SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – The term "environmental developer" sounds like an oxymoron. But, according to Neil Dipaola, CEO of Mesa Land Partners, that is exactly what he is.
"We are environmentalists," said Dipaola. "My original track was to become an environmental attorney and crusade for the environment and try to get these oil leases offshore cancelled and protect our community from developers. I realized there's a place for people who care about the environment, to be "good actors" -- to create buildings and spaces that help the environment, help the grid."
Dipaola is half of the force behind the proposed 'SOMOfunk' project; Robert Forouzandeh, who is part owner and serving as general counsel on the project, is the other half.
"We could've built 59 condos. Luxury condos. On day one, 10 years ago," said Forouzandeh. "Instead of going for the quick, high-yield return we sat on it. This need for affordable housing is huge and no one is doing anything about it."
Critics argue that the massive development will take the "funk" out of the Funk Zone. Dipaola and Robert Forouzandeh believe they are the right men for the job.
"This is not El Pueblo Viejo. It's not got the Spanish charm that we appreciate in Santa Barbara," Dipaola said. "This is warehouse space and it's ripe for thoughtful redevelopment."
The proposed site encompasses a full city block dotted with Quonset huts, an old grain silo and a garden that doubles as a coffee klatch. The area stands as a historic nod to Santa Barbara's fishing, industrial and artisan industries.
Digging deeper into the city's history, this block once housed an old Weber bread factory, thus the grain silo, and is chock-full of infill debris from the quake of 1925.
The development plan entails a four story, mixed-use hub between Yananoli Street and Mason Street for state-mandated housing, from affordable to moderate income levels.
"That's who our teachers are. That's who our first responders are. A lot of times we see some of these publicly funded low-income housing projects. They don't qualify," said Forouzandeh. "We see it in the community. It's called 'The missing middle.'"
The project entails more than 140 apartments on the second and third floors; the top and fourth floors would encompass 13 for-sale condos -- two, affordable; the ground level would consist of roughly 18-thousand square feet of commercial space.
"We've created amenities for them downstairs, like markets, restaurants, cafes -- places to relax after a day of work," said Dipaola.
Both Dipaola and Forouzandeh said they've also gone to great strides in their 10 years of planning to earmark a sizable portion of the project for artists -- including a a roughly 2,000 square foot artist collective.
Still, some feel blindsided by the proposed project.
"I wish we knew sooner and I wish there was more community involvement with making this decision," said Pateley Nichols, a Santa Barbara resident. "It feels kind of abrupt and disheartening."
Current tenants -- who will be displaced -- believe the development is a "done deal" and question whether they'll be able to afford the new digs, once they're built.
"They believe the last 15 years were spent making sure the developer's plan is iron-clad," said Bre Norberg, a music producer & studio engineer for Sticky Productions.
Norberg said she and her collaborative group are bracing for the major change.
"When the day comes that this place gets plowed, we just move on to the next zone that's inviting to the arts," said Norberg. "Hopefully something else exists still at that point."
"It's different than other developments in Santa Barbara because A) it's on the waterfront and it's very tall," said Barbara Leung Larson, a local artist. "It's twice as tall as any building in the neighborhood."
Leung Larson moved to the area in 1999. The art teacher said she's shocked at the massive scope of the project and the prospect of blocking the view of the mountains is a key sticking point for many of the project's critics.
"I get it -- developers come, they have to make their money, that's their job," said Leung Larson. "My job is to bring culture and cities don't have an answer of how to keep us here."
Leung Larson cites the 'Art and Economic Prosperity Act,' which protects and champions arts and culture organizations as economic drivers.
"Our vision is to foster the arts," said Dipaola.
These developers believe they've got the answer and say the city is on board.
"On the second floor, there'll be six artist live/work studios, accessible from the ground floor," said Forouzandeh.
Eight individual artist studios are also included in the plans.
"We've been working on this project for ten years and until this point we have had nothing but incredible excitement from the community, from the decision-makers," said Dipaola.
Another business owner nearby has mixed feelings about the prospect of losing local artists and the area's "funk."
"I really feel like if there's any developer who will be sensitive to that, it'll be this one," said Steve Thompson, President of Cabana Home. "He seems to know that about Santa Barbara and it will be on his mind."
Forouzandeh said the team has partnered with the Housing Authority to review their leases.
"So that we don't have people getting this as a weekend apartment, coming in from LA. It's a very unique thing; the Housing Authority doesn't partner with people on privately funded projects. But, we asked them."
News Channel reached out to Rob Fredericks, the City's Executive Director/CEO of the Housing Authority. His response:
"Early in the development planning phase for SOMOfunk, the Housing Authority had discussions with the developer regarding the project. Since they were planning to provide substantially more moderate income units than would otherwise be required under City requirements, we agreed to assist with the applicant review for the affordable units to ensure they meet the City’s income requirements. To the extent allowed by law, if the developer has local marketing preferences included in the project, we would also ensure the preferences are met as well."
Megan Arciniega, Project Planner for the City of Santa Barbara, said they're currently working with Dipaola and Forouzandeh on their review. She confirmed the project went to Architectural Board of Review at the end of July. The plans are viewable online.
"The ABR had generally favorable comments and continued the project to Planning Commission. However, the application is still incomplete, so a Planning Commission hearing has not yet been scheduled. Once the application is deemed complete, we will begin our environmental review and will have a better idea of a feasible Planning Commission hearing date," said Arciniega.
"We encourage anyone interested in following the project, to sign up as an interested party by emailing PCSecretary@SantaBarbaraCA.gov and requesting to be added to the SOMO Funk Project (PLN2020-00139) interested party list."
Dipaola summed up the motivation behind his SOMOfunk development.
"We have an important decision to make as a community: do we want to build in our city, or in our developed areas? Or do we want to develop in undeveloped areas?" asked Dipaola. "For me, I think developing in undeveloped areas is a hard no. Developing in beautiful places like the Gaviota Coast are off limits."