Santa Barbara City Council candidates voiced their vision for downtown in a candidate forum held by American Institute of Architects Santa Barbara Chapter and partners from the Downtown Organization of Santa Barbara, Coastal Housing Coalition and American Planning Association Central Coast Section.
Brian Johnson, president of the Santa Barbara Association of Realtors, asked candidates about their plans for housing and economic vitality.
The first question addressed the obstacles facing workforce housing and possible solutions.
Meagan Harmon, 6th District councilmember, said developers aren’t incentivized to build middle-income housing. They can receive subsidies currently if they build low-income housing.
“I have proposed … an equity investment fund, whereby the city can take a dedicated amount of money and provide the missing funding to make this middle-income housing pencil out,” she said. “And in that way, the city is actually an equity partner, a true and full partner, in middle-income housing developments.”
Challenger Nina Johnson disagreed with Ms. Harmon’s idea and suggested adaptive reuse of City-owned sites.
“I think we already have a lot of sites; we don’t need to create another fund,” she said. “We can find those opportunities, promote energy on our city-owned sites now and enlist help from the private sector to get a proposal on what they need to create affordable rentals and home ownership opportunities,” she said.
Barrett Reed, a planning commissioner running in the 4th District, also favors adaptive reuse. He has publicized that strategy since he launched his campaign.
“Instead of incentivizing new development in five stories and 60 feet, let’s make it possible to convert our largest vacant spaces to housing and mixed use — and our smallest spaces can’t do that either,” he said.
All candidates mentioned a desire to streamline the permitting process, including 4th District councilmember Kristen Sneddon and 5th District councilmember Eric Friedman (who is running unopposed).
Both Ms. Sneddon and Mr. Friedman referenced a report on the Community Development Department by Novak Consulting Group. The $86,000 report outlined inefficiencies in the permitting process.
The Novak report was routinely mentioned in AIA’s mayoral forum.
“We have been working with our staff to follow up on 31 recommendations from that report. There are some we’ve already implemented process-wise and looking at, but there are some that are more complex,” Mr. Friedman said.
He said a new long-range planning oversight committee should improve the process.
Another question asked the candidates how they’d use public-private partnerships to adapt City-owned property for housing.
Mr. Reed said the city’s economic development manager should be properly supported with resources.
“I was a part of a small group who conducted the interviews for the development manager, and we were told by the city administrator at the time, as directed by council, that the position wouldn’t be given resources or personnel beyond the position itself. So we’ve hired someone for a position that they can’t possibly succeed in without the resources to be successful,” he said. “I would absolutely change that.”
Councilmember Sneddon said she wants to create a master plan for the public property.
“We need to maximize the affordability and usability that we’re getting out of them, and that is what we need for our master plan in addition to our historic resources and the buffer zone, with all of that in consideration. And then if we identify that, then that will streamline the public-private partnership,” she said.
Councilmember Friedman said it’s important to retain parking downtown.
“I would say that as long as we’re using the city investment of that property, I would prioritize that we do the ‘missing middle,’” he added, referencing workforce housing as the “missing middle.”
Councilmember Harmon said the city should make sure adaptive reuse is an option at preferred locations. She said the former Nordstrom building is only zoned for office or retail.
“The city can’t force what we want to go into those spaces,” she said. “But what we can do is play an important role behind the scenes to look at the legal documents that are in place, for example, and say, ‘What can we do to remove the barriers to housing? What can we do to make it more attractive to put in those spaces?’ ”
Candidates were also asked how they would support economic growth in the city.
“Council needs to work with the business community. We need to build those relationships, but they are a little strange right now,” Mr. Friedman said. “We need to work with the chamber and Downtown Organization and Visit Santa Barbara.”
Ms. Harmon said it would be helpful if the city could remove extra ordinances that burden small-business owners.’
Zachary Pike, a 6th District candidate who entered late, agreed.
“I think there’s room in the budget to make more careers for more locals, people that live within the city. I mean, expanding the transit system or that we put in a trolley system,” he added.
Ms. Johnson said the city should focus on promoting local businesses.
“We need to make that hard focus and help those businesses get off the ground, figure out how we help them move into space — whether they’re operating with a different location or from their home and help people launch their businesses successfully,” she said.
The candidates also had various views for State Street.
Mr. Pike said more money should be spent on programming and events for people than the look of the buildings.
Mr. Reed addressed the homeless presence downtown.
“We have to get back to our basic enforcement of our ordinances downtown while truly providing temporary housing with services for those who need and want help, and I would locate those outside of high impact areas of our city,” he said.
Ms. Sneddon recalled AIA charrettes, where architects imagined what Santa Barbara could look like, and said the city should bring those ideas forward.
“We need to do very careful design but also programming of the space and not just sort of whack-a-mole of De la Guerra Plaza, Library Plaza, North State and what happens all between there,” she said.
She also has an opinion on the design.
“We need to hone in on that and really plan our spaces for the art, for our cultural heritage and not just red tile roofs, but our Chumash history, Chicano history, Asian American history, black history. It’s really fun to bring that all in to celebrate what it is that makes us who we are,” she said.
Mr. Friedman also thought the arts should be incorporated and would work with the Arts Commission.
A recording of the forum is available at youtu.be/NVAQJ5zKWsU.