City Grapples with Density Question

Inclusionary zoning laws are increasing City’s housing burden, not improving them, says Council; asks for plan to counter proposed State law

Published : Tuesday, April 10, 2018 | 4:59 AM

City Grapples with Density Question

Coming to terms with increasing density in its neighborhoods, state laws which supersede local planning needs, and a possible need for more “specific” specific plans were themes of a presentation to City Council by Planning and Community Development Department Director David Reyes Monday evening.

Reyes first outlined much of Pasadena’s development history over the last few decades, leading to the City’s current General Plan.

The City’s first growth management initiative, created in 1989, was a direct response to growth management problems that developed in the 1980s. This led to the City’s 1994 General Plan, which was built on seven guiding principles—targeting growth to enhance the quality of life, preserving historic resources, promoting healthy families and communities, making car-free circulation possible, being a leading city in the region, and welcoming community participation.

New general plans were created in 2004, 2009, and 2013, which culminated with the final plan in 2015.

Seven “specific” plans were also created, for the Central District, South Fair Oaks, West Gateway, East Pasadena, East Colorado, North Lake and Fair Oaks/Orange Grove neighborhoods. Each was capped in terms of housing units “in order to target residential and non-residential growth in order to preserve established single-family neighborhoods,” according to the plan.

Land Use Designations in all of the plans remained generally unchanged from the 1994 Plan.

Currently, however, statewide housing production has slowed down significantly compared to historic trends and has not kept up with the demand of growing population. According to California’s Housing Future: Challenges and Opportunities, a report from the California Department of Housing and Community Development, 180,000 homes will need to be built annually, statewide, in the 2012 to 2025 period to accommodate the state’s needs.

In addition, 81% of lower-income renter households in California are rent burdened, and 51% of lower-income renter households in California are severely rent burdened, further increasing the need for a larger housing supply.

Addressing the shortage of affordable housing, the State legislature in 1979 passed SB 1818 which created “Density Bonuses” for developers based on the concept that “the market will not produce below- market rate housing without public subsidy.”

Rather than expending public subsidies to build affordable housing, the report stated, a density bonus gave developers regulatory incentives to build affordable housing into their projects with private funds.

Density bonuses grant more total units to be built than otherwise allowed, as long as a certain percentage of project units are set aside as affordable for at least 55 years. The bonuses also allow concessions and waivers of other development standards, such as height, which is allowing developers to build taller buildings than originally approved.

Adding to the issue, according to the Reyes report, is the fact that state law has “evolved over time to make it more difficult for local agencies to deny concessions.”

SB 1818 makes density bonuses a statewide fact of life.

“The burden of proof is on the City to find that concessions or waivers are not required (in these cases),” and “ The City must pay Applicant’s attorney fees if [the] court determines that the concessions or waivers were justified,” said the report.

It is this law that some Pasadena lawmakers feel, is damaging their efforts to build a balanced community of affordable and market rate housing without increasing density. And a new proposed law on the horizon will only make things worse, some fear.

SB 827, recently proposed in the State legislature, would completely open up development near designated transit stops and allow developers to bypass many local design and zoning laws in terms of density and height.

And parking. Developers would no longer be required to build parking for new properties.

“The State has just bulldozed us,” said Mayor Terry Tornek, during a lengthy Council discussion. “We can’t tweak state laws.”

“SB 827 would be a disaster for us,” said Councilmember Andy Wilson.

‘This is a struggle for the integrity of this City,” said Councilmember Victor Gordo. “We need to bring a plan to the state, rather than waiting for them.”

Mayor Tornek doubted the success of such an idea, but acknowledged, “We can tweak the state law, but we can’t do anything here, since we can’t change our General Plan for another three years.”

Both Gordo and Councilmember Margaret McAustin discussed the idea of creating “hybrid” specific plans in certain neighborhoods, while McAustin also suggested the idea of “downzoning” certain areas, which would severely curtail, if not cease, any development in those neighborhoods.

McAustin also suggested creating a higher number of affordable units for developers to build in order to qualify for density bonuses, saying, “Then we might not be a victim of state laws.” She acknowledged that this might ‘curtail’ development.”

The City is currently at a 15% rate to qualify for density bonuses, but Planning Director Reyes noted that the City of San Francisco is currently “somewhere around 25 to 30%.”

Gordo said the City must do three things—create a legislative proposal to present to the state, create new interim regulations, and develop new “hybrid” specific plans, including downzoning.

“The burden should no longer be on us, it should be on the developers,” Gordo added.

“We need to adopt new regulations in a hurry,” said Mayor Tornek. “The City needs to move now.”

The Council then directed the Planning Department to return to Council “soon, with an action plan” for local zoning regulations that will work within the State law.


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