Upper State ground zero in development fight
NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER
Frustrations are flaring about the future of upper State Street, an area of Santa Barbara targeted for more housing but already clogged with thick traffic congestion.
Residents and activists are banding together to fight dense development in a busy strip of town that they believe is already overcrowded.
"The city needs to face the fact that too much development is being proposed in an area with such severe constraints on traffic," said Connie Hannah of the League of Women Voters.
The situation is an example of a larger problem throughout Santa Barbara, where some people believe the city is growing too big and too fast, threatening the city's unique charm and ruining the quality of life that makes it attractive to many.
In this battle, upper State Street is ground zero.
Downtown State Street is a walker's paradise, where tourists and locals stroll on red bricks and wide sidewalks, while they sip $4 designer coffee drinks and carry trendy fashion bags from outdoor malls.
Upper State Street between Las Positas Road and Highway 154 is another experience.
Pedestrians walk on narrow sidewalks with a steady hum of car horns, screeching brakes and exhaust from cars and trucks packing two lanes in each direction.
Commercial buildings and office space dominate the several-block span. Five Points Shopping Center and La Cumbre Plaza are frequently packed with cars and motorists waiting to find a parking space.
"I have stopped going to Five Points Shopping Center," said Kathy Gebhardt, member of the Citizens Planning Association's Land Use Committee. "It's too dangerous trying to find a parking space."
So with heavy congestion already present, neighborhood groups and environmentalists are having a tough time embracing at least several projects that are proposed for upper State Street.
The concern is not about any one project in particular, but the potential cumulative impacts of all of them.
Here is what is on the horizon for upper State Street:
* A three-story mix of commercial office space and condos, both market-rate and below-market rate, for 3885 to 3887 State St.
* A redeveloped Sandman Inn, including a three-story 113-room hotel and 64 condos.
* A mix of commercial office space and 16 condos, with some at below-market prices, at 15 S. Hope Ave.
* A revamped Circuit City, a new Whole Foods supermarket and rooftop parking for nearly 300 cars between 3751 and 3771 State St.
All of these projects must make it through several layers of review before approval.
At a recent city Planning Commission meeting centered on the future of upper State Street, a cross section of residents concerned about traffic congestion packed the room.
Representatives from the CPA, Urban Creeks Council, League of Women Voters and the Allied Neighborhood Association raised concerns about the magnitude of the developments.
At the meeting, city planners painted a positive picture of the traffic impacts. Transportation Manager Rob Dayton said that, in many ways, traffic will improve because the Sandman Inn, for example, will eliminate the restaurant on the property, thus reducing traffic.
"The restaurant has a lot of trips," Mr. Dayton said.
Also, he said, phasing out commercial office space in favor of housing reduces traffic because motorists will not be going back and forth to do business. People who live there will choose to walk to stores or use bus stops, he said.
To some, that logic is flawed.
"I am not a traffic engineer," Samarkand resident Joe Guzzardi said. "I'm not an expert on traffic. But to me, that's poppycock. It's ridiculous. It's not the real world. The real world is that we have gridlock on upper State Street."
But proponents of the developments say housing on upper State Street is a smart way to build. That area of the city, they say, is desperately in need of an overhaul. Its towering, bulky buildings and expansive parking lots are reminiscent of a 1980s era of architecture that no longer works in the modern world.
Combining commercial and residential is the future, they say.
"It's changing the fabric of architecture and making someplace -- a place -- out of upper State Street, which was needed for years," said Barry Berkus, the architect for one of the proposed projects.
Mr. Berkus said the area is ideal for combining homes with offices. By designing vertically rather than horizontally, architects can be more efficient with the land and create a mix of market-rate and below-market rate units, he said.
That type of design has other benefits, he added. "We think that young and old and diversity of people living (together) is very important to the community."
Earl Ensberg, a lay member of Grace Lutheran Church near upper State Street, also supports the mixed-use style of building proposed for the area. He too thinks it is the wave of the future in areas where there is little available land.
His church is looking at building housing for seniors on the church's property on the 3800 block of State Street.
"It's a location that seems ideal for affordable housing for seniors," Mr. Ensberg said. "Seniors can live there and walk to the services they need."
Some city officials recognize that there is a serious problem with the traffic congestion on upper State Street.
"We need a vision that does not presently exist for State Street," said Bill Mahan, an architect and longtime city planning commissioner. "I think that outer State Street is lacking in open space. This is a real shortcoming when you think of what makes Santa Barbara wonderful -- the courthouse, the little open space across from the library, the parks."
Planning Commission Chairman Jonathan Maguire said he thinks mixed-use developments would help ease the traffic that residents complain about.
"We need mixed-use," Mr. Maguire said. "We need to put the things that people drive to together with the things people drive from and eliminate the driving part. We know that housing generates less traffic than commercial."
In the upcoming months, city officials are going to wrestle with whether to create a specific approach for development of the area, or to fold the hot-button topic into talks about updating the city's general plan in the next few years.
Dianne Channing, a longtime Riviera activist who is now running for City Council, told the commission that the city must take action to preserve the area before it's too late.
"A plan for this area needs to be formed," Mrs. Channing said. "In order to minimize traffic and preserve open spaces, the community at large and the neighbors deserve a careful vision beneficial to Santa Barbara now and for the future."
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