city officials scope out an environmental impact report analyzing the effects of the proposed policies, along with a series of alternatives.

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