Redesigning Santa Cruz into 2030: City begins to tackle major rezoning and new design rules

Public comment during Tuesday's Santa Cruz City Council meeting.
(Via City of Santa Cruz)

As the state of California asserts itself in affordability planning, the city of Santa Cruz aims to regain some control over the nature of the projects to be built. At the same time, 387 parcels along Mission Street, Ocean Street and Soquel Avenue are up for rezoning, with the big goal in mind: more housing.

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Developers are scrambling to submit plans to the City of Santa Cruz ahead of new building standards that could be approved as soon as October.

Mixed-use projects like the 1,166-square-foot, 33-unit 515 Soquel Ave. development and the 390-unit condo development at 908 Ocean St. are among those aiming to get in their preliminary applications soon, in the hope of keeping their plans as they currently stand, says Santa Cruz City Senior Planner Sarah Neuse.

“If everything goes as quickly as it could, it would be six or so weeks before these standards go into effect and would apply to new development applications,” she told Lookout on Tuesday. “908 Ocean is working hard to get theirs in since they just went through some design changes, and 515 Soquel is really close.”

The new standards — called “objective design and development standards“ — got an airing Tuesday evening during a meeting of the city council. The two-hour focus on those standards, substantial rezoning and other development issues served mainly as a listening session for the council. After public comment, Councilmember Donna Meyers motioned to continue the item at the council’s Sept. 13 meeting due to the late hour and long day. Councilmember Justin Cummings seconded. The council will discuss the plans and could vote on them then.

“I’m hoping that we get something that we can really wrap our minds around and that the public can weigh in on in a more deliberate way rather than trying to figure out what the intention is,” said Councilmember Sandy Brown.

In addition to the new standards, staff presented its plans and maps for the rezoning of 387 parcels along Mission Street, Ocean Street and Soquel Avenue. That planned rezoned, said the staff, conforms to the city’s 2030 General Plan. Given the major focus on building new and affordable housing, the rezoning largely changes the designation of many parcels from community commercial (for business) to multiuse, with medium or high density. That designation would enable housing-forward development, accompanied by both commercial and office space.

The Soquel Avenue parcels would be high density, the Mission Street parcels would be medium density, and the Ocean Street parcels would be a combination of medium- and-high density developments focused more on commercial, visitor-serving uses.

Some attendees at the council meeting expressed dissatisfaction with the potential for taller buildings in town, as has been somewhat common in these discussions.

One virtual attendee with the username Jim B said he was generally displeased with the prospect of more large buildings coming to town, but also believes that if that change is inevitable, that they should be built in different places.

“The largest projects should be on Mission closer to UC Santa Cruz, rather than the more modestly zoned ones,” he said. “The 831 Water project made it clear that the largest projects typically have the most student-friendly units, and to build those farther away from the campus kind of makes no sense.”

Deborah Marks, who lives in the Central Park area off of Ocean and Water streets, also said she displeased with the plans.

“With this project, my neighborhood will be devastated since we’re mostly single-family homes,” she said, adding that public outreach has been insufficient. “I was promised that our neighborhood would be involved in the zoning of Ocean Street, and that certainly never happened.”

On paper, the standards — laid out in painstaking detail in an 80-slide presentation by the planning department at Tuesday’s city council meeting — deal with the often arcane and detailed specifications involved in planning and building, especially around multifamily and mixed-use housing construction.

The crux of the project, along with developing objective design standards, establishes new zoning districts to implement mixed-use designations as outlined in the 2030 General Plan. That plan is a comprehensive revision of the city’s 1990-2005 general plan, acting as a sort of long-range development road map for the city.

The key word in the proposed new guidelines: objective.

Throughout the report, planners talk about “increasing objectivity within existing regulations” and updating “the permitting process to reflect the shift towards objective design review criteria.”

If that sounds abstract, remember the recent controversy over the 831 Water development, housing the state fast-tracked to the dismay of some locals who spoke out about increased noise, traffic congestion, and environmental worries. It might have looked quite different had this set of design standards been in place as it was going through its own contentious design process.

The new standards are intended to comply with state mandates — particularly the Housing Crisis Act of 2019 (Senate Bill 330) — and provide better ongoing reference for new developments within the city.

“Developers have been able to come in and say that they want to build something, and that it doesn’t have to meet the zoning code if it doesn’t fit the general plan, and we can’t really do anything about it,” said Neuse. “That started to happen with 831 Water, and it could have gone differently if we had some stronger objective design standards.”

Overall, the playing field has changed as state mandates to build affordable housing have reduced local control. These standards are an effort to adjust to the new realities, and reexert fair — note the word “objective” — local shaping of development that is now more likely to happen.

Neuse — who is the lead on this project — outlined two main goals in the endeavor. The first is to create and maintain a set of standards to refer to for future developments.

“The state law that went into effect in 2020 (SB 330) basically says that cities, counties and municipalities in general cannot use subjective criteria to reduce the number of housing units or the density of housing that can be built on a given site,” she said. “We have had objective standards, like height limits, but it gets trickier when working on design permits for a lot of multifamily development.”

She said that the findings for those permits have been more subjective, as they often pertain to how a new structure will fit aesthetically into a given area.

“You can’t use subjective standards like that in every circumstance, so creating these objective design standards gives us something to rely on and plan accordingly while keeping a particular vision in mind,” said Neuse.

Second, the standards provide structure to the vision outlined in the 2030 general plan.

“These mixed-use areas are focused along transportation routes where there are jobs and commercial services nearby, which is part of meeting the city’s climate goals,” she said. “The other side is that it means development won’t replace existing residential space. It kind of lets us do both at the same time.”

Neuse stresses that the new zoning districts and objective standards would not go any further than what is called for in the 2030 general plan.

“We’re implementing exactly what’s called for in the general plan on the parcels on which it’s called for,” she said. “This is about creating standards that can accommodate the full development capacity in that general plan.”

The city plans to put the new standards into place this fall, as the city council moves forward with changes to the city’s municipal code. If the project is approved, the code changes and objective standards will activate 30 days later.

Among the points of public contention within these big moving pieces of planning and development: How much say the public will have, when and on what issues?

Gary Patton, 3rd District County Supervisor from 1975 to 1995, said he was particularly concerned with the potential curtailing of public input.

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“The staff report kind of brags that they’ve cut back the need for public comment except for appeals, but appeals cost money,” he said, adding that he did not think the plan has a strong enough commitment to affordable housing, either. “Then the staff says not to worry, and that everything will be the same as it always was. If that’s true, keep those public hearings in.”

“Please include public input for these projects. If they meet all the objective standards, then great, there’s nothing to worry about,” said an attendee who did not give her name during public comment. “That type of comment is very important, and we’re doing it right now. It’s not so bad, right?”

Neuse responds to these concerns by saying that, as it stands, residential developments in existing multifamily residential zones do not require public hearings unless appealed, but that the city will always give community notice.

“The way it works now is that a residential development comes in, it complies with all of our standards, and we do an administrative design permit. There’s no public hearing unless they are appealed,” she said. “There’s always an early meeting with the neighborhood before a developer submits their application, and we ensure that their design complies with what we allow.”

However, Neuse added that many of the upcoming multiuse, large-scale housing projects will require public hearings anyway.

“Most of these projects will likely seek a density bonus because our inclusionary rate entitles them to one, which will require a public hearing, and we’re also not changing anything about our community outreach policy,” she said.

“And still, many projects will require public hearing for other reasons. If it’s a condo project, it triggers a public hearing. If it’s in the coastal zone, it needs a coastal permit, which triggers a public hearing. If the developers seek variance, like a density bonus, that triggers a public hearing.”