Chapala Street Development wins over Historic Landmarks Commission

While three- and four-story mixed-use developments in a Spanish Mediterranean style seem to dominate recent attempts to tackle housing in Santa Barbara, one project stands out as doing it “the right way” — at least according to the Historic Landmarks Commission , who gave a glowing review of the proposed 39-unit adaptive reuse project at the corner of Chapala and Ortega streets.

The project is located on the site of the former Volkswagen dealership, on a property with a deep family connection spanning more than 70 years. The Van Wyk family opened the dealership in the 50s and it was run by family members well into the 90s. The family still owns the property, and hired architect Tom Meaney to design a pedestrian-friendly development that would fit perfectly with the character of downtown Santa Barbara. Tom Meaney is the grandson of founder AC Van Wyk and the son of Greta Van Wyk and Jack Meaney; the late Garry Van Wyk operated the dealership for decades.

At first glance, the proposed design fits the mold of a number of similar mixed-use residential buildings that run through the city’s notice boards: three to four stories high, with the ever-present elements of white stucco, sandstone, and red-tile roofs. But Meaney—who has a background in both architecture and art and was driven even more by the fact that this project is a family operation—took it a step further, incorporating new ideas and details into a visually striking take on Santa Barbara’s classic architectural style.

“I think it’s absolutely beautiful,” said Commissioner Cass Enberg, who praised Meaney’s team for addressing development priorities such as adaptive reuse of existing structures, creating four buildings spread across the space instead of one large mass and adding walkable paseo – and arcade room. “It’s just the epitome of Santa Barbara,” she said.

The words “romantic”, poetic and “artistic” were used to describe the corner property’s proposed layout, which includes a reimagining of the existing service bay – a space Meaney said is unique to the property and will be repurposed as a “cool”, industrial loft-like room” – and variations that divide the mass into several structures around a central courtyard.

“Mr. Meaney, I consider you to be a modern master who has a firm grasp on the language of Santa Barbara architecture, and this is a great example of that work,” said Commissioner Robert Ooley. Both Ensberg and Ooley went so far as if to say that the design had the potential to become a “future historical landmark.”

In a city that typically separates new developments in drawn-out back-and-forth battles, the Chapala Street project is an example of how planners and city boards can work together to achieve a common goal — even in the strict El Pueblo Viejo Landmark District. While the project received a height exemption, the designers chose to accommodate the units and offer 39 leases spread across 30,000 square feet and an additional 5,000 square feet of commercial space. They were also able to provide 27 parking spaces despite the fact that the zoning code does not require resident parking in the area.

Commission Chairman Anthony Grumbine called the project “the best building” on Chapala Street. “And I don’t take that lightly,” he said. “I just want to hold this up as an example of a building that got a height exception, broke the height limit and did a good job of coming right through.”

The project design was unanimously approved and will return for a final hearing, although the only directions given to Meaney were to address noise reduction, balcony materials and wrought iron and tile design details. Finally, the commission gave a rare green light to creative freedom, encouraging Meaney to feel free to add “an even more personal touch” to the project.

“Have your thumbprint there, your personal influence,” Commissioner Ensberg said.

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