By Betsy Cramer
The City Council subcommittee on the General Plan Update continued its efforts on Friday, chewing again on density issues, adding to the discussion floor area ratios (FARs) and touching on form-based coding. The afternoon concluded with discussing adding a Historic Element to the General Plan.
Principal Planner John Ledbetter’s hopes that the density discussion would be finished on Friday were not realized, but the subcommittee seemed to near that staff goal. “Seemed,” because there remain details and the always lurking threat of a stalemating 4-3 vote if councilmembers won’t compromise long-held positions. But the details don’t need to be decided at this stage.
It’s apocryphal that laws, like sausages, are better not to be seen being made. The General Plan is a city’s ultimate local law and it’s to Santa Barbara’s credit that the process is very open, televised with repeated re-runs on on City TV, Channel 18, available online. It doesn’t make it much more palatable, except to appreciate the openness. Even so, I wonder how many people not involved in the process are watching what sometimes resembles a dripping faucet. It is for that reason, I offer an overview of this step in what is a complicated and multi-million dollar process.
Councilmember Hotchkiss contrasted councilmembers White’s 20 years experience in planning issues and Francisco’s nearly 5 years, with his but one year. As a result he emphasized the importance of simplicity and asked the questions that ordinary Santa Barbarans might ask. For instance, are the Bungalow Haven and Brinkerhof districts “amply protected” now? Yes, he was told, and in fact a change to “medium high” (from R-3 and C-2) would be a little less dense with smaller unit sizes, with details to be worked out in the Historic Element.
All three councilmembers wanted opportunities for rental housing and employer housing. It seems as though this will be done via overlays on zoning descriptions of “medium” density. (“Medium” density is effectively the present, 15-25 units/acre.) All seemed to agree on the “experiment” of 5 years, but, again, pesky details remained undecided: 100 units in 5 years, as seemed to be mostly agreed at the last meeting? Or 200 as Mr. White suggested and when reached, the proposed high density area would revert to the present variable density? Or as AIA representative Detty Peikert offered, 200-300 units or perhaps square footage as cap to trigger the adaptive management review?
Mostly, this segment had councilmembers Francisco and White discussing details. Mr. Francisco emphasized having a map “that ordinary people in the city can understand” rather than a multi-colored wonder. He wanted a “base” of 15-25 units/acre with a 100% overlay for rentals and employer housing. The “vast majority of people in Santa Barbara are not interested in any increase in density whatsoever,” he noted. Yet he is “sensitive to the fact there are people who believe that increased density is the only way to get any affordable housing in this city.” Planner Bettie Weiss offered that “no one thinks that (the medium density) will generate affordable” units.
Councilmember White said that his “packet” proposes a “substantial downzoning for the city’s development potential.” His preference is market rate/for sale, which might not be for downtown workers but which would have a chance of reaching a wider market. In addition, such development would allow less bulk, underground parking and therefore a more appealing street-front instead of a “car barn.” The location would be in the presently shown red and grey zones, the presumed high-density zones. He noted that although these would be for sale units, a lot of condos are rentals. In addition, rental properties are being built in Ventura, Goleta, Santa Maria, just not presently in Santa Barbara.
Mr. Hotchkiss returned to the “simplicity idea” as being easier to understand: a map of 1 color with different overlays. Mr. Francisco suggested 1 overlay. Mr. White suggested that to get to a 5-vote “yes,” there will need to be two colors, some density, allowing larger units and greater flexibility. Staying at the present variable density, zoning by bedrooms, he said, doesn’t bring the desired smaller units. He would “prefer to go to the high density but I don’t think I have 5 votes to do that so I am looking for another option.”
And there it was, the politics of planning that seemed to distress planning commissioner Larson last week. But it wasn’t all counting the numbers. Mr. White said that he “appreciated” that what he was hearing from Mr. Francisco was “a major refinement” from what he had been hearing said in the past.
And with that they moved to public comment and then to a discussion of FARs and form-based coding. The latter was dismissed quickly as being more appropriate for cities where there is a strong agreement on how development should proceed and also where the cities are relatively new cities rather than already built ones, such as Santa Barbara. However, there are sections of Santa Barbara where form-based coding might be tried: parts of Upper State Street, for instance. Basically, the three council members agreed that the present system of extensive design reviews works rather than the apparently rigid front-end emphasis of form-based.
The use of FARs as a tool also was not controversial. FARs are not sufficient in and of themselves to achieve the size, bulk and scale that is wanted, but they are a tool for keeping things in scale, that they are a “good safety valve,” as Mr. White said. Architect Detty Peikert explained that both FARs and form-based coding are complex tools and that the AIA would be happy to participate in a city-sponsored educational presentation.
With the only disagreement, and a good natured one it was, being about “front porches,” the subcommittee moved on to discuss the Historic Element. (To be continued.)