Santa Barbara Politics, Media & Culture

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Is Santa Barbara ’s Riviera being treated like it’s a developers’ playground?

A Community Post from a concerned reader. --Sara

Chapala Street, Outer State Street , the Mesa, St. Francis neighborhood, Waterfront, Hidden Valley , and now the Riviera .
Virtually every part of the City has felt the crushing impact of the City’s practice of piecemeal planning and approving projects that violate the City’s zoning ordinance, through the granting of “modifications.” This “death by a thousand cuts” will eventually destroy the very character and charm of the community so many have worked so hard to maintain.

On Tuesday, April 28th, at 2:00 p.m. the City Council has the opportunity to uphold sound planning practices and preserve the historic qualities of the El Encanto Hotel by upholding the appeal filed by a group of concerned residents.

We all loved the El Encanto Hotel and want to see it restored, updated into a first class hotel that will continue to be a vital part of the historic Riviera neighborhood as it has for 96 years.

But, since the Orient Express purchased the El Encanto with a Master Plan just completed in 2004, the new owners have received permission by city staff to change the approved plan five different times, and a modification to the zoning code with virtually no public notice or review. This included tearing down the historic main building, and replacing it with one that is substantially larger and taller, all without any environmental review whatsoever!

Now they are asking to add an additional 17,000 square feet of new non-residential development on the site, including transferring 10,000 square feet of development rights from an industrial area of town to the residential Riviera . This far exceeds the voters intent to limit non-residential development by adopting Measure E, and again with no environmental review.

We support the restoration and modernization of the El Encanto Hotel, we recognize the importance of this hotel to the local community and our economy. Now that the Orient Express has told the community that they have halted construction because of the economy, there should be no rush to approve a plan that doesn’t fit our community character or that violates our zoning ordinances.

Help uphold Santa Barbara existing zoning ordinances.

Zoning for the El Encanto is R-H. This Resort-Residential Hotel Zone, was initiated in 1957, and updated in 1974 and clearly states the “Legislative Intent” as:

The purpose of the R-H Zone is to provide for the highly specialized uses that are associated with the development and operation of resort-residential hotels and to insure the least possible conflict with or disturbance of the amenities attached to and associated with adjoining residential areas.

The current proposal before the Council seeks 4 more modifications to the Zoning Ordinance! A “modification” is the City’s term for allowing projects to be approved that do not comply with the requirements of the City’s own Municipal Code. This is happening all over town, and must end.

One of our major concerns is the introduction of a huge, redesigned hotel operations and utility distribution complex combined with a 43 car valet parking lot proposed for the corner of Alvarado Place and Mission Ridge Road – one of the gateways to the Riviera .

Previous plans shared with the neighbors and the community, provided for subterranean parking spaces beneath tennis courts. Most in the neighborhood and community felt this was reasonable, and the immediate neighbors supported it. However, without communicating with any of the neighbors or those most effected, the out of town (actually out of country) developers attempted an end run and revised the plans in a manner that will destroy the neighborhood character as we know and love it. This is inconsistent with sound community planning, and we need your help to make our voices heard.

The newly revised plan includes a 43 space, above ground, tandem valet parking lot and the relocation, from the main building, all of the ‘back of house’ operations, administration, laundry, dry cleaning, employee rooms as well as the installation of a centralized industrial plant for heating and cooling for all 96 rooms, hot water boilers, back up generators and electrical transfer stations. In other words, all operational equipment and personnel would be moved out of the main building and away from the guest rooms and placed directly adjacent to the residential neighborhood.


We know there are other ways to design this project so it can be in conformance with existing City codes and ordinances.

Next Tuesday, the project is finally going before officials we elected, and who have indicated in the past that they support Santa Barbara ’s historic fabric and maintaining our quality of life. We are hopeful that they will stand up to the developers make a positive decision to uphold the intent of the zoning code and protect the residential ambiance of this area, by upholding the appeal, and require Orient Express to change their plans to fit the community character.

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Anonymous El Encanto is NOT enchanting said...

The changes proposed are 100% unacceptable. There should be no destruction to the quality of life for those living next to this unique property.

It is an exception within and exception that this commercial use property even exists here.

The current El Encanto owners have no right under any understanding of city ordinances to receive these exceptions and modifications.


It is El Encanto's duty to accomodate to their unique residential neighborhood setting. It is not the neighborhoods duty to adjust to them.

Any city council member who sells out to this outside development should be recalled.

BTW: excellently written piece. I wish everyone in opposition to this monsterous project well.

4/25/2009 8:47 AM  
Anonymous Anne Ominous said...

The City of Santa Barbara lost its charm long ago and it really had nothing at all to do with these ordinances.
There has been no effort to protect local businesses. Indeed, it appears that an all-out war has been perpetrated upon our native merchants. Downtown Santa Barbara is now practically indistinguishable from any other corporatized city in CA. Oh, but wait... we have red-tiled roofs and the courthouse.

Feh. Spare me the indignation over the changes in building codes. It's too little too late. Money no longer stays in this town. People shop at OLD NAVY, SAKS, STARBUCKS and other corporate giants and that money goes far away.

Oh, well. Cry me a river over the El Encanto. I'll use your tears to clean my boots.

4/25/2009 10:06 AM  
Blogger Bill Carson said...

The city councils of Santa Barbara have grown more and more spineless over the past couple decades. They are hooked on development like addicts on heroine. These sell-out politicians approve over-sized development in trade for political support. The result is a Santa Barbara that most residents don't want. This is a no-brainer people. If you don't like what's happening, then vote 'em out!

4/25/2009 11:22 AM  
Anonymous Dan Seibert said...

The best job I ever had was as the head gardener at El Encanto. From 1991 to 2001, if you were on the grounds of El Encanto you saw my work.

Most of us in Grounds and Maintenance knew the restaurant building was in bad shape, but the fact that it was built in 1918 was cool. The building made sounds as you walked up the stairs. Now it's gone. The pool is history. In my mind, the El Encanto is like the Miramar, or the California Hotel (Rocky's). If you went there in the 80's, 90's, or better yet, the 70's, you are truly blessed. But now they are shells. They may end up nice, but they will never be as cool.

Dan the gardener

4/25/2009 6:10 PM  
Anonymous No union backed candidates said...

Too many city council members sold out to the city employee unions, both for Democratic party labor sympathies and city employee union endorsements and dollars.

They are not spineless as far as city staff is concerned. They are spineless only to the voters who they duped who are the taxpayers now having to foot the bill for their inappropriate loyalties.

The reason city staff wants growth is this is the only way they can keep the money flowing to themselves. They don't care anything about the city or the quality of life; only about their jobs and their own benefits. City council members being good little Democratic labor sympathizes lost all sight what they were doing to the voters, as long as they got that city employee money and endorsements coming in.

It is great we have so many non-union candidates this year to pick from. ANY candidate who accepts city staff union money or endorsements should never be voted for. That means both Falcone and Schnieder fail for mayor. And House fails for council.

There will be a non-union mayor candidate coming up so we won't have to choose either Falcone or Schneider thank goodness, and we will be able to reconstitute the majority back to the taxpayers and hopefully start undoing all the damage these past few years have done to our city.

4/25/2009 7:36 PM  
Blogger Don McDermott said...

I share Dan Seibert's nostalgic fondness of this miniature funk zone on the Riviera. The cottages and gardens and old creeky "check in" are few and far between. But everyone seems to want to upgrade including all my neighbors who have remodeled and added on usually within the zoning ordinance and many with modifications.

I am sympathetic to the noise pollution complaint and hopefully that will be resolved through the environmental review process but sometimes when the decision makers have too much to chew on they omit what's really important.

Usually focusing on "congestion" or traffic concerns or the public view from driversby obscures the important stuff, like the neighbors ability to get a good nights sleep or enjoy the peace and comfort of their own properties. Keeping Up Appearances and traffic take too much precedent in the environmental review process.

4/26/2009 7:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a great article! Very well written, indeed.

S.B. folks, you'll have to yell like crazy on this one to get the Council's et al's attention if we're going to keep this entire hill from transforming into something as seen in retro Hollywood!

Mobilize the troops! Charge!

4/26/2009 9:03 AM  
Anonymous CEQA said...

There has been NO ENVIRONMENTAL REVIEW of this project and if the Council doesn't uphold the appeal on Tuesday - there won't be any Environmental Review. The Council has the chance to do the right thing - tell the developer no more modifications and send this back for an EIR.

4/26/2009 9:05 AM  
Anonymous David Pritchett said...

The City planning staff are really good at reading what they can get away with further up the process at Planning Commission and City Council.

Accordingly, if the Council would push back and really approve or deny project applications or appeals so projects are more compliant with existing ordinances and policies, then the City staff would not let these inappropriate and over-done projects get as far as they do in the review process.

The staff follow their Council leaders about how many Modifications and waivers are too much. Vote accordingly.

4/26/2009 11:00 AM  
Anonymous Watching What Council Does said...

This presents a true test for the council and the candidates who are running for election.

Several Councilmembers have said "oh, we never had anyone appeal the Chapala Street projects, so we never had the opportunity to change them or say no." This massive El Encanto project is asking for modifications and exceptions to the zoning - just like Chapala. So will the Council say NO? - or at least send it back and demand it be redesigned.

Since Orient Express has said it won't have funding for new projects for 18 months there should be no rush to make this decision right now. There will be no loss of bed tax revenue. Take the time and do it right.

Interesting that Bendy White, who says he wants to protect neighborhoods and is pushing for height limits voted for this terrible project when it was heard by the Planning Commission and he had a chance to demand changes - what did he get - a promise to move an exhaust vent 10 feet! Why would anyone vote for him?

Thank you to Sheila Lodge - for saying no to this project at the Planning Commission.

4/26/2009 12:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I say: Why not just go ahead and let the developers build whatever they want? Let them build skyscrapers, tenements, housing projects like in South Chicago ... Let them build lot-line to lot-line. Forget about parking spaces and traffic and open space and parks.

Give them carte blanche. Spare us the pain, trouble, and time of trying to ward them off like flies. Spare us the agony of slowly ripping off a bandage.

They either come waltzing into government meetings, greeted with smiles by our "public servants" with whom they smooze and to whose favorite charities they throw out a few crumbs. Or, if they're not of the "elite," they're scolded and told to come back with a concession. They apologize and get whatever they wanted in the first place.

Remember, developers are insatiable. They have no purpose in life if they're not "developing."

4/26/2009 6:00 PM  
Anonymous Dan Seibert said...

David, I must agree.

Bigger is not better, nor is nicer better than nice. I want the El Encanto to stay funky. Not a high end resort like the Biltmore, the Ranch, or the Bacara. It was so great the way it was.

4/26/2009 6:36 PM  
Anonymous Diogenes SB said...

This reads like a lawyer’s argument masquerading as a community post. It conveniently overlooks the facts: There has been environmental review - overwhelmingly approved by the Planning Commission. The proposed below grade parking lot is a lot smaller than the surface lot approved for the same place in 2004. The ‘back of house’ operations are to be constructed below ground, under the parking lot. Many of the modifications are supported by adjacent neighbors because they result in fewer impacts than the existing buildings. This isn’t about pollution, congestion, blocked views, noise, historical character or funk. It’s about neighbors trying to force a parking lot approved 5 years ago to be moved next to some other neighbor’s property. Legitimate debate over planning is one thing, self interested arguments playing fast and loose with the facts in the name of community dialogue is something else…

4/27/2009 3:36 PM  
Anonymous AN50 said...

Good grief! I have never seen a mediocre town so obsessed with griping about anything that might mean change. There just isn’t that much development here and hasn’t been for 4 decades, give it a rest or get a life or something. It has gone beyond irritating and annoying and become an embarrassing case of mental illness.

4/27/2009 6:38 PM  
Anonymous Give me a Break said...

Diogenes, you sound like the lawyer for the Orient Express or their lobbiest.

That "parking lot" you talk about being "approved" was part of a much different project - one that restored the main building and didn't need to add 17,000 sq ft. of "back of house."

These kinds of developments are trade offs - you get parking approved and the community & neighbors are supposed to get the historic property and gardens restored. That didn't happen, they are gone.

You can't pick and choose the pieces. This is the classic reason why you shouldn't piecemeal projects and why the entire project needs review.

4/27/2009 8:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"This included tearing down the historic main building, and replacing it with one that is substantially larger and taller, all without any environmental review whatsoever!"

Really?!? I mean, come on, do you honestly think a project of this scope, in this neighborhood, in THIS City, could ever possibly sneak through without environmental review? Your editorial is misleading and a disservice to this community.

4/27/2009 10:01 PM  
Anonymous fred said...


4/28/2009 12:50 AM  
Blogger Don McDermott said...

After viewing this epic 5 hour hearing I'm not too certain that this original post wasn't more about stirring up the political pot as much as it was about "sound planning." While all the post points (and more) were made this seemed to be another over-reaction to a minor planning department flaw.

My assessment was that staff did their job "technically" correct but the Council could not make "findings" to approve. The sticking point was when the HLC decided to require changes to the location of the equipment room, office space and parking changes. The neighbors weren't involved until afterwards and the process didn't seem above board.

Councimember Williams made a motion to remand the project back to the planning commission and eventually the HLC. The project will go back to the council within 90 days. Falcone seconded the motion, and it was unanimous with Horton absent due to the conflict of his home being nearby.

It appears that Oreint Express has every intention to proceed with a 5 Star Hotel project with cottages and historical gardens intact while keeping with the upscale neighborhoods customary local feel and historical cocktail and dinner party expectations. If some of us don't stop wishing for financial collapse the O.E. will have funds to do a great project.

Most of the public comments were thoughtful, cordial and philanthropic as only the upscale residents with lawyers can be. It wasn't entirely cordial though. Near the end of public comment a businessman with a lot of Santa Barbara seniority rights appeared to nearly provoke a fist fight. He had to turn around from the speaking podium and defend himself after he commented that Rivierans and other's who don't live in Moneycito shouldn't expect good representation, planning or the quiet that their residential zoning legally affords.<<(snarky paraphrase)

It was interesting to see even Mayor Blum's and Council Member Francisco's concern about transfer of development rights and setbacks evaporate and as they should have. These variations allow some breathing room, creativity and are immaterial if the project can meet CEQA. Anyone who demands we stick to some strict rules with a planning process as intense as Santa Barbara's has control issues.

You know city staff and council really do a great job!

4/28/2009 9:17 PM  
Anonymous Weather Man said...

Be sure to catch this on the city channel TV because it was great theater to watch.

You are in error, City staff did a terrible job which why hundreds of neighbors and the city council (for once) had to undo the staff's consistent and sloppy pro-developer cramdown.

Planning Commission gets no points here misreading the neighbors totally either, except for former mayor present PC Shelia Lodge.

When are we going to get a city council that tells staff what to do, instead of the other way around.

Plenty of articulate and motivated people showed up yesterday to give the sitting council business as usual is not the way to do business. Two city council candidates - McCammon and Self -- showed they are two voices we need in the future.

Even pro-business Steve Cushman took them to task and supported the neighbors. Turn-coat Das had to admit for once even he agreed with Cushman, which showed (yet again) he is quick to learn which way the new political winds are blowing.

This was definitely a big win for the neighbors against the continual pro-development city staff. One more issue where city staff misread who their real bosses in fact are. No thanks to the city council who got one more wake-up call directly from the public they have chosen to ignore for too long.

They only looked good, because they knew they were scrambling to get in front of a movement they ironically had created by their previous neglect. That is political opportunism; not leadership.

Thank you Steve Cushman, for showing you might be trusted as mayor our precious city after all.

4/29/2009 9:18 AM  
Anonymous Council Watcher too said...

All members of the council did a great job of understanding the issues, and stayed focused on the main points of contention. The project needs to be better. Thank you to everyone involved for catching the problems, and raising the important issues so that they can be addressed. Now let's see how Orient Express handles the challenge - it will be a good test of it they fit in our community.

4/29/2009 5:44 PM  
Anonymous These are not Beverly hills, Billy said...

Orient Express is not interested in fitting into our community. They are interested only in appealing to their fussy clientele. Tell them to go to the Bacara and get out of our neighborhood.

4/29/2009 8:55 PM  
Anonymous Don Jose de la Guerra y Noriega said...

This whole issue is the fault of Charles Storke. Everyone knows it. That's why when the whole Riviera thing got started it was referred to as Storke's Folly...and it still is.

5/03/2009 3:06 PM  

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