The Santa Barbara Planning Commission left its meeting with a patchwork of ideas after hearing an analysis of the city’s proposed replacement to the Average Unit Density program.
The AUD program, which encouraged developers to build apartments near work centers and incentivized affordable units, expires in February.
The city hopes to replace it with a floor-to-lot area ratio (FAR) program, with acceptable ratios set by a map.
Project Planner Jessica Metzger said the plan is not complete, and the city has yet to fully consider environmental impacts and recent legislation from the state.
The AUD program will likely be extended while a full plan is drafted and voted on, she said.
Properties in the central business district can build up to a 3.0 ratio, which is a four-story building with minimal open space.
The plan offers incentives to those who offer more than the required number of low-income units. The incentive is up to a 20% boost in the FAR, which would boost the central most buildings to up to a 3.6 ratio.
Four of the seven commissioners and many public commenters said that seemed too high.
“I appreciate the work effort, but we’re talking about dramatically increasing FAR while compromising on important design standards and then pushing building heights to 60 feet in order to gain an additional five maybe 10% of affordability. And we give up a lot,” Commissioner Barrett Reed said.
“So 3.6 — if you put more affordable units in it is, to me, alarming,” Commissioner Lesley Wiscomb said. “It can really change the streetscape in our downtown area.”
But Vice Chair Gabriel Escobedo thought the FARs should be higher.
“I think that we need to provide opportunities for these (small) spaces to actually produce housing. And try not to do with the bare minimum,” he said. “We are in this position because we didn’t build housing for decades.”
He expressed frustration with the lack of housing for the workforce.
“To be honest, to me, it sounds like we’re OK with lower-income people driving into town from miles and miles away,” he said. “That’s an environmental impact. That’s not being taken into consideration.”
Commissioners discussed the success of the AUD program in regard to workforce housing, as some questioned the affordability of new developments.
Commissioner Jay Higgins argued that while some new complexes may be for middle income and up, it makes the pre-existing complexes more affordable.
Commissioner Sheila Lodge disagreed. She reasoned that if new people move to town and fill the new units, more service workers are needed and demand increases for low-income housing.
The commission also discussed whether it liked the FAR format.
Mr. Reed was disillusioned at the plan in comparison to new ideas like private-public partnerships and adaptive reuse.
Ms. Wiscomb was in favor of FAR but wanted the map to include more protection for historic resources. She also wanted to hear the full plan before expressing support.
Commissioner Lodge expressed concern FAR would incentivize boring structures unfitting with Santa Barbara’s architectural fabric.
“We have such an incredible architectural heritage. And it’s such a part of what Santa Barbara is to us, and to the rest of the world. And going to FAR … we’ll lose all of the charm that we have in Santa Barbara,” she said.
Chair Deborah Schwartz said tools have not been used to assess the AUD program throughout the decade.
A consultant presented analysis that the FAR plan was viable but suggested the Planning Commission find a way to incentivize development on small lots or streamline the process.
Commissioners questioned his methodology and critiqued the average rent price presented by the firm.
The report said the average two-bedroom apartment rents for $3,262 in Santa Barbara. Commissioners said it was not indicative of the Central Business District and wanted better findings.
Another Planning Commission hearing is scheduled for Nov. 4, and the city will have more details on environmental impacts and its next step.