Much of public service (and professional work and personal life, for that matter) is spent balancing conflicting priorities.
The Pleasanton City Council faced yet another interesting case study down that road last month, a debate centered on a new housing unit and coveted downtown parking.
Property owner Wassim Naguib sought city permission to build a new two-story house behind the existing dental office building at the front of his property at 218 Ray St., but the Planning Commission majority denied his design review application because he wanted to pay an in-lieu fee to the city in exchange for not offering an additional parking space onsite for the commercial use required by the municipal code.
So he appealed.
The parcel is located on the southeast edge of downtown between Main and First streets, about where Walnut Drive hits Ray Street. It includes Pleasanton Dublin Dental Center in a converted house at the front, with a sizable parking lot in the back.
The city actually approved a prior proposal for a two-unit apartment at the back of the parcel in 2002, including an in-lieu agreement for four parking spots, but the project was never built and the approvals lapsed. The Downtown Specific Plan has been updated since then too.
Naguib's project calls for building on part of the private parking lot a new two-story house at 1,069 square feet along with a two-vehicle carport for the residence.
The proposal complies with relevant city development standards in its current zone for things like setbacks, number of units, no net loss of commercial space, architectural compatibility, building height and floor-area ratio -- all aspects except parking.
City code requires 12 parking spaces for the redevelopment, 10 for the dentist office and two for the house. (It's actually 9.72 required by the city's calculation methodology, thus rounded up.) But the construction plan would leave only nine spots for the dental lot.
The applicant did propose adding a car lift to park a third vehicle for the house, but the problem is the parking count for the commercial use -- the logic being city planners would not want a dentist customer or employee taking up a public parking space.
City rules do give discretion to allow alternatives in some situations, such as parking variances, agreements with nearby lots and in-lieu fee. In this case, Naguib wanted to pay nearly $22,000 to the city, instead building that 10th spot, to be used for future public parking projects.
The Planning Commission denied the application in a 3-2 vote on Jan. 12, primarily because of the majority's opposition to the in-lieu parking fee in favor of prioritizing the required parking onsite.
City staff actually disagreed, and recommended the council uphold Naguib's appeal and approve the project as proposed. They backed the in-lieu fee as part of their support of the project overall, including the fact the new house would feature green energy design and be located close to the downtown core and ACE train station.
This issue is a flashpoint in California these days. Housing advocates balk at parking as a deciding barrier to new residences, but business owners and customers in a commercial area like downtown Pleasanton push to protect public parking as a precious resource.
For many in downtown, the loss of even one parking spot on a recurring or permanent basis should be avoided at all costs.
I'm a stickler for the rules, in general. What is the point of spending all of the time crafting regulations and policies if you are just not going to follow them? That said, I also recognize the real-world value for local governments of variances or allowances acceptable under policy or practice on a case-by-case basis.
I don't rush into the "this sets a precedent" camp every time because an allowable exception in one situation does not have to be the rule in another. It's certainly a fair argument to make though.
I'm also aware a debate like this comes off as the city or council micromanaging a project unnecessarily. To that, I'd point back to my mindset: They have these rules on the books, so they should very well be prepared to enforce them. Plus, a detailed discussion on points of an appeal is best for all sides involved.
The council accomplished just that, engaging in an hour-long hearing on March 1.
"It was really hard for me to believe that it's only 1,000 square feet, almost ... and all the deficiency was a half parking spot," Naguib told the council. "Our immediate neighbors are in support of the project."
He pointed out that the current lot seldom if ever reaches the nine-car level now, and he offered to open the dentist lot up for public parking on weekends.
"We're not trying to aggravate the problem; actually we're trying to solve it," Naguib said. "I don't see the issue, the big big big issue. We've been for two years discussing now (this project)."
Councilmember Jack Balch was a clear supporter of the project, in part for its approach to the parking question.
"The concept that he is a 'half spot' short and buying a full in-lieu if we let him, but he's got the bonus (car lift spot), I think the impacts are going to be pretty minimal. And we get to determine if this is a solution for our downtown parking as well," Balch said. "These lifts are everywhere; they really are."
Councilmember Julie Testa called it "a lovely project" but voiced deeper concern about downtown parking.
"Our priority for that area has to be to protect the retail vibrancy, and to add additional parking burden in our downtown that is already parking-burdened, doesn't feel appropriate," she said. "And we want to be consistent. We want to know that we're not approving projects that aren't providing the parking that's needed."
Vice Mayor Valerie Arkin was apprehensive about a car lift being in use downtown, for safety reasons, but the majority persuaded her.
In the end, the council tried to create a balance from the dais, unanimously upholding the appeal and approving the project -- but with a few new conditions.
They required the owner to secure an agreement with a nearby, non-residential property (within 300 feet) for a commercial spot. They also stipulated that the residential carport must be kept clear of storage so two cars can always park there, and they said the car lift is optional.
A final new condition of approval moved the Saturday construction start time to 9 a.m. (instead of the earlier 8 a.m.).
"Congratulations. Good luck with your project," Mayor Karla Brown said after the vote.
As an update, since the hearing occurred over a month ago, city spokesperson Barbara Harb told me this Tuesday that Naguib has not challenged any of the new conditions to date and is pursuing finding a parking space to use at a neighboring lot.
Ultimately, occupancy of the house will be subject to receiving a conditional use permit from the city, as well as other clearances under the law.
Editor's note: Jeremy Walsh has been the editor of the Pleasanton Weekly since February 2017.