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Santa Barbara’s AUD Incentive Program

Three simple letters are creating a big buzz in Santa Barbara: AUD.

It is an acronym for average unit-size density and has to do with future housing — and lots of it — and likely, in or near your neighborhood.

“They drew up a plan that included 95 apartments and when they finished the design surette (rendering) they came to me and said, ‘What do you think?'” said Alan Bleecker, owner and president of Capitol Hardware.

Bleecker said the City of Santa Barbara approached him about his family-owned Milpas Street business, roughly two years ago.

“They enlisted architects, designers and financiers to get together over a couple weekends and identifty where they would be able to provide housing,” Bleecker told NewsChannel 3.

The Capitol Hardware parcel was one of them.

“When they presented that to us we said, ‘Sounds like a great, great plan! For both Santa Barbara and for us,'” Bleecker recounted.

The City first approved its AUD Incentive Program nearly four years ago. The goal was to build 250 units over an eight year period. The City said those units will likely be built more quickly, within two years, which could lead to a potentially bigger concern. The City has agreed to fast-track more than 800 proposed units up until the program ends.

Viewers will find a map posted on the City’s website showing the areas slated for new housing. City officials say the goal is to target downtown and high-density corridors, such as Milpas Street and State Street, areas with plenty of bus stops and bike routes.

At 219 E. Haley Street, plans are in the works to build a 4-story, mixed use development with 36 units, which will include studios and one and two bedroom apartments.

A 3-story, 19 unit complex will eventually be built around the Louise Ygnacio Residence, an Italianate house contructed in 1875, at 214 E. De La Guerra Street. According to City documents, the cottage is scheduled to become a designated City Landmark this year.

The site at the newly demolished industrial structure on the corner of Anacapa Street and Ortega Street will become home to a 3-story, Spanish-style housing development witth 30 units.

NewsChannel 3 talked to Renee Brooke, City Planner with the City of Santa Barbara, about any financial incentives or bonuses involved with the AUD projects, property owners and developers. Brooke said it is up to the property owners to develop their parcels.

“The City isn’t providing any financial incentive for these developers, but the ordinance itself is the incentive,” Brooke said.

NewsChannel 3 has learned that the incentives are huge. For example, big breaks on fees, set-backs and parking requirements. Arguguably, the greatest incentive for developers — local or not — is being allowed to quickly bypass the Planning Commission or City Council.

“Can you estimate how much time that saves a developer going through this process,” NewsChannel 3 asked Brooke.

“I would say, based on the projects I’ve seen so far, that could save six to eight months,” she said.

The City sees it as a quick path to help solve the housing crisis. Opponents see it as a developers’ race to stuff their pockets and potentially and permanently, ruin views. Both sides agree that the high numbers linked to the AUD Incentive Program are concerning.

“I think it’s totally unfair,” said Christine Neuhauser, a Santa Barbara resident. “I think it’s wrong and I think it changes the whole landscape of the city.”

“This right here is proposed to be a 50 unit, 3-story without any setback,” said Erik Davis, pointing to the building at 835 E. Canon Perdido Street. “Right here in the historic corridor.”

Davis is a lifelong Santa Barbaran and Vice President of the Pearl Chase Society, a historic preservation non-profit.

I met with Davis and Neuhauser in front of the building that was formerly a dry cleaners for years. Both agree with the principle behind the AUD Incentive program, which is to increase workforce housing, yet both also believe it will threaten the look and iconic views of Santa Barbara.

“Instead of them looking at that incredible view that is expansive, any time you see the mountain — let’s face it, we all go, ‘It lifts you up!’ — they’ll be looking at a 4-story apartment building,” Neuhauser said.

“There’s a cute little building right on De La Guerra Street, right in the historic part of Santa Barbara and it’s going to be overshadowed by huge, bulky size-and-scale developments,” Davis said. “I don’t think residents really know the size, bulk, scale and quantity of the developments taking place here in Santa Barbara.”

Brooke told NewsChannel 3 that the City is well aware of the public’s concerns.

“Change is difficult,” Brooke said. “I do have a lot of faith in our design review boards though, for these projects that are proposed, that they will fit and will be compatible in the neighborhood,” Brooke said.

“Is the AUD a good thing for the residents of Santa Barbara?” NewsChannel 3 asked.

“Well, I believe people have varied opinions about whether the AUD Program is a good thing,” Brooke said. “I can say, speaking from a policy perspective, it is meeting a need that we set out in the General Plan and Housing Element and that we needed to find ways to incentivise private development of smaller rental units. It has done that. It has met the objectives in that sense. What we don’t yet know is, are they affordable to the workforce and the residents that we intended to have live in these units? We’ll know more in the next couple of years. And there are already discussions about adjusting the ordinance to try and mandate some level of affordability, especially if we continue to see projects with rents set at a higher rate than we anticipated.”

One thing both sides agree on is the City’s apparent first failure in the program: the Marc on Upper State Street, because of its high rent.

“The last I checked, two bedrooms are going for $3,000 a month,” Davis said. “And the size and bulk and scale gives you a good example of what’s coming throughout the Santa Barbara corridor. Is that workforce housing in your mind? Not in my mind.”

NewsChannel 3 asked Brooke about the Marc and what the City thinks of its high rental rates.

“Can you go back and say, ‘You were in under this wonderful AUD program but this isn’t really what people thought it would be?'” NewsChannel 3 asked.

“We can’t at this point because he has an entitled and built project,” Brooke said.

“But then, do you learn from that?” Newschannel 3 asked Brooke.

“Yes, we can certainly learn from that. Staff has learned from that, decision makers, the public has learned from that and so, I think already we’re seeing a much more critical eye towrds the program and other projects, asking pointed questions about, ‘Who are you marketing these towards?’ ‘What do you think your rents will be?’ People have learned from that,” Brooke said.

Later, that same day when NewsChannel 3 met with Bleecker at his Milpas Street business, he allowed us inside Capitol Hardware’s future location off N. Salsipuedes Street and Gutierrez Street.

“This will be our showroom,” Bleecker said, taking us inside a large, empty building that once housed Sonos.

The 1960s era structure still had its original wood floors, high ceilings and skylights. Across the street, a popular winery and a brewery draw foot traffic to in the industrial area that looks somewhat like a smaller version of the Funk Zone.

Bleecker said he’s exicited for the future change and what it will mean to him, his employees and the city he loves.

“If our city council has decided, it’s their decision, that the AUD project is a way for them to get housing, we’re just going to be part of that solution.”

Tune in tonight for the story at 6:00 and 11:00.

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