A design standards vote turns into a last grasp for local housing control in Santa Cruz

Aerial View of the San Lorenzo River facing Front Street
A view of the area along Front Street in downtown Santa Cruz that’s undergoing redevelopment.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In California’s housing climate, cities and counties are given little discretionary power over housing development. A vote in front of the Santa Cruz City Council on Tuesday represents an increasingly rare opportunity to exercise some local control.

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Hope of finding affordable housing in California has crumbled for many. So too has local control over housing policy, as the state has taken on an emboldened role in ensuring cities and counties are addressing their housing shortages.

Today, the state not only tells cities and counties how much housing they must build (a lot), but has also diminished their discretionary power over whether that housing gets built. Gone are the days of city councils or planning staff denying a permit to a standard multifamily project simply because they disagree with it or its potential impact. If the proposal aligns with the city’s published development standards, the city should permit the project or prepare to battle the state in court.

On Tuesday, Santa Cruz City Council will be taking up one of the few remaining arenas of discretionary local control over housing when they vote on the city’s new objective design standards. Wrapped up in that vote is a proposal to upzone more than 350 parcels along the city’s major corridors — a once-contentious move that the city says is now procedural amid the changing housing rules from the state.

In the housing climate of old, these objective design standards represented relatively arcane rules over how new buildings look in a city or county — the nitty-gritty of physical character. What materials can developers use for a roof? What must a building facade look like? How many windows? Should we focus on modernism or postmodernism? What about trees?

Today, these standards represent one of the few local filters through which all new multifamily development must run. Santa Cruz currently lacks detailed objective design standards. For developers, this essentially means that as long as their proposed multifamily project is in the correct zone and falls within density regulations, they can pretty much shape their projects into cost-efficient, characterless, incongruous molds without meaningful say from city officials.

These standards aim to help codify a Santa Cruz style of development, a style the city wants to communicate as “quality and permanence.” Examples of these standards include a roster of allowed materials, such as tile, brick, wood, stucco, glass, metal, plaster and walls made up of living plants. Building facades must include a mix of at least two materials, and architectural details like window sills, balconies, awnings and stylized light fixtures will be required in some places. Projects along major corridors must include pedestrian-friendly design on the ground floor.

“This really matters if you care about the specific design of buildings in your community,” says Rafa Sonnenfeld, a local housing policy analyst who works as the director of legal advocacy with San Francisco-based YIMBY Law. “This is about putting constraints on what is allowed through the objective standards process.”

Given the permit-or-court-battle mandate from the state, the staff is also recommending city council approve a policy that would allow proposed projects that align with all objective standards to skip the public meeting process. Andy Schiffrin, a planning commissioner finishing up the final year of his four-year term, said this has drawn some questioning from community members.

“I think there are valid concerns. There are some circumstances where public input is necessary,” Schiffrin said. “But in the long run, what’s really the big thing is that the state now has the discretion over what gets built.”

A zoning fight included

As Sonnenfeld and others have said, the meat of the objective standards on Tuesday’s city council agenda hasn’t drummed up much political ill will. The standards are a critical piece of today’s housing policy landscape and must be passed if the city wants any control over what new construction looks like.

What has rubbed some the wrong way, however, is the proposed zoning changes scheduled to be tied in with the objective standards vote.

The city council will vote on whether to change the zoning on more than 350 parcels along Ocean Street, Mission Street and Soquel Avenue from largely commercial uses to medium- and high-density mixed uses, allowing for the potential of more housing.

In the old days, back when zoning dictated how much housing could be built in an area, this type of land use overhaul might have triggered a massive and contentious community conversation. Yet the rules have changed. This is where it gets hairy.

In 2012, Santa Cruz approved its General Plan 2030, an (at that time) aspirational future land-use document that mapped the city into 20 land-use designations that planned out future growth and what uses would be allowed where.

As general plans do, this one spoke in generalities; for example: the Santa Cruz general plan’s high-density mixed-use designation placed limits on how many units could be built per acre but not much else. The general plan made no mention of height limits, no open space requirements, nor how the development in these areas should interact with the surrounding neighborhood. Much of that was left to the city’s more detailed zoning code.

When the general plan was adopted, it was inconsistent with the existing zoning in some areas. However, residents who might have been alarmed to see their neighborhood targeted for future high-density development could rest assured as long as the neighborhood’s existing zoning was more conservative. The zoning code outlined the hard and fast development rules of today, whereas the general plan contained the aspirations of tomorrow. Any inconsistencies between the two would defer to the zoning code.

Then, with the California legislature’s passage of the Housing Crisis Act of 2019 and further amendments to the Housing Accountability Act, the state changed the rules.

Now, if there is an inconsistency between the development planned for by the general plan and the development allowed by the zoning rules, the general plan reigns supreme. In Santa Cruz, this meant that overnight, the state essentially subverted neighborhood organizations and effectively rezoned the more than 350 parcels along Mission Street, Ocean Street and Soquel Avenue without a local fight.

The city says the zoning changes before the city council Tuesday are simply procedural to align the parcels’ zoning with the general plan, and impose more detailed limits absent in the general plan such as height limits, open space requirements and how the building heights interact with the surrounding neighborhood.

Deborah Marks, a resident in the Central Park neighborhood off Ocean Street, says the proposed rezoning would upzone three housing parcels at the corner of her neighborhood and open up the land to a possible future hotel use.

Marks says the general plan and the proposed rezoning are inconsistent with the Ocean Street Area Plan, an area-specific planning document that was formally approved as an amendment to the general plan in 2014. The Ocean Street Area Plan maintains these three corner parcels for their existing residential uses, rather than the proposed mixed-use designation.

The problem for Marks and her neighbors is that the general plan already includes these parcels in a high-intensity mixed-use designation, which means developers eyeing the parcels can build whatever is in the bounds of that designation. Only a formal amendment to the general plan could change that, and the city is allowed only four amendments per year.

“We understand a resolution is complicated, but if the government made a bad decision, then the government should fix it,” Marks said.

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