• Residents Blast Housing Element, Consultant at Special Council Meeting

    by Mitch Lehman

    Gentle, soothing, pre-holiday music wafted over the sound system inside the Kenneth F. White Auditorium at Huntington Middle School on Monday night while warm-colored, calming landscapes floated across the projection screen as members of the San Marino City Council, Planning Commission and more than two hundred residents took their places for a special meeting to discuss the controversial Housing Element of the city’s General Plan.

    San Marino Councilman Dennis Kneier even informed residents that Stoneman would be taken completely off the table as a consideration for mixed-use development.

    But any hopes that the zen-like atmosphere would quell residents’ anger over the city’s refusal to remove the component from the Housing Element that would change zoning restrictions to allow mixed-use development as a means to solve a low-income housing requirement were dashed as soon as the first speaker, former Planning Commissioner Ken Riley, concluded his remarks.

    “This is a solution in search of a problem,” said Riley. “If you adopt this plan it will be irreversible and it will not produce affordable housing.This will destroy the fabric of the building code.”

    Riley’s comments produced a thunderous round of applause that seemed to reverberate through the auditorium until – the next speaker communicated his disregard for the plan.

    That would be lifelong resident Steve Talt, who has opposed the inclusion of mixed-use development since it was discovered in August.

    “Two months ago, we came to a city council meeting to oppose mixed-use. When I was told the city had created a new Housing Element, I looked and it was still there,” Talt thundered. “It’s a fallacy to suggest that changing the character of the city would serve the interests of the city. It’s a myth to believe that we need mixed-use to provide senior housing. This town does not want to change its character.”

    Talt then asked the audience, “Who does not want mixed use included in the city’s Housing Element?” All save a few thrust their  hands into the air for a few seconds before the ovation returned, causing Mayor Dick Ward to ask the audience to show restraint.

    After three potential speakers – Rod Perth, Brad Ball and former Mayor Gene Dryden – declared their alliance to the opinions of Riley and Talt, Daniel Jett told the four members of the Planning Commission and all five city councilmen he is “against mixed-use in all respects.”

    “Once that is in place, you can’t say ‘no’ to landowners.”

    Jett then chided the council for what he believed was a lack of diligence in 2007 when then-State Senator Gil Cedillo introduced the legislation requiring communities to remove barriers to low-income housing.

    “This was then and is now clearly against our interests,” Jett said. “We did nothing to stop it.”

    Citizen Gene Ruckh called the Housing Element “a convoluted piece of junk” and said that inviting mixed-use into San Marino would be akin to inviting “commercial jungles and low class hovels.”

    Dan Rosen said it was “shocking and irresponsible” that the city had not engaged in a comprehensive cost analysis of the multi-use plan, which would change city codes to allow as many as 20 unites per acre – twenty-five, according to Kim Campbell, which would be allowable under a state bonus system.

    Justin Feffer singled out Veronica Tam, the city’s consultant who prepared the Housing Element, calling her “a very strong advocate for mixed-use. When we ask her if we can meet the requirement with second-units, she hems and haws. If Bradbury can use secondary units, why can’t we?”

    The question “can the 17-unit low-income housing requirement be satisfied solely by second units?” was never answered by city staff or the consultant.

    A report obtained by The Tribune from the City explicitly states, however, that “current residents have already expressed interest in remaining in San Marino if this type of [mixed-use] opportunity presented itself.”

    San Marino city staff told the audience that an uncertified Housing Element leaves the city open to lawsuits. If the city does not find mixed-use developments to be a viable option for receiving certification, the city can construct Second Units or Emergency Shelters. The major problem with Second Units are the strict city development standards that make them difficult to construct.

    The final speaker of the evening, Linda Wu, was denied a Second Unit even though the unit would have complied with state code.

    Second Units are fully-functional second houses on a larger property. They have been called “granny units,” designed for relatives who wish to live on the same property and can be substituted for true low-income housing provided regular setback restrictions and other requirements are met.

    As much as compliance to standards was an issue Monday night, so was the issue of who was representing the concerns of San Marino. John Barger, whose family has lived in San Marino since 1958, argued that San Marino is not sending “the best advocates we have” to Sacramento and said that he did not sense much negotiation from current representatives.

    “Are they the best we can get?” Barger asked rhetorically. “When the election was nearing, some of us asked ourselves ‘Should I run?’ Barger continued. “We thought the city was in good hands. Then we find out after the election that this was on the table. We are disappointed. This all came up after the election.”

    Nabil Sejean said the consultant, Tam, was “misinformed.” “Garbage in, garbage out,” Sejean said of the Housing Element.

    He then asked Tam how she met City Manager John Schaefer. After a brief exchange between Tam and Schaefer, no answer was given.

    Responding to quotes published in two separate editions of The Tribune from Councilmen Richard Sun and Kneier which floated the possibility of a senior housing project at city-owned Stoneman School,  Raymond Quon told the council to “keep your hands off Stoneman. It has historical significance.”

    City Planner Amanda Merlo told The Tribune on Tuesday that Tam was hired through an RFP – request for proposal – process.

    “Staff sent RFPs to Ms. Tam’s firm (Veronica Tam and Associates), Lilley Planning Group and Hogle-Ireland,” Merlo said in an email. “Each firm submitted a proposal and staff met with a representative from each firm. Ms. Tam’s experience and vast housing policy knowledge made her stand out as the top candidate. The final selection was made by the Council and we entered into an agreement with Veronica Tam and Associates with Hogle-Ireland as a subcontractor.”

    Merlo said the City “obtained her name and the two others from planning colleagues in other cities.”

    The next regularly scheduled city council meeting takes place on Wednesday, December 11. The purpose of the December 2 meeting was to present a draft of the Housing Element that was acceptable to the state. Clearly what is acceptable to the state is not acceptable to the residents of San Marino.

    During her presentation which opened the proceedings where Tam declared that San Marino has produced a Housing Element satisfying State requirements, the Housing and Community Development website shows San Marino’s current status as “out of compliance” as of Tuesday night.

    The plan that was submitted to the State doesn’t identify lots that are eligible for 2nd units, identify existing inventory of 2nd units, or discuss how to “eliminate government constraints” to constructing new ones (e.g. permit streamlining, reduced cost, etc.). It does so, however, for mixed-use development.

    The revised draft study calls for “mixed use” apartments and condominiums to create 17 “low income” housing units for San Marino, but the report identifies a potential 96 apartments and condominiums that could be built in the existing commercial zone along Huntington Drive.

    This new October, 2013 revised draft San Marino City Housing Element study is submitted by San Marino Building and Planning Director David Saldaña. It calls for the implementation of new zoning, ordinances and rules changes to stimulate “mixed use” housing projects.

    “Mixed use” is the term given to multi-story projects that include retail stores on the ground floor with apartments or condominiums above. The report gives support to as many as 20 units per acre. Saldaña writes in his cover memo to the council: “Mixed Use: The Council was in support of exploring the concept of mixed-use developments in the City. There is not much housing type choice in San Marino as there are only large, single-family homes and a handful of second units. Recently there has been interest by residents and developers in mixed use development in San Marino. The “prototype” that has been discussed includes office or retail uses on the ground floor with residential units above in the C-1 Commercial Zone. This would be very small scale mixed use but it would have the potential to provide an additional type of housing in the city at a presumably lower cost than a detached single-family home. This may also work as a way to provide housing for senior citizens. Many of the City’s seniors move out of the City when caring for a large home and property becomes burdensome. Current residents have already expressed interest in remaining in San Marino if this type of opportunity presented itself.”

    Later in the report, at page 43, five Huntington Drive parcels are identified by address that would hold up to 96 apartments or condominiums if the study’s recommendations are adopted.

    What is not discussed in the report is that any change in city policy regarding multi-family housing could extend throughout the city and lead to lot splits, multi-family projects throughout San Marino, reduced setback requirements and greater density.

    The city has a deadline of February 12, 2014 to certify an approved Housing Element, though at Monday’s meeting Ward said it “is not an infallible deadline.”

    San Marino Tribune Staff Writers Winston Chua and Bill Arp contributed to this story



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