Santa Cruz City Council sets design standards, greenlights corridor rezoning as housing pressures intensify

Construction at Front and Laurel Streets in downtown Santa Cruz
Construction at Front and Laurel streets in downtown Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

When it comes to housing policies in California, cities and counties are yielding more local control to the state. However, some discretionary power still exists, and the Santa Cruz City Council moved to bolster the city’s.

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Santa Cruz will have more control over how new development looks after the city council pushed through a new set of objective design standards and broad zoning changes Tuesday night. The move comes in response to growing development pressures in the city combined with an increasing amount of local control yielded to the state.

The design standards, which are the nitty-gritty rules around the physical character of new construction, passed on a 5-2 vote, with City Councilmembers Justin Cummings and Sandy Brown in opposition. The opposing pair failed in their attempt to include stronger affordability requirements on new housing development, and ultimately decided to vote against the standards.

“It’s clear our community wants more control and this is the way to get there,” Mayor Sonja Brunner said.

The details of the standards, which include specifics such as allowed materials and tree requirements, received minimal discussion during the meeting. Instead, much of the energy was directed toward other issues wrapped up in the objective standards vote, including an upzoning of more than 350 parcels along Ocean Street, Mission Street and Soquel Avenue, as well as the need to require public review of larger development projects.

As part of the objective standards vote, city staff recommended changing the zoning on a majority of those parcels from community commercial to a more intense high- and medium-density mixed use. The change brings the parcels into alignment with the general plan (a long-range growth planning document), a move staff emphasized as procedural under recent changes to state law.

The state now mandates that zoning regulations yield to a city’s general plan if the general plan allows more housing. In Santa Cruz, this was the case. Staff said updating the zoning so that land use rules allow for the housing called for by the general plan was required. Without it, developers could just build the housing without following zoning rules such as height limits, setbacks or open space requirements.

Among the parcels targeted for a rezoning were three residential parcels in the Central Park neighborhood off Ocean Street. Currently, the parcels host a single-family home and a small apartment complex. Under the proposed rezoning (which aligns with the general plan), the parcels would have been opened up to a potential hotel use. The proposal galvanized some in the neighborhood, and the city council listened. It directed staff to exempt the three parcels from the broader upzoning and come back with a plan in January to amend the general plan and recategorize the parcels as low-medium-density residential — a win for concerned neighbors.

The city council also demurred on a staff recommendation to allow development proposals to skip the public meeting process if they meet all of the objective design standards. Staff said the move would help streamline the permitting process on projects that, according to the state, the city had to approve anyway.

The proposal raised some doubts from community members and councilmembers alike. However, the city council recognized the importance of some streamlining, and approved a hybrid model of permitting conforming projects — if a project had 50 or fewer units and conformed with all development standards, city staff could permit it without a public review. Projects with 51 or more units, even if they conform, must go through a public review.

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