Santa Barbara Planning Commission OKs low-income apartment project
From the Daily Sound, By JOSHUA MOLINA -- JULY 16, 2010
The Santa Barbara Planning Commission on Thursday unanimously approved a 53-unit apartment building for low-income workers, but also directed the developers to move the project five feet away from Mission Creek – and five feet closer to Bath Street.
The city’s Housing Authority plans to demolish a two-story, 10-unit apartment complex at the site. The new project is geared toward low- and very-low income workers, and people transitioning out of homelessness. Ideally, the residents would work downtown and not need to drive cars.
Only four members of the commission were present for the meeting.
Just a few blocks from downtown, the units would range in size from 320 to 445 square feet. The project also includes a community center and recreation room.
“The city needs more rentals,” said commissioner Charmaine Jacobs. “The city needs smaller rentals. The city needs rentals that allow people to choose whether they have cars or not. I think this is a very good project. I find it to be commendable.”
Environmentalists raised concerns at the last-minute about the project’s proximity to Mission Creek. They argued for a 50-foot setback from the creek. Housing Authority Executive Director Rob Pearson said a majority of the project was set back at least 50 feet.
Concerns by the Urban Creeks Council and other environmental groups prompted commissioner Stella Larson to request that the matter go before the planning commission. Smaller projects such as these are typically approved by the city’s Staff Hearing Officer.
Larson at the meeting said the project overall was a good one, but that it needed to be set back farther from the creek.
“We fight for every inch of the creek and we fight for housing too,” Larson said.
Battles over housing and the environmental often spark tension among Santa Barbara residents. Environmentalists believe that too much development close to urban creeks erodes the riparian habitat, hurts water quality and damages the overall ecosystem.
Housing advocates, however, say the city needs more high-density, affordable housing projects, apartments in particular, for downtown workers who help cater and serve the city’s lucrative tourism industry. A lack of affordable housing in the city forces people who work in Santa Barbara to commute long distances into the city every day, increasing traffic congestion on Highway 101.
The timing of Thursday's hearing also complicated matters. The Housing Authority has applied for $10 million from the state to help fund the project. The state, however, will only consider the project for funding if all of the local approvals are granted.
Circumstances looked good for the Housing Authority when the Staff Hearing Officer approved the project in June. The planning commission’s review tangled the funding process.
The commission, mindful of the benefits of the project, decided to move the project another five feet away from the creek, rather than shave units off the project, or call for a dramatic overhaul.
“This plan is both and beautiful and practical,” said commissioner Deborah Schwartz. "There’s a village like look and design to it.”
The project must return to the city's architectural board of review.
Not everyone was thrilled with the outcome.
David Pritchett, a creeks restoration ecologist and founding member of the city's creeks committee, has concerns about moving the project closer to Bath Street.
Rather than focus on numbers, such as 25 feet or 50 feet from the top of Mission Creek, Pritchett said the city should have worked with the Housing Authority to create a comprehensive project that is healthy for the creek and still meets the city's housing needs.
"I am concerned that the further narrowing of the setback from Bath Street could lead to a public backlash against large Housing Authority projects," said Pritchett, who spoke at Thursday's commission meeting. "I wish the creek protection planning in Santa Barbara by now would be more sophisticated than the arbitrary numbers such as 25 feet or 50 feet, or in this case, 30 feet. This whole project was rushed."