A preliminary rendering of the 831 Water Street project in Santa Cruz.
A preliminary rendering of the pair of five-story apartment buildings that could be built at 831 Water St. in Santa Cruz.

‘It’s just too big’: 831 Water Street development draws massive amount of public comment

The current proposal is for two buildings at four and five stories, with 149 units on 19,033 square feet. Some nearby neighbors say putting a 60-foot building so close to 20-foot homes is “not neighborly.” A city council meeting on Sept. 14 will allow more discourse about the main concerns: shade, density, traffic and water.

It’s not every day a community meeting elicits more than 400 questions and comments. But the future of the 831 Water Street development in Santa Cruz isn’t just any other topic — and the public came out in virtual force Thursday night

One of the major concerns that riled up neighbors early in the process was a rooftop bar on one of the two proposed buildings, which would have been made open and available to the public.

According to the new plans, the bar has been scrapped — and so too has the open public access. Instead, the roofs will feature community gardens, outdoor seating and children’s play structures for tenants only.

Senior city planner Ryan Bane and principal planner Samantha Haschert led the second and final public community meeting for the proposed development. The project proposal, submitted by lead developer Iman Novin of Novin Development on July 1, is an SB 35 project to develop a mixed-use building with market-rate and affordable units on top of retail space at the intersection of Branciforte Avenue and Water Street.

According to Novin, via a press release sent post-meeting, the complex will “reflect the unique and innovative heart of the city, while helping Santa Cruz grow.”

While the original application was submitted July 1, an updated application was submitted with slight changes to the city planning department on July 27. In accordance with SB 35 regulations, the city has 60 days to approve the application, with an answer needed by Sept. 27.

Here’s a look at the major issues left to settle and main takeaways from Thursday’s meeting:

What is the proposed breakdown for units, square footage, etc.?

The current proposal is for two buildings at four and five stories, with 149 units on 19,033 square feet. The buildings are split between market-rate apartments and affordable housing apartments, with a mixture of studios, one-bedroom, two-bedroom, and three-bedroom units.

The space will also feature retail on the ground level, and underground parking for tenants. Additional amenities include bike storage, courtyards shared between the buildings, and five live-work studios.

Rendering of the 831 Water St. development.

What are the main concerns of community members?

Four of the main concerns from locals: shade, density, traffic and water.

Because of the building’s proposed location and height, neighbors from the 831 Responsible Development group are concerned that existing homes on Belvedere Terrace would be robbed of sunlight.

“We were frankly shocked that anyone would consider putting a 60-foot building within 20-feet of single-story homes,” said member Doug Engfer. “It’s just not neighborly.”

Further, as member and spokesman Guy Lasnier noted, the overall density of the project would lead to greater issues of congested traffic patterns in an already busy intersection.

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How has the developer responded to community concerns?

According to some community members, Novin has been unresponsive to neighbors’ concerns since at least April.

But, as Haschert noted, Novin is not required to provide open community meetings to the public given the project’s SB 35 status.

What are business leaders thinking about this development?

Emily Ham, executive director for the Santa Cruz County Business Council, says business owners are excited by the aspect of having more workforce development and sustainability through affordable housing development.

“The No. 1 issue for businesses is not having people to hire, and a big part of that is because housing just isn’t affordable here,” she said.

An overview of the development plan at 831 Water St.

In the current project proposal, the site would offer a minimum of 50% affordable units, which would be deed-restricted under SB 35.

Why is the timeline on this development moving so quickly?

In accordance with SB 35, the state requires a “streamlined, ministerial approval process” which facilitates and expedites the approval and construction of affordable housing.

Because of the process, that means the city must provide a letter to the applicant within 60 days of their formal application, and a public oversight meeting must be held by the city council within 90 days.

Haschert recommends community members attend the city council meeting on Sept. 14 to voice their concerns and learn more about changes with this proposal.

Is this just an issue of YIMBY versus NIMBY?

Not necessarily, no.

“People are in favor of housing being built here, in the two-, three- or even four-story range,” said Lasnier. “Our position is that this is an overreach — it’s using some of the tools to prompt the development and take it to the max, which has negative consequences on the neighborhood and the city.”

As Lasnier mentions, this parcel in particular is not ideal for this type of housing density with SB 330, being less than one acre in size. However, if Novin or another developer was able to fit within the zoning for the parcel, Lasnier and other community members would be supportive of that project.

The proposed view of the 831 Water St. building from Branciforte and Water.

What could this project mean for future Santa Cruz housing projects?

Ultimately, Lasnier is concerned that the 831 Water Street proposal could set the precedent for the city.

“It’s just the size and scale, honestly,” he said. “It’s just too big for that small of a parcel.”

Engfer agrees: “We’d like to see as much redevelopment of that property and affordable housing on that property — within the city’s zoning envelope of three stories and 40 feet.”

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