Posted by rflacks on:
This year, Santa Barbara's holding an historic election: an election conducted entirely by mail. Ballots are going out today; we'll have till election day to return them. Whether this process will improve voter participation remains to be seen. But the election outcome will depend a lot on which segments of the community take part.
This is most true for the B initiative. This would set height limits on new buildings in Santa Barbara: a 40 foot limit in the heart of the city, and 45 foot limit in other non-residential areas. Santa Barbarans adopted a height limit of 60 feet in the 1960s, because of a real threat of high rise development. The current campaign for a lower height limit was launched after two bulky buildings (each about 50 feet high) went up on Chapala St. More than 11000 signed the initiative petition, after a drive that alleged that dozens of new high rise buildings were in the pipeline. Many signers undoubtedly felt disgust at the 2 new Chapala buildings (though the initiative campaign was sparked by two planning commissioners who had voted to approve these projects). These Chapala buildings were designed to mix street level stores, luxury condos and as much as 30% affordable housing units.
The Measure B campaign was immediately opposed by a coalition of architects, environmentalists and affordable housing advocates. This group sought, initially, to get the city council to propose a height limit ordinance that would contain room for exemptions for projects that included a certain number of affordable units, or that were designed to meet crucial community needs. A council-originated initiative would have had the added benefit of being subjected to an environmental impact review. The leaders of the citizen initiative rejected this alternative, and B went on the ballot without an EIR.
B proponents claim they are trying to ‘save Santa Barbara'. They refer constantly to the ‘small town feel' of the city that's threatened by high rise buildings. They claim to be heirs to the local tradition of opposing growth and of preserving the beauty of the place. I've been brooding about these claims for months.
The ‘small town feel' argument annoys me no end. It's a most unusual small town that has a $55 million performing arts center, a full time symphony, an opera company, and world class arts and music institutions. I know of no other ‘small town' that can boast a major research university, and serves as corporate headquarters to a number of national firms. We're home to a large medical complex. Sheila Lodge, a major supporter of B, worked hard, as mayor, for the creation of Paseo Neuvo-a large regional shopping center (with buildings at about 50 feet.). There's no question that Santa Barbara has a unique, precious quality as a community and as a region that needs to be protected and nurtured. But it is not a ‘small town'.
My wife, Mickey Flacks, is a leading voice opposing B. Her opposition comes from her role as a very active advocate for protecting and expanding the availability of affordable housing in our area. She's a member of the county housing commission that develops housing for low-income people, and in addition, tirelessly advocates for projects that can increase the availability of ‘workforce' housing-housing affordable for young teachers, cops, firefighters, doctors, nurses, professors. When we started to get involved in the local political scene 35 years ago, Mickey became a leader in anti-growth politics, actively participating in campaigns to set growth limits in the city, and to elect candidates committed to these. She has credentials as an anti-growther that are comparable to those of any in the pro-B camp. And in recent years she has led efforts to get rules passed in the city that would prevent the replacement of relatively affordable housing with high-end condos.
The anti-growth politics of the 70s were successful in achieving major policy change. The most effective change would have been to limit the growth of job producing enterprise, since it is job opportunities that are the primary magnet for new people. But it's very difficult in a ‘free enterprise' society to limit economic activity. The anti-growth success was to downzone the city so that its housing supply would not accommodate more than 85000 people, and to place a limit on new water hookups in the Goleta area. Some efforts to limit growth inducing commercial development were also successful. But one of the main consequences of the anti-growth politics for our region was to limit the housing supply while overall employment continued to rise. Everyone knows that one result has been an astonishing inflation in housing prices. Another has been an enormous increase in the number of people who work in the south coast but commute daily from the south and the north.
The Measure B proponents refuse to come to grips with the following reality: Santa Barbara's population has declined, not grown in the last decade. On the other hand, there are now 25-30,000 people commuting to the city every day. Commuting by car at this level is terrible for air quality and traffic-and of course contradicts the goal of lowering our carbon impact and oil dependence. Mass commuting is bad for our civic life. It means that thousands of people who work here are not able to participate fully in our community. These tend to be young people, middle class people, people with young families. Meanwhile, we seem to be headed toward becoming a city composed of a retired class of comfort and wealth, and a service class of poor people. And... the commuters include large numbers who we depend on in the very emergency situations that might block entry via the very narrow highway portals that now exist.
The city and the region need to plan for the future taking account of these urgent realities. A new planning paradigm is emerging here and around the country. Some call it ‘smart growth'. Many of us here call it "HOT"-planning that integrates housing needs, preserves agriculture and other open space, and promotes alternatives to auto use. (Housing, Open space, Transportation). The city of Santa Barbara planning staff right now is intensely involved in a general plan update that appears to be grounded in such a paradigm. At the heart of it is the idea of enhancing the supply of affordable housing close to where people work, close to public transportation and to shopping. Planning that takes cars off the roads, encourages walking, and cycling, and discourages sprawl. The proposed height limit would prevent effective mixed use development in line with these goals. So say virtually all the architects in town. But no one that I've come across is thinking about high rise development either. Remember that we have in place an ordinance that restricts buildings to 4 stories.
Another reality not faced by Measure B proponents: Market based housing cannot, in a town like this, be made affordable for working and middle class people. The new general plan will contain provision for rental housing that is ‘affordable by design'-i.e. rental units that are small in size and so relatively affordable for middle income single people, couples, maybe some small families. It's amazing what's been accomplished in Santa Barbara by our local housing authority in putting together the financing to create astonishingly beautiful and creative housing developments for the poor, and homeless, disabled people. Butpublic housing subsidy is available nowadays only for such low income oriented projects.
Some workforce housing is being developed by major employers. Cottage Hospital's development (opposed by some very vocal folks in the neighborhood) at the St. Francis site is one important example. UCSB has been providing faculty and staff housing on campus, and has an ambitious plan for several thousand such units over the next couple of decades. A new project by Hillside House for housing for its residents, staff and also open to the community for rental and purchase is now coming up for public review. But mixed use development, in which commercial uses and market priced units subsidize affordable units in the same project is a necessary tool, though it is this type of development that risks being oversized or having negative impacts. Ideally, we should stop any more development of luxury housing in the south coast, and try to see that all new housing is affordable for those who work here. Maybe that's a goal that both proponents and opponents of Measure B can eventually come together for. But Measure B seems to move us away from such a coherent vision.
WONDERING ABOUT MOTIVES
I have come to doubt the motives as well as the good sense of those who have spent their energy on Measure B. First of all, some of them are quietly willing to admit that what they don't like about the Chapala buildings is their overall design and bulk (and therefore height isn't really what's wrong with them). If that's the case, they should be focusing energy on ensuring that the tools for appropriate design are built into the planning process. Similarly, if they don't like mixed use development downtown, they should be working hard to get affordable housing opportunities in the Goleta
Valley, where worthy projects along that line have been dying because NIMBY activists have paralyzed the planning process. In Goleta the watchword isn't ‘small town feel', it's ‘low density'. When I was in college, everyone was criticizing the suburban lifestyle, on all kinds of aesthetic, cultural and social grounds. Suddenly, in Goleta and lots of other places in the US, suburbia is being defended by some as an ideal that must be protected. These voices stand against the increasingly popular and environmentally, socially and economically smarter planning that combines clustered housing and open space, and sees the benefit for public transportation, community feeling and diversity in somewhat higher density development. Measure B advocates could be helping overcome NIMBYism in the Goleta Valley, so that affordable housing could be intelligently distributed across the south coast. , But these folks seem to think that the city of Santa Barbara is a little enclave that has no relation to the wider region-when only regional planning can actually save us.
One of the sorrier spectacles has been the role of the League of Women Voters in all this. We've come to depend on the LWV to uphold the rational, the true and the beautiful, and usually they do. In this case, though, the local League made up its mind that B should be supported, and have simply refused to let opposing viewpoints be aired at their meetings and forums. Have they seriously considered the arguments of the opponents about effective planning, sustainability, etc.? Have they wondered why the Community Environmental Council, PUEBLO, SBCAN and similar groups oppose it? Have they pondered the position on smart growth taken by groups like the Sierra Club? Have they even let their members be aware of the issues raised by these organizations?
Something's happening here and I have some idea about what it is. I'm 71 years old and my wife is 69. We are bona fide ‘senior citizens'. We've lived here for 40 years. A lot of people our age and older who've lived here for decades are in a very privileged position.. Our houses have grown enormously in value. We pay almost no property tax. We want to spend the rest of our lives in this beautiful and peaceful enclave. Mickey and I live downtown and we enjoy the bustle of the city. Our neighborhood is pretty high density-lots of apartments and granny type units. We like walking downtown, walks that take us through beautiful parks but also on State St. where the number of street people steadily grows as the unemployment rate climbs. I suspect that a lot of the Measure B supporters don't like downtown much. They seem to think that crime is a big problem there. They don't like buses (too citified), panhandlers, teenagers of diverse ethnicity. Some might fear that their property values will be threatened if more affordable housing comes in.
It's the older homeowners who vote much more regularly than young people, renters, workers-especially in obscure city elections. Now, as an elder myself, I don't want to stereotype the seniors. Some of them are my best friends. Many who are annoyed with change are probably of more than one mind about the stuff they whine about.But the whining gets on my nerves.
Take the matter of bulb-outs. Our house is a corner house on a busy intersection which is now bulb-outed. I can see that if you're driving down a street and suddenly encounter an unexpected bulge or roundabout in your way, you might be irritated. But...in the 15 years we lived on this corner before the bulb-out, we observed a collision (or near collision) every single week. Since the bulbing, at most there's been an occasional brake squeal. I believe that city accident reports will verify that the traffic calming has worked to improve safety. Yet there are candidates for city office who seem passionately to believe that the city government needs to be overhauled because of these devices.
The Measure B supporters, most of whom are probably Democrats and relatively liberal, also aren't facing the fact that their cause is being exploited by, and helps feed, an effort by local Republicans to find ‘wedge' issues they can ride to office in non-partisan local races. The GOP is in very sorry shape, but it appears that some smart local rightwing activists have figured out a way to rebuild. It's a strategy that the Christian Coalition/ Moral Majority used back in the seventies: run in local non-partisan elections, and try to exploit issues that a significant number of local people might be concerned with. And this time around, they seem to be able to count on the News-Press to push their line.
So we have the spectacle of Francisco, Self and Hotchkiss running as if they were going to rein in developers, while being the beneficiaries of the largest campaign contribution ever made by a developer in our local political history. ‘Crime' is a perennial Republican wedge issue; bashing public employees is both perennial and timely given the fiscal crisis. But the new wrinkle, which Francisco successfully exploited to get onto the city council, is for the Republicans to claim the mantle of ‘anti-growth'. Today's mail came with a crude hit piece paid for by Randall Van Wolfswinkel, but, we can be sure, not actually written by him, that certainly will raise the temperature of the campaign but also has some of the frothy nuttiness that has become the GOP national style. One would hope that Sheila Lodge, the League of Women voters, and other worthy supporters of Measure B might disassociate themselves from this stuff. One would hope that they'd consider that after the election we mght want to live together and might need to find common ground if the town is in fact to be preserved-a task that will be made more difficult if they continue to lend themselves to the GOP project.
There's certainly a good chance to defeat Measure B and to prevent a Republican takeover. That chance depends on the participation of the more than half of the city that can't easily afford to live here because of the cost of housing.It can happpen if younger voters who would like to stay, but who tend not to vote in off year elections, fill out the ballot and send it in. And, it depends on the realization by many who are inclined to vote for height limits, that the passage of Measure B will embolden the largely marginalized local rightwing-whereas the participatory planning process that the city provides is a far better avenue for expressing and protecting the values they care about.