Smiling woman with glasses, grey sweater
Senior planner Sarah Neuse has worked diligently on the citywide objective standards project over the last year: “We want them to reflect the whole community.”
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Q&A: Senior Planner Sarah Neuse on the future of multi-family development in Santa Cruz

Sarah Neuse, a longtime planner for the city as well as county of Santa Cruz, recently help complete a proposal for “objective standards” for multi-family housing. The rules, which still need to be approved by the Santa Cruz City Council, would govern, among other items, the design and neighborhood “fit” of local developments — potentially for decades.

Sarah Neuse had worked as a Santa Cruz County planner for 11 years before starting a similar job for the city of Santa Cruz in April 2018. More recently, she’s been focused on objective standards — an issue at the center of recent, and contentious, debate.

Explaining the term, Neuse said the proposal she and her team presented to the Santa Cruz City Council Tuesday “are the standards that are going to regulate how multifamily housing looks, feels and works for people for the next several decades.”

For those interested in learning more about the standards — which are pending approval by the City Council — Neuse will host public office hours this Saturday, beginning at 10 a.m. Interested parties can tune in via Zoom here.

Here are some insights from Neuse’s conversation with Lookout this week. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

What has been happening with housing over the last few years throughout California, and how has that impacted development locally?

Over the last several years, state law has been evolving really rapidly and focused on the housing crisis. This is a statewide issue, not specific to Santa Cruz or the Coastal California or the Bay Area. The approach coming out of Sacramento is focused on driving production of new housing units.

The whole concept of having regional housing allocation needs is that every community has to plan and accommodate for growth. This process has been ramping up over the decades as the housing crisis has gotten more and more intense.

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How have state laws impacted the way development can make waves in Santa Cruz?

In 2019, and amended in 2020 and 2021, the Housing Crisis Act really changed the way we process permits. The law basically changes how we have typically reviewed development proposals, which would go through what works in the General Plan and then through the discretionary process of whether the project should be approved. Over time, that discretionary process actually limited the number of units built — the state has said that you can’t do that. You have to accommodate the proposed units.

At that point [when the law was passed in Oct. 2019], we got to work right away because we knew that we would need some standards around design, because that’s the control that we have over development.

How did the Housing Crisis Act affect the Santa Cruz General Plan, and the zoning associated with the General Plan?

When the act was passed, we were working to reconcile the General Plan and the zoning code — but when the legislation passed, it clarified that we can only use objective standards to regulate design, and it also locks in densities and capacities from Jan. 1, 2018.

What we have now is two documents that don’t agree with each other, and that’s limited to these places we had planned for mixed-use housing. On those parcels, we don’t have zoning that fully implements what the General Plan calls for; in the meantime, under the state law, we’re operating under the General Plan — we just have to implement and allow for what the General Plan allows.

These two things came together — we have direction from city council to reconcile the General Plan and the zoning code, and we have the state law that says the only thing you can use are objective standards. Now, these two things are happening together, where we have our objective standards implement our zoning code.

Woman sitting and looking at binder of maps at desk
Sarah Neuse was excited by the community outreach for this project, with over 800 responses coming in: “We had to really approach outreach in a different way to make sure [underrepresented voices] got incorporated.”
(Kevin Painchaud for Lookout Santa Cruz)

What has been the community insight toward the development of the standards?

We need to work with our community on this whole project. One critique to come out of the Corridors Plan was that people felt like they really weren’t being heard, and that they weren’t hearing about the project. We knew that we were going to have to approach our community outreach in a really different way going into this project. [The Corridors Plan, which was rejected by the city council in 2019, would have encouraged higher-density housing in specific parts of Water Street, Soquel Avenue, Mission Street and Ocean Street.]

We’ve had a more successful outreach effort on this project than on many other projects. We received over 800 responses to this survey — I haven’t seen one with the city that had more than 350 or so responses. We had to really approach outreach in a different way to make sure [underrepresented voices] got incorporated. We’re going to start collecting demographic data with surveys to give context to who we’re hearing from, and that’s really useful to know who we should be doing outreach with.

It was really important to get all of these voices because these are the standards that are going to regulate how multifamily housing looks, feels and works for people for the next several decades. We want them to reflect the whole community.

It was really important to get all of these voices because these are the standards that are going to regulate how multifamily housing looks, feels and works for people for the next several decades. We want them to reflect the whole community.

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There has been some contention regarding the objective standards for the proposed SB-35 development at 831 Water Street. How could a standardization of objective standards help with that type of project?

I think that there was some confusion among the public of what was being included in the project and what’s available, and thinking that we didn’t have a single objective standard — that’s not true. What objective standards are set up to do is not to regulate objective aspects like design, privacy, shading, beauty, preservation of views and conformance with neighborhood character.

The reason that this [objective standards] project can be helpful is, if we get everything right, the community can have more buy-in to the requirements of how a building should look. I think we can regulate ourselves to design that more people find more attractive, and more in character with Santa Cruz.

This process also provides an opportunity for people to have conversations outside of a specific development, and examine the trade-offs we make. It gives us an opportunity to say there’s a tradeoff — state law says we can’t reduce the overall housing capacity. Something has to give in that building envelope — and it’s easier for people to have those conversations in the abstract.

What do you think these conversations lead to for the future of the city’s development?

Another part of this is that we get to ask, what are the community values we express through our zoning code? If you do want to see more rental housing or affordable housing built, in some places that means more density. It’s been an opportunity for people to step back and think about how we reflect on our community values in this document that’s not site-specific, but intended to apply citywide.