City Council Throws Up Roadblock to Large Development, Pitting Itself Against State

Vote is seen as a temporary victory for opponents of large developments which have earned State concessions that may conflict with cities’ General Plans, but could lead to a court battle

Published : Tuesday, July 23, 2019 | 4:47 AM

[Updated] With a tie vote just after 1 a.m., the Pasadena City Council Monday denied a City staff recommendation to uphold a Zoning Appeals decision on a project at 253 South Los Robles Avenue, effectively canceling the project’s approvals for now.

The outcome was seen as a victory for project opponents led by the Madison Heights Neighborhood Association (MHNA).

The “non-decision” decision, after two Council votes and hours of public speakers and Council discussion, leaves open an issue which could alter the course of future housing developments in the City. The City will continue to have to decide between an overwhelming need for new housing—which is being pushed by the State—and its effect on local neighborhoods.

(A related hearing on similar developments at 127 and 141 North Madison Avenue, was rescheduled to August 19, due to the late hour.)

According to Pasadena Planning and Community Development Director David Reyes, the project’s applicant, Zhuang & Zhong Los Robles LLC, was eligible for a housing concession for the multi-family residential project. Because the project had “no features which distinguish it from other exempted projects in the City,” the Planning Department recommended its approval.

The State’s California Environmental Quality Quality Act (CEQA) regulates such projects and essentially takes precedence over City law.

Ultimately, after midnight, Councilmember John Kennedy offered a “yes” vote to approve the project if the developers agreed to provide three additional units of affordable housing. That motion ended in a 4-4 tie.

On the new motion, Councilmember Andy Wilson, who originally voted for the project, and Tyron Hampton, who originally voted against the project, both switched sides. But again, the vote was 4-4 tie.

Councilmembers Steve Madison, Victor Gordo and Gene Masuda voted against approving the project on each vote, while Councilmembers Kennedy and Margaret McAustin, along with Mayor Terry Tornek, twice voted in favor of the project.

Last night’s vote could eventually lead to a court battle between the State of California and cities including Pasadena which oppose changes in their single-family neighborhoods mandated by the State.

The issue pits the City against the State, in cases where new “In Fill” projects qualify for housing exemptions—such as size and number of units—by agreeing to build a dedicated number of affordable units.

The State, which has been pushing for more housing to be built, now for the first time faces pushback from cities and neighborhood groups.

Representatives and supporters of MHNA argued that the project would bring excessive traffic and noise to the neighborhood, and would exert a negative “cumulative impact” on the area.

But Reyes said in his report, that “cumulative impact” could not be effectively defined, and that the project fulfilled all the requirements for an exemption.

“There is nothing here that is inconsistent with the City’s General Plan,” said Reyes.

Councilmember Victor Gordo said that the City should begin to review the “cultural impact” of such projects City-wide.

Attorney Richard McDonald, who represented the developers, Zhuang & Zhong Los Robles, told the Council, “This is a quasi-judicial matter, not a legislative matter. State law is a mandate.”

McDonald added, “It is the height of hypocrisy for this City to want affordable housing, but deny this project.”

In her comments before the Council, however, MHNA Vice President Erika Foy countered that “MHNA believes our neighborhood will be exposed to noise levels that exceed established standards, with this development, combined with the five others nearby, and further studies must be required before permits are given.”

“City staff has erred in finding this property Infill Exempt, particularly since there are significant errors in the ESA Noise Technical Report as well as the Technical Memorandum,” Foy added, saying, “We believe the evaluation was not reflective of what is really happening in the area.”

Zhuang & Zhong had submitted an application for two affordable housing concessions on a new 94,165 square-foot, six-story, 92-unit, multi-family residential building, including eight “very low income” units, with 131 parking spaces in a three-level subterranean parking garage.

The project would have demolished a vacant 43,544 square-foot, two-story office building, and a 9,160 square-foot parking lot on the site.

The maximum number of residential dwelling units allowed for the project site is 71 units. But the City’s density bonus section of the Zoning Code allows an increase in the number of units permitted on the site without discretionary approval, provided a number of the units are designated as affordable units.

The percentage of density bonus increases awarded is dependent on the number of units dedicated as affordable.

The developers’ plans qualified the project for a 35% density bonus; granting them the ability to build up to 96 total residential units, though they ultimately settled on 92 units. The developers also requested a maximum building height of 80 feet.

On June 13, 2017, the Design Commission reviewed the proposed project through the Preliminary Design Consultation Process. City Staff recommendation recommended approval of the project, given that the proposed building would comply with all applicable Zoning Code development standards and the required findings to increase the FAR and height could be made.

On November 15, 2018, the MHNA submitted an appeal application to the Board of Zoning Appeals, citing various disagreements with the decision of the Hearing Officer, including an incorrect CEQA determination and that the required findings cannot be made, that the Project is inconsistent with the City’s General Plan, has significant errors and omissions in the record, that the Hearing Officer failed to consider evidence, and that the Hearing Officer’s decision was “arbitrary and capricious.”

On April 8, 2019, Mayor Tornek submitted a request for a call for a review of the Board’s decision, which was approved by City Council on April 29.

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