Hillside House, neighbors at odds

Hidden Valley residents decry ‘out of context’ expansion.

One of Santa Barbara’s last parcels of open space — in Hidden Valley — may be turned into apartments and condominiums if Hillside House’s development proposal is approved.

The project was presented to the public as a way for the nonprofit Hillside House to ensure its financial future, which has become precarious in the wake of Medi-Cal cutbacks and the increased costs of nurses, worker’s compensation and the like.

Hillside House owns 27 acres set in a valley off Veronica Springs Road, of which about 10 are developable.

The idea of developing on the property has been floating around for at least 10 years, said Hillside House Executive Director Pam Flynt. But it wasn’t until last summer that Hillside House contacted the Housing Authority of the County of Santa Barbara about building on the site. They’ve since put together a development team — Bermant Development Company, Hillside House, the City and County Housing Authorities and Peikert Group Architects — which is proposing to build 138 affordable and workforce apartments and 40 market-rate condominiums.

While the City of Santa Barbara was quick to approve annexation of the property from the county, “(The proposed) 178 units is a huge development for a city development,” said Mayor Marty Blum. “This is a big deal.”

The unpretentious neighborhood, off Los Positas Road near Portesuello Avenue, still looks much like it did in the 1970s, without the obvious remodels and McMansions to which so many local tracts have succumbed.

Not surprisingly, many of the neighbors are in a swivet about the project’s mass and potential traffic impacts. “It doesn’t fit into the neighborhood … the size seems completely out of context,” said Shannon O’Bryan, a neighbor who spoke to both the City Council and Planning Commission.

“You’re looking at a perpetuity of traffic jams,” said Brian Burd, another neighbor, who also expressed concern to the City Council that the project would be “greasing the wheels for high-density development of the surrounding neighborhood.”

Neighbor Ken Balmy spoke about the “rather callous disregard for the quality of the neighborhood.” He complained that the project is being “steamrolled through the process.”

While acknowledging that she anticipated a negative response from the neighbors, Flynt disagrees that they should have been informed about the plans earlier. “It was the appropriate time, before we were talking officially to the city. We certainly discussed going to them earlier, but we needed to wait until we had something to tell them. We were putting together … our plan in terms of ideally what we would like to do.”

“I have not heard anyone criticize what we do here or the fact that maybe it’s a service that’s needed and necessary. I think the criticism is about the project and how they feel that’s going to affect them,” said Flynt.

In addition to providing apartments for residents, Hillside House is hoping to be able to provide affordable housing for some of its 75 employees, 15 of whom now commute from outside the South Coast.

The Planning Commission’s initial concept review telegraphed a lot of compromises if the project is to go forward. “I don’t think that the mass, bulk and scale of this is compatible with the neighborhood,” said Commissioner Harwood White, describing the development as “a high-density intrusion into the largest chunk of open space in the region.”

“I wonder about the feasibility, given the serious traffic impacts,” said Commissioner Jonathan Maguire. This is really just the beginning, he said, advising the applicants to expect the Planning Commission review to take a year or more.

The Hillside House team plans to return to the Planning Commission with revisions.

Community Development Director Paul Casey emphasized that the project would require a lengthy review process. “We’re just kind of getting started. … We’ve got a long way to go.”

Hillside House’s new program less restrictive

Along with providing affordable housing for its employees, if the development project is approved it will bring a significant shift in the lives of Hillside House clients. Currently the program’s 59 residents — primarily with cerebral palsy, autism, mental retardation and epilepsy — live together in a dorm atmosphere, with a licensed nurse there 24 hours a day, said Executive Director Pam Flynt.

In the new set-up, residents would live in a less restrictive environment, about six people to an apartment. Rather than an exclusively Hillside House population, the second and third floors of the complex would be rental units.

The opportunity to mainstream residents of Hillside House is a positive value, said Mickey Flacks, who sits on the County Housing Authority.

The Tricounties Regional Center (which makes referrals to Hillside House) would also like to see smaller units and smaller programs, said Flynt. “In each home, there would be a living room, a kitchen (and) they would have some say in creating their own dinner.” She also noted that residents who were capable would be able to help with laundry and other chores.

While there would still be a staff member in each house whenever residents were there (during the day residents are out in the community participating in day programs), 24-hour licensed nursing care would only be available in selected houses whose residents require that level of care.

Reaction from the families has been a little bit mixed, Flynt said. “We’re going to have to work through who’s going to need what level of care, and we’ll be able to have some variety in the types of care that we have in different homes and we can then work with placing our residents in the program that’s going to best meet their needs.”

Other projects pending

Hillside House’s proposed project is just one of many potential changes to the Hidden Valley neighborhood.

The Santa Barbara School Districts owns property nearby. “Originally this site was going to be used as a school site but the development costs are prohibitive and there is declining enrollment,” said Dave Hetyonk, director of facilities and operations. The board recently created a Property District Advisory Committee, tasked to make recommendations about the use of property that is not needed for school purposes.

“They could advise the board to sell, lease, rent or do any number of things,” said Hetyonk, who is hoping for a recommendation by September.

“We’ve tried (to master plan the Hidden Valley area) and made a real effort with the school district about five years ago,” said Community Development Director Paul Casey. “The cost of a connecting road (to Los Positas) was very difficult. … It added $4 million to the school site cost.”

Another player in the area is Valle Verde Retirement Home on Calle de los Amigos, which proposes to convert 63 one-bedroom units to two-bedroom units, potentially doubling its occupancy.

Bill Bertka also owns 57 acres at the end of Alan Road that he would like to develop someday. He told the Planning Commission he would support the Hillside House development and urged them to take other future developments, such as his, into consideration when planning the project.

Originally published in South Coast Beacon on March 18, 2004.

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