Jamileh Cannon (left) and partner Tim Gordin address the Workbench team at the site's groundbreaking on Feb. 24.
(Via Josh Bootz / 7Roots Creative)

Four years and counting. Why does it take so long to get one Santa Cruz housing project off the ground?

Three weeks ago, local developer Workbench broke ground on a 13-townhouse development in Soquel. Lookout talked to founding partner Jamileh Cannon about why it took so long to begin building — the impact of legislative efforts to speed construction of housing.

Jamileh Cannon and Tim Gordin launched Santa Cruz design-build company Workbench in May 2017. They shared simple goals: to make a difference in the housing crisis and create quality housing.

Jamileh Cannon of Santa Cruz design-build company Workbench

The partners, with a combined 35 years of experience in building and architecture, began by purchasing a few properties. They aimed to take underhoused parcels and build multiple housing units on them, including affordable units. They made one of their first purchases in December 2017 for $1.3 million, closing on 5701 Soquel Dr. The nearly 1-acre Soquel property held two single-family homes.

That was then. Now, more than four years later, that project finally moves forward. On Feb. 24, they broke ground on a 13-townhome development, placed alongside those two single-family homes.

Why did it take so long for the company — which had completed a diverse range of projects ranging from single-family construction to commercial properties like the Jack O’Neill Restaurant & Lounge and Far West Fungi — to turn over dirt? Cannon’s experience tells us a lot about what has been a slog in seeing Santa Cruz County effectively deal with our housing affordability crisis.

In addition, the developer offers her view of the impact of recent state legislation, much of it locally controversial, aimed at expediting housing development.

Our built landscape, she says, will look very different in the decades to come.

“I think you’re going to see huge changes by 2030. By 2025, [Santa Cruz city’s] downtown is going to look totally different. I think that’s just going to have to spread from the core.”

This interview was edited for clarity.

Lookout: What exactly took so long to get the construction started on this project?

Jamileh Cannon: Well, there were a lot of different things happening.

First, we knew that the county was planning to implement the density bonus, so we held off on our planning submission. That delayed the process by about a year, but we were able to create more units of housing.

Then, there are all of the different parties that have to look at the project to move the process along. Probably, jurisdictionally, there are 10 to 15 different agencies — including public works, the planning pepartment, the Soquel Creek Water District — that have to look at the project. Some of them might be more “ministerial reviews.” [Those are government approvals that involve little or no personal judgment by public officials — but add time to any approval process.]

Lookout: How many people have touched the project since it was originally submitted?

Cannon: I think we looked at how many people touched the project by the time it’s done, and it’s over 500 people. That’s what it takes to build 15 units of housing.

On top of the 10 to 15 jurisdictions who look at the project, then there’s our sub-consultant team, including the civil engineer, the landscape engineer, the mechanical, the electrical, and the plumbing designers. On the construction side, you’ll have 25 to 35 subcontractors on the job.

For every project, the same amount of stuff goes into it — those are just some of the mind-blowing numbers to really reflect on as we were putting together the groundbreaking.

Lookout: When you originally purchased the property, what were the development goals?

Cannon: It was always envisioned as multifamily housing of some kind. At the time that we did the first pass on it, we couldn’t create quite that many units. And then, when the enhanced density bonus passed in the county, we were able to end up with one more affordable unit and one or two more market-rate units. So, we were able to get the project a little bit more dense, which, in the end, is really the only way to make it make sense.

If it wasn’t at the density level that it’s at right now, we wouldn’t be building the project.

A overhead view of the 5701 Soquel Dr. property, where Workbench is developing 13 new townhomes.
(Via Josh Bootz / 7Roots Creative)

Lookout: Please explain the density bonus and how that makes an impact in housing development for a parcel like this one.

Cannon: It means that a developer can build more units if they provide more affordable units. It’s basically the state’s way of saying that it will incentivize you to build more housing, but you need to give us something in return. Density bonuses can range based on jurisdiction, but the enhanced one for Santa Cruz County is a little bit above what the state requirement is.

[The state increased the top range of a density bonus, allowing 50% more units to be built, if a project included one of the following:

  • 15% very-low-income units
  • 24% lower-income units
  • 44% moderate-income units

Santa Cruz County’s density bonus requirements offer even further incentives to local developers, allowing up to 50% more units for qualified mixed-income projects and up to 75% for 100% more units for “affordable” projects.]

Lookout: How has local and state legislation streamlined approval processes?

Cannon: The process is so much more streamlined now, and the rules are clear — there’s no more gray area. The biggest change is SB 330, because it holds the jurisdiction’s feet to the fire to get your responses in a timely manner, and not to drag out that approval process.

In the county, there aren’t objective development design standards. As the county starts to see larger buildings, having those in place will just make life easier. In the end, [it will] make it really black and white — does it meet the design standards or no? — and then it also will create some continuity in the kind of architecture that we’re seeing and the kind of the buildings that we’re seeing go up. It’ll create more of an enhanced and beautiful environment.

If there aren’t objective design standards, it’s kind of like a free-for-all from a designer standpoint, which could be good if they’re good designers, and not good if there’s not good designers.

Lookout: How do those rules affect your work?

Cannon: It’s like night and day. As a designer and architect, oftentimes, we prefer to have rules, because we know what the boundaries are that we’re supposed to work within.

Rules help us understand how to design within constraints that are all equally understood — when we know the rules, we’re not spinning our wheels, trying to figure out what the planning commission wants, or what the board of supervisors wants, or what neighbors want. You have all of these different audiences … second-guessing every decision that you’re making, and hope that this will fly.

Jamileh Cannon, Workbench's founding partner and principal architect
Jamileh Cannon, Workbench’s founding partner and principal architect, smiles at the Feb. 24 groundbreaking event for 5701 Soquel Dr., first purchased by the group in December 2017.
(Via Josh Bootz / 7Roots Creative)

A lot of our project was a lot of back and forth with the county — and maybe just a lot of waiting. They’re really busy. I feel for the people that work in the planning department and in all of the building departments; they have a ton of work.

I think if SB 330 had been in effect at the start, we would have saved a year or two on this project.

I think you’re going to see huge changes by 2030 — by 2025, [Santa Cruz city’s] downtown is going to look totally different. I think that’s just going to have to spread from the core.

Lookout: Going forward, what do you expect will be the impact of the changes?

Cannon: The number of people involved in the process would stay the same, because the people it takes to get a project like this done would remain the same. However, the timeline would likely be a lot shorter. For this project, it could have been up to two years shorter.