"I don't think any of these decisions tonight or even in this Housing Element are necessarily the end of the story," community development director Ellen Clark said.
"If the city wanted to come back and PUSD wanted to come back with a proposal to show us a really awesome site plan, integrating open space pocket parks ... and it happens to bump up the density a little bit, we can talk about that and make that decision," she added. "We're just trying to make sure we have an (environmental impact report) that remains whole and we have a Housing Element that delivers the number of units that we need to show."
City staff began working on the city's sixth Housing Element cycle back in March 2021 to meet the state-mandated Regional Housing Needs Allocation of 5,965 new units.
They underwent a public participation process through which public comments, input by the Housing Commission and Planning Commission and prior City Council direction led to the current draft that was presented to the council on Dec. 20.
Staff had originally developed a site list with 24 potential locations for redevelopment -- that list has now been cut down to 19. Reducing the list was always on the table as the decision to do so came after several layers of evaluations and reports back from the California Department of Housing and Community Development.
In addition to the HCD's review, the city prepared an EIR draft to analyze significant effects of implementing the Housing Element and development of its various sites with housing.
A traffic level of service (LOS) assessment -- which evaluates the traffic impacts of the Housing Element -- was also completed and presented to the council.
The PUSD district office on Bernal Avenue was one of the main talking points of the night as it took over most of the discussion, which ended in reducing the amount of assumed dwelling units.
"I wanted to take this property off the list for several reasons, one being with my previous knowledge, school districts giving out property to me is never a good idea," Councilmember Valerie Arkin said. "But aside from that ... the location is a little problematic for me. I think it is part of our downtown. It's changing the character of our downtown and that's something that I think our residents have really strongly advocated for keeping that historic, charming downtown type of thing."
With Councilmember Julie Testa abstaining, due to her living near the site, and Councilmember Jack Balch voting No, the rest of the council voted to zone the 10 acres available at the site at eight to 12 units per acre. That would mean an assumed capacity at about 107 housing units.
That differed from staff's original recommendation of 15-16 dwelling units per acre, which would have produced an assumed capacity of 122 units.
Also, as a policy direction, the council voted to direct staff to include a green space on the corner of first and Bernal -- the council also asked for less density on the Abbie Street side of the district headquarters site so the neighborhood adjacent to that area wouldn't be as affected by the increase in housing.
"There were a lot of letters received -- and I think most of them were from that Second Street area," Mayor Karla Brown said. "So if there was some way to direct traffic away from Second Street, or or put up a barrier, so a small number went to Second Street, but the rest of them went to Bernal, that sure would be a preference for me."
Balch's reasons for voting against the reduction stemmed from his belief that more units in that site would benefit the downtown area's businesses and that based on a letter from PUSD officials, having more units there would be beneficial for workforce housing that teachers and staff could use.
"If we don't allow them to cluster, if we don't allow them to design a multifamily product that allows for affordability for their teachers, where's our local control?" Balch said. "Where's our partnership with our school district? They're saying that's what we need to help them do."
He also added that the "downtown needs bodies and density of people to visit it so that they will patronize our establishments. It could actually create an economic engine and vitality of multifamily nearby."
Because the council also reduced the number of units at that district site, they decided to bring back the St. Augustine church site, which staff had removed from the site list coming into last week's meeting due to limited space resulting in a low amount of units that could be built there.
That decision to bring the site back was also supported by the fact that the church has expressed the desire to build housing at the site.
One comment that Testa made regarding the church site was that she was worried about the development affecting the character of the surrounding area and while Clark assured her that the units there will be single-family homes much like the surrounding area, other sites will still have some sort of negative impact on different neighborhoods.
"Many of the sites that we're looking at are going to have some impact on somebody," Clark said. "It's going to be a change, I will certainly acknowledge that, for folks who have had really a vacant lot next to them for all these years and so how you feel about impact depends on your experience and what you're used to seeing and what you may or may not want to see there in the future."
Another big site for PUSD on the list was the Vineyard Avenue property located between Thiessen Street and Manoir Lane.
The roughly 10 acres in discussion was originally going to be zoned for three to five dwelling units with an assumed capacity of 20 units.
But after some discussion surrounding the idea of maintaining the character of the surrounding area by adding some type of greenbelt park that goes through the development, Balch motioned -- with an amendment by Arkin -- to reduce the site to seven acres and have three to four units per acre that adds up to a assumed capacity of 21 to 28 units.
Another issue that Testa brought up regarding the site was the impact the housing will have on the schools nearby and whether or not the district has enough available space in the city to build more schools if needed.
"There is no major housing planned in this area and the schools that serve this area have capacity," said Ahmad Sheikholeslami, PUSD's assistant superintendent of business services. "The type of housing in this area is low density, and (the site is located in) a mature area of the city. So it makes a lot of sense for the district to take its assets here and to be able to invest in where the housing is going to be built."
He also added that, "the redrawing of the district boundaries for the elementary schools will help balance the schools and reduce ... the need for additional middle schools. Again, we are looking at our enrollment is down, we've lost about 1,000 students over the last three years. So our demographics right now don't show the need for an additional school."
Testa requested an additional analysis be completed by the city to determine the need for additional schools.
The remaining three acres would be left unzoned so that any future development for park space would be placed there.
The sites that the council voted to take off the site list after following staff's recommendations were: Old Santa Rita area; Pimlico Drive area, north; Boulder Court; Owens Drive sites (Motel 6 and Tommy T's); Rheem Drive area; and Sonoma Drive area.
The other main topic during the Housing Element item discussion was regarding substantive program revisions that relate to the city's existing development review process and residential development standards.
The city's current planned unit development (PUD) process is discretionary and requires Planning Commission review and then City Council approval. Through the process sites modify their respective zoning to a special PUD zone that allows for greater flexibility of standards tailored to the specific sites constraints and opportunities.
"One of the requirements of the Housing Element is to analyze potential governmental constraints to housing production and reduce them where feasible and also to facilitate housing development through a streamlined process that provides certainty and outcomes," said associate planner Megan Campbell.
Campbell said that the HCD provided feedback related to the PUD process expressing concerns that the process could constrain housing production by introducing extra time cost and uncertainty into the review process.
"In response, the city is developing a comprehensive set of objective design standards for residential and mixed-use developments," Campbell said. "These standards will help streamline development approvals (and) provide a clear, consistent and objective guidance to ensure quality, consistency and design."
The council voted to approve staff's modification to the PUD process, which will create two paths -- one would be applicable to applicants seeking rezoning or wishing to deviate from those objective design standards.
"What we're trying to do is sort of take that one step forward in terms of simplification and objectivity, which is what the state is looking for in our housing sites, by defining sort of a more structured process," Clark said.
The other would be creating a PUD conformance review, which would be established for the rezone sites.
"This adjusted process would involve approval by the Planning Commission and the city will base its review and related approval or denial based on those objective standards that will have been adopted," Campbell said.
The objective design standards were voted on unanimously by the council at a separate item during the meeting.
These standards would also apply to smaller infill projects in zoning districts that allow residential multifamily or mixed-use development.
"Questioning around land use controls, our consultant recommends adding two programs to review and update the multifamily zoning standards," Campbell said. "The goal is to adjust the standards to allow assigned densities to be feasibly achieved without the need for a PUD variance or other exception."
Now that the council weighed in on the Housing Element draft, the Planning Commission and the City Council will conduct a public hearing on Jan. 31 to consider adopting the final draft of the Housing Element and certification of the EIR.
Staff will then resubmit the Housing Element to HCD for final certification -- most likely in February, according to staff.
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