It’s no secret that Santa Barbara is in dire need of housing, but as more three- and four-story housing developments move through the city’s review process, it’s becoming more increasingly common for project planners to request exemptions on building height, setbacks, and parking requirements.
And while it has become normal for projects to gain these exemptions – usually a few feet above the city’s 45-foot maximum height in return for providing more much-needed housing units – a recent audience for a 23-unit mixed-use development on Rue De la Guerra was an example of developers asking for too much, even if it was just a few more feet.
The development, which stretches from 113 to 117 De la Guerra on property owned by John DeWilde – currently the home of vegan restaurant Elsie’s Tavern and Green Table – has been in the works for more than five years and received conditional approval during his latest arrival. through the commission in February 2020.
Since then, the design team at DHMA Architecture has partnered with Kibo Group, who helped develop the Honor Bar on Coast Village Road, and made a few changes to the design, the most significant of which being three feet added at full height. On Wednesday, October 12, DHMA architects Ed De Vicente and Ryan Mills presented these latest plans to the Historic Landmarks Commission, where they explained why the team was seeking a height exemption after previously being approved for 45 feet.
Mills said meeting the 45-foot height limit is “extremely difficult and full of compromises” and extending a few more feet would allow units to have higher ceilings.
It comes as Santa Barbara struggles to meet its quota for the state-mandated Housing Element program, in which the city must report on how it will build 8,000 homes over the next eight-year cycle. To accomplish this, city review boards have approved exemptions on many major developments, including an 82-unit project on Milpas Street that went through the review process with a development agreement that cut the claws of the usually finicky Architectural Board of Review. .
“We are entering this uncharted territory,” Commissioner Cass Enberg said. “We’re trying to bring all of these accommodations.”
Like the majority of curators, Enberg liked the overall design concept but felt that the extra height was not as necessary as the developers argued. “I think three feet is a lot,” she said.
Debates over building height requirements in the city have been going on for decades and recently sparked a discussion on Reddit a few weeks ago with over 70 comments exploring the pros, cons and history of the current city limits – 60 feet or four stories in commercial or industrial areas, three stories or 45 feet in multi-family areas and two stories or 30 feet in single or two-family areas – which have been in place with minimal change for almost a hundred years.
On Wednesday, the debate continued over whether a meter in height was worth “jumping up and down”, as commissioner Ed Lenvik put it, or whether the need for housing was greater.
“I’m not sure if someone walking down the street can see the difference between 45 and 48 feet. It will be almost impossible to say that the building is one meter too high,” Lenvik said. “It’s a real dilemma,” he added. “This city is being pushed for housing, pushed hard for housing.”
But as the discussion continued, the commissioners decided that, in this case, three feet was enough to bring the mass, volume and scale to a point where it was too big for the neighborhood.
“Three feet is something – it’s not the end of the world – but it’s also something substantial, and it carries some weight,” chairman Anthony Grumbine said. “So the question becomes, what are the units coming out of it that are so big that they need to increase that amount?”
He suggested designers could lower the ceilings of the proposed 9’8″ units closer to nine feet, which would still give tenants plenty of room.
“I would be able to support something that was a foot or two lower,” he said, “but at least showing the effort of really trying to reduce the size.”
Commissioners voted unanimously to continue the article four weeks until early November, when the design team will return with revisions based on feedback from the meeting. Specifically, the council asked the designers to adjust the overall height, refine the details of the garage and the roof, reinforce the corners of the third floor and adjust the too thin and spindly arches on the south side.