Last week, a city hearing examiner shot down every single argument raised by neighborhood activists trying to block the city from passing new rules and height upgrades for townhouses, apartment buildings, and so-called auto-court town homes (ugly town homes with tall fences built around a communal driveway).
Activists were concerned that the new rules would allow, for instance, a four-story building to go up to the immediate south of an old house, blocking the light and swallowing up all the neighborhood's parking, and that these new rules didn't mandate changes to ugly town home designs. But the city argued that existing building rules predispose townhouses to have tall fences and huge carports facing the street, and the changes will encourage developers to develop more neighborhood-friendly, street-friendly buildings, hopefully with underground parking and lots of green space. (Also, views are sometimes sacrificed for the sake of smart growth. Deal with it.)
At issue was whether or not the design and building height changes would have a significant detrimental impact on neighborhoods. The city determined that it did not.
The residents' complaints ranged from broad to pretty neighborhood specific. For instance, they argued that increasing the building height limits in Fremont would make beautiful, historic houses more vulnerable to redevelopment. But Sue Tanner, the Hearing Examiner who's job is to hold impartial administrative hearings when complaints are raised against City departments (rather like an appellate judge), shot that and 20 other complaints down (.pdf). Tanner reasoned that any attempt to redevelop designated landmarks is subject to the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance, which preserves the historical integrity of designated buildings. Furthermore, with regards to these specific Fremont homes, the "parcels on which the homes are located are already subject to potential redevelopment under existing regulations."
Activists also argued that the density upgrades would wipe out the city's affordable housing stock by encouraging development on these sites. Tanner rejected this claim, saying that "because of the minimal increase in allowed density, the proposal's impact on existing low-income housing would be negligible, and that the number of sites that would be redeveloped would be approximately the same or lower than the number being redeveloped under existing regulations."
Council Member Sally Clark has been working on these design guidelines forever. Now that the Hearing Examiner's office has ruled in the city's favor, she hopes to push them through council by December.
But Bill Bradburd, a Jackson Place activist who was part of the appeal, says the group might fight on. "We're discussing the possibility of appealing to superior court," he says. In the meantime, Bradburd says they're trying to get city council to agree to a mandate that all building height upgrades in low- and mid-rise areas that result in more units on a lot be devoted to affordable housing.
"If you want to take advantage of the zoning changes, you can, but you have to include units roughly 60 percent of median income," says Bradburd. "We’re proposing that the density bump goes to affordable units."
No word yet on what Clark thinks of the activists' new proposal.