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City Desk: May 14, 2014

Monticello Village Project Sent Back to the Drawing Board for More Family-Friendly Amenities

Irvine Company’s proposed development for 3515-3585 Monroe St. ran aground at last Tuesday’s Santa Clara City Council meeting on the question of open space and recreational areas for families and children. The discussion offered insight into how this and future Councils will be viewing new residential development proposals.

The project concept first surfaced over a year ago. Four stories high with ground level retail, it includes 825 apartments – which could house as many as 1,500 to 2,000 people – 43,849 square feet of retail space, and amenities like swimming pools and fitness clubs for residents. One-story industrial buildings and parking lots are currently on the site.

The plan has a lot going for it. It’s close to the Lawrence Caltrain station – a “quintessential transit-oriented community” Irvine representative Carlene Matchniff called it – a full-service grocery store, and varied architecture to create an interesting streetscape. It will also create around 1,700 construction jobs and 200 permanent jobs.

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But the Council’s sending the project back for some redesign reflects fundamental issues facing the city as it grows. Namely, as the city becomes increasingly a community of apartment-dwellers, where are residents’ – especially children’s – recreational needs met? And who’s going to pay for it?

“The fact is that we’re not going to be building single family homes,” said Council Member Teresa O’Neill, noting that on a recent visit to Irvine’s North San Jose Crescent Village – studio, one and two bedroom apartments ranging in price from $2,100 to $3,200 a month – she was surrounded in the elevator with mothers with strollers.

“A lot of people are going to be living in apartments. We can’t look at these units as transitional housing. They’ve got to be housing for a lifetime.” The Silicon Valley Index reports that less than half of first-time buyers can afford a house in the area. And even if they could afford an $800,000 house, many Millennials have different priorities, regardless of their income.*

“We have developers coming to the City presenting projects with no open space and paying fees,” said Council Member Lisa Gillmor, “and I’m not comfortable with that. Even if you’re an urban professional, you’re going to have babies. There are urban families. If there are families with children, there is literally no place in this development for them to play.”

This wasn’t the first time Irvine heard this criticism, according to Gillmor. In response, Irvine offered the city $3 million to improve local parks and recreation facilities.

Mayor Jamie Matthews asked if Irvine was willing to add a “children’s amenity.” Matchniff replied they were “willing to add that if you’re willing to bypass architectural review [and] we could work with Parks & Rec.”

“We have an architectural committee meeting tomorrow,” said Council Member Pat Mahan, meaning the review would be expedited.

“Our preference is to come in and work with staff,” said Matchniff. “It’s been in 18 months of review. The issue has not come up at a staff level.”

Eighteen months of review or not, the Council asked Irvine to return with a plan that addressed these concerns about open space and recreation areas.

In the meantime, the City is also working on a way to provide amenities and services that will be required by new building: development impact fees.

“We’re still working on the formula [for] a development fee as an offset for the number of units being created,” said City Manager Julio Fuentes. “Just about every city charges development fees. There’s a tremendous amount of revenue that we’re not collecting.”

* “For Millennials, Retirement Beats Home Ownership,” www.cnbc.com/id/101646498.

2325 Park Ave: No Legal Ground to Stop Renovation

After two previous Council discussions on a proposed renovation at 2325 Park Ave., last week the Santa Clara City Council held an additional hour and 15-minute study session on the matter. The conclusion was that the city has no legal grounds for stopping the renovation.

This is the latest explosion in the ongoing Santa Clara University “mini-dorm” controversy – single-family homes being converted for student housing. The Park Avenue property has had neighbors seeing red ever since they found an online rental advertisement for it as a six bedroom, three bath house for $8,000/month. After neighbors complained to the City, the plan was changed.

The renovation includes a new garage, front addition, three additional bedrooms, family room, two additional bathrooms, and expands the house to about 2,100 sf from 1,200 sf. The application was approved as a single-family house, “consistent with past approvals,” said Director of Planning Kevin Riley.

The owners say their intention is to remodel the house and sell it as a single-family property. “I have seen their contract to put the house on the market and sell it as a single family home,” said Fuentes. “They made the modifications that it will be built as a single family home and not as a rental property by the developer.”

The bottom line? “We really don’t have any legal position to withhold [approval] of the project,” said Fuentes. “We will continue to monitor it, and ensure the work will be completed based on the plan that’s submitted.”

Not everyone shared his confidence.

“I’ve been on the architectural review committee for 20 years, and…I’ve never seen floor plans that look like this,” Mahan told owner Eric Fox, while also noting that Fox’s company, Cassidy and Turley, specializes in commercial, not residential real estate.

Gillmor thought that discussion was a step too far. Agreeing that the city has “a huge problem in the neighborhood,” she continued, “We’re venturing into an area that’s very dangerous when a Council Member is saying what a single family house should look like.”

Santa Clara’s code is written such that if a building project conforms to the zoning code and city ordinance, the applicant has a legal right to approval – regardless of whether you think those five bedrooms will house 10 college students or the cast of Sister Wives.

In legalese, it’s a “ministerial,” not a “discretionary,” decision. By law, the Council can’t stop projects because neighbors don’t like them or because of what future owners might do. The property use has to actually be violating the law before the city can step in.

“If a subsequent owner were to convert the home to anything other than single-family,” said City Attorney Ren Nosky, “our recently-instituted policy of sending anything over three bedrooms to architectural review would be put through that process. And hopefully by that time we’ll have our new boarding house ordinance in place. If a subsequent use were to be violating that code, we could exercise it at that time.”

In fact, technically speaking, the city already has the means to ban boarding houses in residential neighborhoods. “That is not an allowed use,” said Nosky. However, it’s a code enforcement challenge. “We’ve lacked resources in recent years.”

“In this year’s budget we’ll have the addition of code enforcement personnel,” added Fuentes. “We’re going to take a proactive role.”

The neighbors, however, continue to insist that the driveway, setbacks, encroachment and permit variances, and proximity to historically significant properties don’t conform to city code, despite a report by Riley to the contrary. And they continue to say that the Council “isn’t listening” to them, and that thinking that the house will be anything but a boarding house is a delusion.

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