City Council Approves West Cliff Housing Development

Concerns arise over potential environmental impact

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The City Council approved a new, high-density housing development, just a stone’s throw west of the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, in its Oct. 22 meeting. 

Hailed both as a cure-all for Santa Cruz’s housing woes and a poster child for all that’s wrong with new development, the project sparked disagreement within the Santa Cruz community, pushing discussion into the early hours of Oct. 23. 

The proposal, submitted by Dream Inn developer Ensemble Real Estate Investments, calls for a four-story, mixed-use building with 89 condos, 14,000 square feet of retail space and a two-story underground parking garage on the site of the current Dream Inn parking lot. Eight of the 89 units are to be set aside for low-income residents of Santa Cruz and an additional two for middle-income earners. Prices for these 10 units will range from $142,000 to $226,000.

“The city needs more housing […] that services all income levels, especially lower incomes,” said Kate Roberts, president of the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership. “The 10 homes discussed tonight, with their extraordinarily good prices ranging from $142,000 to [$226,000], are obviously dramatically different from the median selling price of $850,000 in Santa Cruz.” 

If built, 190 West Cliff would be the first major development in Santa Cruz to qualify for a state affordable housing density bonus — an incentive that allows residential developers to build a greater number of smaller, full-priced units if a certain portion of them are sold below market value. To qualify, developers in California must build three units of affordable housing for every 17 market-priced units.

Council members and residents at the council meeting fell into a near-even split for and against the new development. Debate about the project’s potential to worsen traffic along the Boardwalk, cast shadows on surrounding communities or fall catastrophically into the sea prolonged the meeting.

On these grounds, council members Chris Krohn, Drew Glover and Sandy Brown called for a full environmental impact report (EIR) of the Dream Inn lot. Since the West Cliff project is planned on a downtown lot, its environmental impacts fall under Santa Cruz’s general city plan EIR. But this plan was released in April 2012 — in the three council members’ estimation, too long ago to still be accurate. Generating a new EIR would add years to the project’s timeline. 

“The report they’re going off of for the approval of the project was done years ago, without consideration of a project of this size at this location,” Glover said. “We’re talking about digging stories into the earth on a fragile cliff face or area of a cliff to do two levels of underground parking. So what are the emissions increases that are going to come from that? What about the potential seismic destabilization?”

The EIR motion failed in a 4-3 vote. To initiate a new EIR, the council would have had to prove that the project presents environmental harm unaccounted for in the city’s general planning documents. 

Due west of the development site sits Clearview Court, a mobile home community primarily inhabited by low-income Santa Cruz residents. These mobile homes, all standing one story tall, would likely be cast in the new development’s shadow for much of the day. 

In a written statement to the city’s planning commission, Jim Conway, President of the Clearview Court Homeowners’ Association, said his community would be more receptive to Ensemble’s proposal if the building was below the city’s 36-foot limit and its retail component reduced.

“The developer would still get their 35 percent density bonus on housing portion, but it could be redistributed among a greater footprint, bringing down the height and other added use impacts,” Conway said. 

Outside the scope of the general city plan, Ensemble studied the impacts of the 190 West Cliff project on the surrounding neighborhood. Ensemble submitted about 1,200 pages of text to the city’s planning commission for review, addressing topics that included traffic noise, vibration, seismology and stormwater control.

Given the state of the current housing market in Santa Cruz, the prospect of a new, high-density development won the project support at the council meeting. Adam Novak, a senior software engineer at the UC Santa Cruz Genomics Institute, said many of the concerns presented by the project’s opponents could be solved by changing the incentives around affordable housing, and by loosening the city building codes that have kept the Santa Cruz skyline below tree-height for decades. 

“We could also probably get [affordable housing] by raising height limits,” Novak said. “I’m sure that the developers of this project would love to add a whole floor of affordable housing. […] The only way out of our housing crisis, in my opinion, is up.”

With the council’s approval of the 190 West Cliff development, project opponents are left mulling over legal options. Barring legal action, Santa Cruz residents will likely see a new housing development rise above the city’s treeline.

“This is a commercial grab to the detriment of the neighborhood with lasting impacts on everyone,” Jim Conway said in an email. “It would change the experience of being able to escape the urban experience that West Cliff is today, and the attraction that brings locals and tourists from all over the world to this  experience.”