831 water

A proposal to build housing on Water Street was advanced by the Santa Cruz City Council on Tuesday. (Rendering: Novin Development and Lowney Architecture)

SANTA CRUZ >> A controversial housing project at 831 Water St. was advanced by the Santa Cruz City Council in a 4-3 vote on Tuesday. 

The project is expected to build 55 to 82 apartments rented to people who earn 80% or less of area median income. The project also will include market-rate units. The number of affordable units will be decided by the state money the developer can secure, city staff said.

Because the developer applied for the project using state law SB 35, the council has limited ability to deny the proposal. SB 35 forces city leaders to use objective standards to evaluate the project. The council’s decision Tuesday confirmed that the proposal met the city’s objective standards.

Council members explain their votes

Santa Cruz Mayor Donna Meyers said that a threat of a lawsuit from YIMBY Law, or Yes in My Backyard, was a factor in her “yes” vote to advance the project. The group essentially has said that the council did not adhere to SB 35 when it denied the project Oct. 12. The law is designed to speed housing development and reduce the power of city councils to deny housing projects because of the state’s housing crisis.

“It’s just a disappointing outcome to be at this point,” Meyers said. She added that if the council continued to deny the project, a judge eventually could order a project “that is very close to what is proposed.”

Councilmember Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson agreed. “Although there are a lot of issues that we have with the process, I don’t think we have a real strong ground to reject this. I think standing to reject the project will not be successful and it won’t be ultimately in the best interests of the city and the residents.” Kalantari-Johnson said,  “I think it’s been very frustrating for everyone.”

  • Meyers said Tuesday’s vote approved the completion of an oversight hearing on how the project meets the city’s objective design standards. It did not approve the project outright, she said. The vote also allowed a “density bonus” for the project, which essentially allows more homes on the site than the zoning would allow because some of the apartments would be available to lower income residents. 
  • The council voted 4-3, with Meyers, Kalantari-Johnson, Councilmember Renee Golder and Vice Mayor Sonja Brunner in favor. Councilmembers Sandy Brown, Justin Cummings and Martine Watkins voted against it. 
  • Cummings essentially said that applications from the developer, Novin Development, were incomplete and set a bad precedent. Brown said she was concerned with potential cultural discoveries at the site and potential underground water problems, among other things. 

The council had rejected the project in October in part because city law requires affordable housing to be dispersed rather than exclusively in one building as the developer had proposed. City staff said Tuesday that state housing guidelines stated that city councils could not block projects that have clustered affordable housing if clustered affordable housing is necessary to secure state or federal money and make the project feasible for the developer. Revised plans distribute the affordable housing among the two buildings. 

Neighbors’ views

Some neighbors near the site have panned the four- and five-story proposal in part because of concerns about traffic congestion, neighborhood parking, bike safety, shadows cast on neighbors’ homes, potential underground water problems and possible cultural artifacts on the site. The grounds of Branciforte Small Schools across the street were a Spanish settlement in the 1790s. The corner of 831 Water St. is now a strip mall with a car wash, convenience store and other shops.

Advocates of the project said that the site is across the street from the multistory Branciforte Small Schools that is similar in height. It is on a bus line, has bike infrastructure and is a few blocks from the job center of Downtown Santa Cruz.

City staff made several recommendations as the project moves toward a building permit:

  • A dedicated right turn lane is proposed along from south Branciforte Ave to Water Street.
  • A neighborhood parking permit program that would exclude 831 Water St. residents
  • Because drivers from an anticipated garage are expected to go onto Water Street, warning signs and lights are expected to warn cyclists and drivers when a driver exits. 
  • Some bike infrastructure on Water Street is expected to be removed but painted bike lanes are expected to remain. 

831 Water St

Single family homes and backyards are next to a proposed apartment complex at 831 Water St. (Rendering: Novin Development and Lowney Architecture)

During the building permit process, some residents concerns’ about underground water on the site and pedestrian safety on Water Street will be addressed, city staff said. Building permit approval is expected to be handled by city staff rather than the city council. 

Andrew Barber said he lives on Catalpa Street a few blocks from the proposed project. “Where are my kids, your kids, going to live?” Barber asked during Tuesday’s council meeting. “There seems to be a misunderstanding of where these future occupants would live” if the project were blocked, Barber said. “They don’t cease to exist. They live in cars, vans, on couches, in school offices, stacked many to a house or have a long commute to work here.”

Brooke Matteson, an organizer of a group called 831 Responsible Development, told the council that nearly 600 residents signed a petition against the project. Matteson called the developer’s changing applications and project details “ill conceived” and haphazard. She said the project’s parking should not be approved on the hill at Branciforte Avenue and Water Street.

“It should be a simple and noncontroversial matter for the applicant to provide a single, coherent, comprehensive, consolidated and final proposal for the city and the community to review,” Matteson said.

A car wash, laundromat and other shops are at 831 Water St., Santa Cruz. (Stephen Baxter — Santa Cruz Local file)

Read Santa Cruz Local’s related stories:

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated the wrong organization that threatened a lawsuit against the City of Santa Cruz. It is YIMBY Law. 

Become a member of Santa Cruz Local, an independent, community-supported newsroom that’s owned and led by local journalists. Our stories are free and always will be, but we rely on your support.

Already a member? Support Santa Cruz Local with a one-time gift.   

Stay informed on Santa Cruz County's biggest issues.

Santa Cruz Local's newsletter breaks down complex local topics and shows residents how to get involved.

[email protected] | Website | + posts

Stephen Baxter is a co-founder and editor of Santa Cruz Local. He covers Santa Cruz County government.