Housing Committee reviews Downtown Specific Plan update


The Housing and Human Services Committee (HHSC) on Wednesday (Feb. 28) reviewed the latest revisions to the Downtown Specific Plan update, Phase II.

The purpose of the HHSC meeting was to solicit feedback from committee members, explained Principal Planner Anthony Viera.

The Downtown Specific Plan is an existing document that governs land use regulation in the specific area, he noted.

Council decided in 2019 to complete the comprehensive update to the DSP in two phases, Viera explained. The first phase was adopted in 2020 and implemented in 2022, and it included streamlining of the business permitting process and new parking standards for non-residential uses. The housing, building height and parcel merger components of the DSP update were bifurcated, to be addressed separately and in coordination with the housing element update as Phase II. The housing element update was completed and certified by the state in February 2023.

The focus of Phase II is essentially to reduce development constraints on infill housing projects in Downtown, Viera said.

“We’ve kickstarted this Phase II update, it’s now in development,” he said. “This Phase II update, we’re really just in the initial stages. We’re still trying to put together what the scope of work might include.”

They key updates in Phase II of the DSP include increased building heights, relaxed density requirements and allowing for lot merger for housing projects. Changes to the urban design guidelines, allowed uses and parking requirements are also proposed.

City Council reviewed the plan and provided feedback to staff on December 12. Overall, there was support on dais for the general direction that staff was going with the project. Key comments focused on consideration of expanding the DSP boundaries, decouple parking, incentivize smaller size units rather than affordability requirements, provide 3D modeling to show the visual impact of possible changes to development standards, have the environmental impact report address development up to three stories (except in the lower Forest Avenue area) and set a specific maximum density.

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The city is working on an update to the Downtown Specific Plan

The most significant component of the Phase II update is the proposed changes to building height restrictions.

While the city is encouraging non-residential uses on the ground floor of most areas in the Downtown, an increase in the housing stock would mostly need to come from units created on the second and third floors.

Currently, the DSP, by and large, limits building heights to 12 feet, essentially single-story developments. There are currently a lot of nonconforming structures that exceed that maximum, Viera said. Staff is proposing establishing two-story and three-story height limits.

“Probably the single biggest change is considering relaxing some of those site restrictions,” Viera said. “This is really just a starting point for that conversation.”

City staff walked around the Downtown while developing these updates, he added.

“We tried to imagine what might be accommodated without compromising on the existing character of the Downtown. We do really appreciate that it’s very human-scale and pedestrian oriented,” Viera said.

As a result of the December City Council meeting, they will also be studying a more uniform three-story hybrid. It’s generally good to just have a range of options to discuss, Viera commented.

All of this will be supported by a 3D model, he noted. There will also be photo realistic renderings prepared, shade and shadow studies, and view analysis.

“I’m a big proponent of putting additional residential Downtown,” said committee member Jacquie Schaefgen.

Some of the main complaints and concerns she’s heard about this project related to maintaining the village character, Schaefgen said. But she believes that is “absolutely possible” with two- and three-story buildings. She referenced plans from other California cities that are so detailed, in terms of building mass and scale and architectural character, allays fears from residents.

“We are thinking along similar lines,” Viera replied. “We’re seeing more of this style of design guidelines now because cities now have to review certain projects under an objective lens.”

Communities are approaching objective design guidelines in different ways, he said. In certain cases, village character or small scale is regulated through a subjective design review process.

“That’s effective when we can apply that type of a review to a project,” he noted.

In other cases, they have detailed documents with standards based on pre-selected architectural styles (for example, requirements on window style or building materials if it’s a Mediterranean style).

“You still have some ability to be artistic and creative and do something individual, but you’re perhaps safeguarding against projects that are pointing to detract (from the village character),” Viera said.

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They’ve discussed it internally as a potential idea, he added.

Density is another key change, Viera continued. Currently, housing density is limited in most cases to one unit per 2,000 square feet of lot area. Staff is recommending two options: No maximum density in most areas of the Downtown or relaxed density requirements. This could encourage and facilitate a greater number of smaller units that might be more affordable by design based on size.

“This concept of unlimited density, I want to advocate for it,” said Committee Vice Chair Cody Engle.

The current limit is one unit per 2,000 square feet and there’s an idea that there has to be a certain number of units. The proposed change essentially allows a property owner who has a “block of space” to put as many units as makes sense economically.

“The concept is adding housing stock,” he emphasized.

With the goal of contributing to the housing stock, it would be better, for example, if the developer builds 10 400-square-foot units than four 1,000-square-foot units, Engle commented.

Engle also questioned how work/live and adaptive reuse is being integrated.

“I think we want to make sure that this encourages both a new build on a second story and adaptive reuse of existing commercial and I don’t see any kind of recognition of that,” Engle said.

That idea was also discussed at the Planning Commission and City Council meetings, Viera noted.

“I recognize that there’s a need to focus on that as part of this update,” he said.

The proposed changes would also have the effect of making those projects more feasible, from a zoning and planning perspective, he added.

City staff has already been approached by at least one property owner to explore adaptive use to convert a commercial space to housing, Viera confirmed.

The Downtown Specific Plan currently sets a maximum lot size of 5,000 square feet, the Phase II change would allow lot mergers to exceed the maximum for affordable housing projects. The proposed regulation would limit this provision to properties on Broadway Street, in the Arts District and in the CBD (Central Business District) office district (sections Second, Third, Mermaid and Glenneyre streets).

Another Phase II proposed change is to expand the zones where residential uses could be established. This includes allowing housing in the Arts District and Central Bluffs area as part of mixed-use development. In most areas the street-fronting ground floor would be preserved as a commercial use to maintain the pedestrian orientation.

Staff is also recommending strategies to address the challenges with satisfying parking requirements with infill housing projects. The existing regulation requires that each residential unit provide one or two parking spaces. The typical Downtown property is unable to accommodate that additional parking that would be required for an upper-level residential addition. To make these projects feasible, and considering that the Downtown is a walkable area with transit options nearby, staff is proposing to provide applicants with a menu of options to satisfy the requirement, including: To reduce the requirement to a half a space per unit and to allow applicants to purchase in-lieu parking certificates or provide off-site parking within the project vicinity.

Although the only public speaker on the item, resident Penelope Milne, noted that it’s unrealistic to think people who live in the Downtown area won’t have vehicles.

In big cities, he pointed out, many residents don’t have vehicles, but people have the option to pay for parking. Currently, there isn’t a residential monthly parking program in the Downtown, Engle said, although it could work.

“We have historically, like most of the world, you build apartments you provide parking for the tenants and it’s coupled,” Engle said.

Decoupling parking was not mentioned in the report, although it was previously, Engle noted.

“It seemed to really make sense in the setting where somebody who is choosing to live in the Downtown area would more than likely not have an automobile,” he said.

Requiring the property owner to pay thousands in-lieu fees would raise the overall cost of development.

Engle asked staff to revisit the decoupling idea.

As part of this update, it’s important that the city also address the urban design requirements, Viera added.

“We want to be mindful of how these infill housing projects are designed,” he said. “We want to make sure that they’re positive visual assets to the Downtown, that they’re respecting the city’s heritage.”

They are also cognizant of the fact that some of these projects may qualify for certain rights under state housing laws that may require the city to apply objective design standards, so staff is also working on developing those, Viera explained.

Answering a committee member question, Viera confirmed that staff wasn’t proposing to establish a unique inclusionary housing requirement for the Downtown, but rather work with whatever is adopted as part of the separate housing ordinance that’s returning to council in April.

Answering another question from a committee member, Viera explained that limiting how many three-story buildings are allowed along a continuous street would be one constraint that could be addressed by the objective design standards. They haven’t started that portion of the project yet, he added.

“That’s something we want to mindful of,” Viera said.


Sara Hall covers City Hall and is a regular contributor to Stu News Laguna.

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