First published in the Sept. 15 print issue of the Outlook Valley Sun.
After two years of work updating the local housing element, La Cañada Flintridge was near the finish line Monday with city staff presenting what they thought would be a final draft of the lengthy document seen as worthy of adoption and submission to the state for approval.
The City Council respectfully disagreed with staff’s recommendation, siding with the dozens of stakeholders present for the meeting, and requested LCF staff to lower the proposed density for several parcels on the city’s main corridor.
The modification was significant enough that staff requested additional time to revise the document with updated figures and zoning designations, so council members agreed to table the public hearing and continue the discussion at the Oct. 4 meeting — 11 days before the deadline to send the document to the California Department of Housing and Community Development, or HCD.
“We have to get a plan that benefits the most people, and we’re going to take a shot [with] whatever we pass,” Councilwoman Terry Walker said. “We’ll send [the housing element] up to Sacramento, and it may come back to us, but I think we owe it to our citizens to give it a shot at the lower density.”
The City Council modified zoning designations for some of the parcels on the sites inventory list, which is a catalog identifying properties that could be considered for development and must be included within the housing element. They reduced the density for five properties located within the Downtown Village Specific Plan, which is a planning and design document adopted in 2000 that guides development in what is considered the city’s commercial downtown area along Foothill Boulevard.
Council members agreed to reduce the density for three parcels belonging to St. George’s Episcopal Church, 1010 Foothill Blvd. (currently occupied by House America Financial) and 600 Foothill Blvd. (currently vacant), from 25-30 dwelling units per acre to 12-15.
The City Councilmembers also voted 4-1, the lone dissenting vote from Rick Gunter, to remove the height limit of 35 feet because they felt it was unnecessary and could be addressed in the zoning and development standards which are to be established over the next year.
Mayor Keith Eich was confident the changes made to density on the selected properties would not affect LCF’s regional housing needs assessment, or RHNA, which projects how many dwelling units are needed in each city to address the statewide housing shortage. The Southern California Association of Governments tasked La Cañada Flintridge with showing that it can allow for the development of at least 612 residential units — though that does not necessarily mean they would be built.
Cities are required to provide an additional 15-30% of units to ensure adequate capacity throughout the eight-year cycle of the housing element, and LCF staff delivered a sites inventory list that would accommodate a total of 1,034 units, which is a 69% surplus.
“I believe we’re still above and beyond the buffer recommendations,” Eich said after summarizing the modifications made.
Nonetheless, Susan Koleda, LCF’s director of community development expressed concern that such alterations decrease the number of projected lower income units and could raise red flags with HCD because of fair housing laws aimed at promoting inclusivity in communities and combating housing discrimination.
Failure to comply with the state could result in litigation, fines and loss of permitting authority, which would suspend LCF’s ability to grant permits and zoning changes.
“Professionally, I would say that I have concerns that HCD would reject that as a violation of [Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing] requirements,” Koleda said. “So, professionally, I would advise you not to do this.”
Despite her concern, the council moved forward to delay the decision with the justification that there were still a good number of higher density parcels throughout the city.
“We have spent so much time listening and understanding what we think HCD is going to do, and I think we have to present it in a positive way, that we met the requirements and here you go,” Councilman Mike Davitt said. “And if they reject it, well they reject it and I guess we got to look at it again. I kind of feel like we’re defeating ourselves. We’re going, ‘Well, HCD is probably going to reject it, so don’t do it.’ Well, we’re not sure they will, right?”
FOOTHILL SOUTHSIDE VS. NORTHSIDE
Since work on the sixth cycle of the housing element began, residents have been vocal regarding the differences between the north and south sides of Foothill Boulevard.
City staff had previously been directed to assess the differences between both sides of Foothill and concluded that there wasn’t one that was significant enough to deter from zoning more high-density properties on one side as opposed to the other.
Koleda said the reasoning behind zoning the sites the way they did was to spread them throughout the community, a thought they felt would bode well for approval from the state.
“Staff was very cognizant of this fact when we were actually preparing the sites inventory,” she said. “We do believe that if there is a differentiation between the north and south side, there needs to be substantial justification as to that. We could not find [that justification]. Without that, we believe there is the potential that HCD would find the city was out of compliance with the affirmative furthering fair housing requirements if we do not allow for lower income, which again base density [is a] minimum 20 units per acre, on the southside of Foothill within the DVSP.”
The City Council, however, viewed that differently and sided with stakeholders on the idea that the topography of each side is different and higher density projects are more complicated on the south end of the main corridor because of the proximity to single-family homes and possible traffic congestion.
Councilman Kim Bowman, who was sworn into office two months ago, felt that altering the density for the properties owned by St. George’s, 1010 Foothill Blvd. and 600 Foothill Blvd. — all of which are located southside of the main corridor — would give more consistency to the number of high-density parcels on the large street. He was hopeful that HCD would notice the difference in topography by looking at the maps.
“We believe that the north and the south are substantively different,” he said. “That feels like a discussion, at least. It’s not bad faith that we’re trying to pull one over on the state. We’re trying to be compliant, and we’re trying to do it in a way that maintains consistency per the conversation had here.”
Less than two days removed from the lengthy special meeting that lasted nearly six hours, Koleda told the Outlook Valley Sun on Wednesday that there is still some concern over the council’s revisions because LCF, like all municipalities, are chartering unknown territory in updating its housing element with a number of new and significant housing laws.
“This is the first time that all the jurisdictions are going through this,” she said. “Even with the changes and direction the council gave us, they do still meet the [RHNA] numbers and there are no issues with that. What the state is going to be looking for is how those numbers and the sites are physically distributed across the city.
“There is no high density really on the southside of Foothill,” Koleda added. “That is a concern because [HCD] has been telling us over and over again about [fair housing requirements] that promote fair housing for all in high-resource areas. That section is a high-resource area.”
City staff and the consultants they hired to assist in the process of amending the LCF’s general plan are already at work on updating the document.
“We want it to be as complete and as accurate and as compliant as it can possibly be,” Koleda said.
According to Koleda, the owner of the property at 1010 Foothill Blvd. is in agreement with the density change made by the council. However, as of Wednesday, she had not reached out to the owners of 600 Foothill Blvd. to get their preference.
CONCERN OVER ST. GEORGE’S AND 600 FOOTHILL BLVD.
Though the council’s focus was on discussing the housing element, many residents took to the podium to speak out against the possibility of high-density development from two specific owners.
Several stakeholders expressed concern over the possibility of multi-family housing at St. George’s sites located near the corner of Foothill and Commonwealth after an advertisement that ran in the Outlook Valley Sun claimed that as many as 100 apartments could be built.
Some confused the paid ad for editorial content and contacted the Rev. Amy Pringle of St. George’s Episcopal Church objecting to high-density development near the intersection. The public’s response prompted Pringle to attend Monday’s meeting and address the issue.
Many believe that large multi-family structures in the area would only further congest the city’s main corridor, and some worry that such development would affect the allure and appeal of LCF, a city that prides itself in having small-town charm.
“Let me say clearly: Please assign whatever housing density you would like to our property since we have no plans to build on our property,” she said. “We were just trying to be a friend and help with the housing element.”
Pringle said that church officials had explored several ideas when planning future finances, and they had considered mixed-use housing.
“But only until our diocese and real estate advisers told us the high number of units that we’d have to build in order to make that work financially — information which immediately turned us off that option.”
The assurance from Pringle didn’t stop residents from voicing their objections to development greater than 12-15 dwelling units per acre, especially at 600 Foothill Blvd., the 1.28-acre parcel that was the former site of the Christian Science church.
Owners of the property, which includes former Councilman Jonathan Curtis, previously proposed a three-story, mixed-use structure that would have offered senior housing, office space and hotel units, but the project was rejected by the City Council last November.
City staff had proposed a density of 25-30 dwellings per acre for the site, and one of the owners, Alexandra Hack, had asked the council to approve the housing element with that designation of their property.
“I understand the housing element is not perfect, but consider approving it as proposed,” she said.
Garret Weyand, who also has a stake in the property, was critical of the report from Michael Baker International, a consulting firm hired by the city earlier this year, that guided LCF staff in determining the density required to make development economically feasible in LCF.
He believes the report’s market value assessment for land in the area is outdated and that the density in the area would actually need to be at least 2 ½ times greater. Weyand added that supporting the housing element as drafted would “endorse” the opinions locals have expressed regarding multi-family units and low-income housing.
“This clearly will not pass [with] HCD,” he said. “I would say that the buffer will probably be reduced quite a bit from a lot of properties that are not economically feasible when HCD takes a look. The same thing happened in South [Pasadena].”
Nonetheless, the council, which extended the public comment time limit on Monday from three to six minutes, agreed with residents and reduced the proposed density of the site.