SANTA CRUZ >> To streamline city planners’ review of housing proposals, promote equity and reflect Santa Cruz’s community character, Santa Cruz city staff have started a process to create objective design standards for new multifamily housing projects.

Encouraged by state leaders, objective standards are rules for housing projects denser than a single-family home. These are measurable rules for things like building materials, setbacks, floor ratios and heights.

City planning staff and a team from Oakland-based consultant Urban Planning Partners held the first informational session about the “Objective Zoning Standards for Housing Development” project on Thursday, March 11.

“We want there to be really clear expectations for approval and we want to avoid the subjective interpretations of whoever’s working that day” in the city planning department, said Meredith Rupp, senior planner for Urban Planning Partners. “The hope is to streamline the review process. We will do our job correctly if these objective standards are easy to understand [and] if they’re feasible to implement.”

Another reason to have objective standards to judge housing projects is the racist history of zoning, deed restrictions and lending practices in California and across the country, leaders at the meeting said. Gretchen Regenhardt, the former regional director of California Rural Legal Assistance in Watsonville, and Diana Alfaro, a project manager for Foster City-based affordable housing developer MidPen Housing, gave a presentation about housing history in the region.

“We think about zoning as a really neutral concept. We don’t want a toxic waste dump next to a school, for example. But unfortunately, history tells us that residential zoning was designed to be exclusive,” Regenhardt said. “It was designed to set aside certain areas for white people, and to exclude people of color and those of lower economic status. It was legal until 1917 to zone entire areas for whites only. And most of these policies were government sponsored.”

Exclusionary housing practices

After 1917, lending practices and deed restrictions systematically limited people of color from home ownership, Regenhardt said. Those practices are now illegal, but the economic, health and education impacts persist in Santa Cruz and across the nation, Regenhardt said.

She presented a map of Santa Cruz’s zoning overlaid with 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data, which showed areas zoned for single-family homes as overwhelmingly white. Latino residents were concentrated in multi-family zones. Most of Santa Cruz is zoned for single-family homes.

A map of City of Santa Cruz zoning is overlaid with 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data on residents’ race. (Screenshot of City of Santa Cruz presentation)

Sarah Neuse, a senior planner for the city, said that objective standards can help reduce the opportunities for discrimination by reducing subjective discretion in approval of housing projects. By approving more apartment projects, city leaders can create more housing for a wider range of income levels, she said.

“Part of the path forward is recognizing where we are right now in regards to income level and racial disparities throughout the city,” Neuse said. “So this is just really important context for all of us to have a shared understanding that I think is going to be really important as we move into the next phases of the project.”

Why new design standards?

The city of Santa Cruz’s process to create objective standards partly came out of a recent state law SB330 that limits cities from using subjective standards to reduce the number of housing units in a project. The process also came out of the failure of the Corridor Plan, a controversial plan to update the city’s zoning to meet the higher density called for in the General Plan.

In recent years, a group of mostly Eastside residents have protested against the higher level of planned density along Soquel Avenue and Water Street, mostly between North Branciforte Avenue and Morrissey Boulevard. They were concerned about impacts such as parking in areas with single-family homes and apartments near Soquel Avenue.

In August 2019, in a motion that killed the Corridor Plan, Santa Cruz City Councilmember Sandy Brown directed city staff to make changes to zoning and the General Plan to “preserve and protect residential neighborhood areas and existing city businesses as the city’s highest-level policy priority.” The council approved the motion with a 4-3 vote.

Yet, more than one year later, city staff said it remains unclear what it means to “protect” residential neighborhoods. Are the goals of streamlining housing approvals and addressing racial inequities at odds with the city council’s direction to city planning staff to protect neighborhoods?

Santa Cruz City Councilmember Sandy Brown laid out a plan to stop all work on the controversial ‘Corridor Plan’ on Aug. 27, 2019. (Kara Meyberg Guzman — Santa Cruz Local file)

‘Protecting’ neighborhoods

Neuse, the senior city planner, led focus groups among residents about possible changes to the General Plan and zoning that would protect neighborhoods.

“There wasn’t full alignment about what it would mean to protect. What about the neighborhood are we protecting?” Neuse asked. “And also, there was some other language in [Brown’s] motion that talked about creating affordable housing in appropriate locations. There wasn’t necessarily agreement about what qualified a particular location as appropriate for affordable housing,” Neuse said.

Councilmember Brown tried to clarify what she meant by protecting neighborhood compatibility in a March 9 city council meeting.

“With respect to how we develop those objective standards to get us towards that goal that we laid out of protecting neighborhood compatibility I won’t use the term character but compatibility with neighborhoods and promoting affordable housing, I mean those are really important goals and objectives and I don’t want them to get lost in this process of trying to figure out how we can just jam as many units into the most density into the current General Plan framework,” Brown said. “But that’s a matter of political will. And for folks who are concerned about this, I really encourage you to get involved in the objective standards planning process and comment on projects when appropriate.”

Neuse, the senior city planner, said the objective standards process will ask the community to help define “community character.” She urged audience members to “walk around your neighborhood and think, what is it that I like here? I like my neighborhood, because it feels nice. OK well, what about it feels nice. Is it trees? Is it sidewalks? Is it the look of the buildings?”

Resistance to housing density

During a recent Santa Cruz Planning Commission meeting, resident Candace Brown explained what she didn’t want to see.

“The reason why so many people are against the corridors [housing density] also is that you’re taking urban threads, very dense urban threads, and putting it within 10 to 20 feet of single-family homes. You don’t see that downtown. You see service streets, you see parking lots, and then you see it kind of slowly enter into the neighborhood areas,” Candace Brown said.

City staff and consultants will publish a survey this spring to ask residents “what you like about your neighborhoods and what makes Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz,” Neuse said.

The team will turn that input into draft standards, then ask the community again for input in the summer. Neuse said she expects the standards to be considered by the city council by fall, and approved by January 2022.

“To the extent that we can comply with state law and meet the desires of the community, we are very interested in doing that. And I think that, like so many things, there’s going to be some compromises and some trade offs that are going to have to be made in this process,” Neuse said.

A similar online informational session will be held in Spanish 7 p.m. March 24.

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Editor’s note: Diana Alfaro served on Santa Cruz Local’s Community Advisory Board until the board finished its work in October 2020.

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Kara Meyberg Guzman is the CEO and co-founder of Santa Cruz Local. ​Prior to Santa Cruz Local, she served as the Santa Cruz Sentinel’s managing editor. She has a biology degree from Stanford University and lives in Santa Cruz.