Property owners and developers are attempting to answer the call for more housing in downtown Santa Barbara, despite ever-rising costs.
James Knell, the chairman of SIMA Management, is one developer accepting the challenge with a housing proposal in the 700 block of State Street.
With a maximum height of 48 feet at its highest points, the structure will consist of anywhere from 36 to 42 units, with 10% of those marked as affordable housing units.
The conceptual look and feel of the building with its size and scale was considered acceptable at the city’s Planning Commission last week. The project has roughly another 24 months of approvals to earn before construction.
However, because of this lengthy process, Mr. Knell said there’s a chance he’ll pull the project because of the complications.
“I can go to other places and have a completed project in 18 months,” the developer told the News-Press. “As a property owner that’s been in Santa Barbara for a long, long time, to see this process and see the housing situation just spiral out of control… it’s not the builders or property owners. It’s the governmental overreach and regulations that have caused this problem.”
He said he believes the city has failed to keep up with housing demand for the last 30 years, which is why the costs have skyrocketed, and developers have to deal with a slow-moving approval process and rent caps.
“I’m going to see how far I can get, but at the same time, when you’re looking at all the regulatory processes through the state and the city proposing a 2% rent cap on property owners… it’s too much. If that happens, I’ll pull this project and there won’t be any housing in downtown Santa Barbara because other developers will do the same thing,” Mr. Knell said.
He said he, along with other property owners, want to see the approval process streamlined, along with less of an impact by regulations and controls.
“The best located residential property that could be built in Santa Barbara is right on State Street, right in the heart of downtown,” he continued. “This should be a prototype of what can happen with proper planning and proper regulations. And at the end of the day, what you have is housing downtown, which you have to admit, there isn’t a location better than this.”
The new development would be built in District 6, Councilmember Meagan Harmon’s district. She told the News-Press that while it’s early on in the process, she’s very excited about the project.
“We have been asking, really imploring, developers to build rental housing in our downtown core, certainly for as long as I’ve been involved in the city and much longer than that,” Ms. Harmon said. “This really feels like a response to that call. It’s truly the way for our future, to bring housing to State Street and the adjacent areas and really try to continue to breathe life into our downtown core.”
Ms. Harmon has been a prominent voice in the discussion surrounding affordable housing. She, in conjunction with Mayor Pro Tempore Kristen Sneddon, introduced the Community Stabilization Policy Initiative, a concept exploring limiting the increased percentage landlords can charge per year on rent.
The councilmembers proposed a limit of no more than a 2% increase in rent a year.
In addition, under the city’s current set of ordinances, any development that makes use of certain benefits under the Average Unit-size Density program has an inclusionary requirement of providing at least 10% of total units as affordable, according to Area Median Income definition.
“We have to be realistic and figure out a way to balance the cost of developing what we want to see, which is truly affordable housing for our community,” Ms. Harmon said. “Is that (10%) enough? Is that what I want to see? What I would love to see is 100% affordable.
“My view is if we’re going to be incentivizing development so heavily by allowing the opportunity for height increases and removing parking restrictions, we’ve got to make sure the city gets the benefit of that bargain, which is more affordability.”
One casualty of the housing development would be the removal of The Press Room, a watering hole for soccer fans, located at 15 E. Ortega St. Mr. Knell’s development would demolish it along with Restoration Hardware at 710 State St.
According to Mr. Knell, The Press Room’s lease expires in a couple years regardless of the development.
“I don’t put much credence in that we’re kicking them out,” he told the News-Press. “They’re going to be vacating at the end of their lease anyway.”
However, nearly 14,000 individuals have signed a change.org petition titled “Support saving The Press Room from being demolished by developers.”
Santa Barbara native, UCSB graduate and local sales manager Travis Vassallo has spent two decades going to The Press Room, and authored the petition.
“This is simply a money-grab by owner and developer, Jim Knell,” Mr. Vassallo told the News-Press. “All this development will do is displace and in all likelihood destroy a local business and family in the interest of offering luxury priced housing for the rich, all while close to one million square feet downtown continuing to remain vacant.”
He said The Press Room is more than just a “bar,” citing the Rafferty’s, who own the establishment, as charitable community members who “provide much more than cold pints to thirsty patrons.”
“Residents should also consider that after over 25 years of renting to the Rafferty’s, Knell didn’t even have the decency to inform them of the development which began over a year ago,” Mr. Vassallo said. “They only found out via a news snippet in the Santa Barbara News-Press and a letter from the City informing them of the project mere months ago. As I understand up to this point, Knell has still yet to reach out to the Rafferty’s regarding this project.”
He concluded by calling for relocation or other displacement assistance for the Rafferty family, and asking Santa Barbara residents “if developers like this are what we need or even want in this town.”