Apartment complex with some low-income units remains in the works for Mission Drive site

By Janene Scully

Noozhawk North County Editor 

A Santa Barbara developer has postponed his proposal to build a hotel at the site of the former Solvang lumber yard, a project that potentially involved huge hurdles to rezone the land for non-residential use.

Ed St. George asked Solvang officials to indefinitely delay plans to build a hotel in the 1700 block of Mission Drive, leaving his application to build apartments the only project in the pipeline, according to City Manager Xenia Bradford.

“Zoning is one of the challenges with this project,” Bradford told the City Council this past week about the hotel project.

Councilman Robert Clarke asked whether the hotel project, favored over housing by those who responded to the city’s online survey, had been dropped.

“Is it a done deal that it’s going to be apartments?” Clarke asked.

“I don’t think we know that for sure. Mr. St. George just said he’s putting it on hold,” interim City Attorney Dave Fleishman said. “If he were able to identify a replacement parcel that housing density could be transferred to, it might pencil out, but those are questions we don’t know at this point as to whether or not he would do that.”

Since the site is zoned for high-density housing, changing the zoning to accommodate a hotel project could prove problematic under state laws to foster residential development.

Under Senate Bill 330 or the Housing Crisis Act, a city can’t change zoning to reduce the residential capacity without identifying an alternate parcel as a replacement for the proposed housing.

“When the hotel first came up and there were protests outside, why wasn’t that part of the conversation a year ago?” Clarke asked.

“I wasn’t city attorney. That’s all I can tell you,” Fleishman said. “I don’t know why that discussion didn’t come up, but the Housing Crisis Act has been the law for several years.” 

Last spring, St. George proposed two hotels, residences, retail space, a government office building and a parking garage on the seven acres surrounded by Mission Drive (Highway 246), Alisal Road, Maple Avenue and Pine Street. The proposal called for tearing down the Veterans Memorial Building and nearby structures.

Dozens of residents rallied outside City Hall in opposition to the large project.

State lawmakers have adopted a number of rules aimed at increasing the housing stock in California and making it harder for cities to reject projects.

“It almost seems like our hands are tied right now,” Clarke said.

“I would think there’s certainly a wide range of options between a hotel and high-density housing,” Councilwoman Claudia Orona said, adding that she would like to see an open conversation with the developer. “I would love to have an open conversation rather than being disappointed we’re not getting what we want.”

Councilman Mark Infanti previously said the developer had claimed he would make more money from a hotel project than apartments.

“He wants a lot of stuff to get that hotel,” Infanti said, noting that St. George asked for concessions, including $5 million of transient occupancy tax and reduced parking.

“The gentleman might be willing to talk to you, but good luck with that,” Infanti said.

“It’s worth a try,” Orona added.

Mayor Charlie Uhrig noted that a St. George project on Milpas Street in Santa Barbara has undergone some redesign after concerns were raised.

Noting he knows St. George from a prior job, Uhrig said he would reach out to the developer to see what changes he might be willing to make, with the mayor’s suggestion drawing support from his colleagues.

Based on zoning, city rules say the Mission Drive site should house 44 units, but St. George said he intended to take advantage of a couple of state laws aimed at boosting affordable housing. A density bonus would allow 15 additional units.

Last year, planning commissioners panned the apartment complex design as “not very attractive.”

With the apartment complex application submitted Feb. 1, the city had a deadline of March 1 to notify whether St. George submitted a complete application and expected to rule in the next week if additional items need to be submitted, according to planning consultant Laurie Tamura.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk@NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.