West Cliff assisted living project passes by slim margin; affordability main concern among ‘no’ votes

Senior planner and project lead Clara Stanger presents the project to the Santa Cruz City Planning Commission
Senior planner and project lead Clara Stanger (bottom right) presents the project to the Santa Cruz City Planning Commission on Thursday.
(Via City of Santa Cruz)

Does affordability apply to assisted living facilities? Not according to city regulations, but two Santa Cruz planning commissioners voted against the plan, citing those concerns. The proposal for a 76-unit senior living facility is moving forward, with issues including traffic and preserving monarch butterfly habitat part of the plan.

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Three years ago, members of the public got an opportunity to voice their concerns regarding the 76-unit, 74,218-square-foot senior living development proposed for a site at 126 Eucalyptus Ave. in Santa Cruz. They got another chance to share their feelings about the project at Thursday evening’s meeting of the city planning commission — and they came out in droves.

Following Santa Cruz city senior planner and project lead Clara Stanger’s project presentation, a couple dozen members of the public chimed in to raise questions and make comments for over 40 minutes. While there were a number of people in support of the project, and others who expressed satisfaction with the transparency and responsiveness of the developers from the Minnesota-based group Oppidan, other locals brought forth familiar concerns, namely traffic and affordability. The latter proved to be a point of discussion among the commissioners, too.

In the end, the project was ultimately approved by a 3-2 vote, with commissioners Mark Mesiti-Miller and Pete Kennedy voting against the project. While Mesiti-Miller cited insufficient affordability as the reason for his “no” vote, Kennedy took issue with the commissioners’ move to add a 25% affordability requirement, possibly rising costs of building.

The topic of affordability, often discussed in Santa Cruz, looms over just about every development, regardless of the project’s purpose.

“I just cannot go along with this when staff has advised us that they drilled down with legal counsel on this matter and could not find support for more affordable housing,” said Mesiti-Miller.

“Why don’t we get affordable units out of the memory-care components? We’re giving away this piece of coastal property, it’s a prime zone and we need housing,” said Kennedy. “It doesn’t seem fair.”

Stanger explained that the memory care units do not meet the definition of a dwelling unit, which are the only units subject to the city’s inclusionary ordinance.

During Stanger’s presentation, she listed additional conditions of approval to be added to the plan. The ones that address traffic and congestion are:

  • requiring signage that prohibits high beams until drivers are on eastbound Pelton Avenue;
  • making commercial deliveries use the facility’s West Cliff Drive driveway for entering and exiting at all times.
The proposed development site.
(Via City of Santa Cruz)

Other added conditions seek to address concerns about potential harm to the area’s sensitive monarch butterfly population. Those include:

  • retaining all roost trees;
  • buffering occupied roosts, including those at Lighthouse Field State Beach, by 100 feet;
  • beginning daily construction after temperatures are above 55 degrees so that butterflies have emerged from their idle state, and are capable of flying, thus avoiding displacement;
  • making trucks and equipment enter and exit from the east of the site toward West Cliff Drive to minimize exhaust and vibration impacts to Lighthouse Field roosting sites;
  • prohibiting right turns out of the Pelton Avenue driveway to divert outbound trips east of the existing monarch grove and to avoid casting vehicle headlight glare into the grove;
  • locating new trees in places where they will not excessively shade nectar resources;
  • shielding exterior project lighting to avoid glare and illumination of adjacent properties and the monarch grove.

Neighborhood resident Ralph Meyberg mentioned both environmental issues and traffic as points of concern, and as a result said he believes that Pelton Avenue — which runs between the proposed site and Lighthouse Field — should remain as is.

“We are trying to discourage traffic on Pelton because of the monarch habitat, and I think improvement of the roadway will indicate to people that it is worth traveling on,” he said. “I think the better option is to have more traffic travel through the Oblates [of Saint Joseph] parking area, especially during construction.”

Another unnamed member of the public implored stronger action than signage to be taken to prevent right turns and increased traffic onto Pelton.

“I am a former Gateway [Elementary School] parent, and I can tell you that there used to be a left-turn-only sign that no one paid attention to,” she said. “I strongly recommend that we have something more significant than signage, because no one paid attention to it.”

Of course, affordability was brought up as well. Thirty-six-year Lighthouse Avenue resident Lisa Glick touched on this issue after citing traffic concerns.

“I’m curious about the down payment of $12,000 to $14,000 and the actual monthly cost,” she said. “Who are we serving, and who are the residents in our senior community that are going to be able to afford to live there?”

Developers confirmed the $12-14,000 down payment but did not disclose the expected monthly rate, as they are still working to finalize the amount.

The commission’s final approval came with the following added conditions:

  • to the extent permitted by the Department of Public Works and the fire department, that the project include a more substantial traffic control device to be installed to prevent vehicles from making a right turn when exiting the facility onto Pelton Avenue;
  • the solar panel trellis shall be retained on the building permit plan;
  • the project includes 15% of congregate living units or assisted living units to be available at affordable rent to low-income households;
  • the applicant shall consult with a butterfly ecologist in preparing the landscaping and lighting plans to make every effort to support a thriving monarch butterfly population.

There are still a number of things that need to be done before breaking ground, such as nailing down multiple permits including a coastal permit, which is appealable to the California Coastal Commission.

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