By Jeff Clemetson | Editor
Design Review Board process under review after contentious decision
At its Sept. 12 meeting, La Mesa City Council reversed an earlier decision to reject the proposed Little Flower Haven housing project at 8585 La Mesa Blvd.
The housing project by Silvergate Development will build 130 units on the property that used to be owned by the Sisters of the Divine Heart of Jesus. The project will keep some of the existing façade of the church building, and add additional buildings and a parking lot.
Many residents who live nearby oppose the project because Silvergate took advantage of a state law allowing for a reduced amount of parking spaces if it provided 10 percent of the units as affordable housing.
Kathleen Brand, a resident who spoke against the project, called the move a loophole and complained that Silvergate only offered the minimum number of affordable housing units.
“In a typical affordable housing project, they would have to provide 20 percent of the units at 80 percent [area median income] and increase the density on the number of units in order to get those concessions or waivers,” she said. “So, if you are a proponent of more housing, we are losing out on more units and if you are a proponent of affordable units, we are losing out again.”
Silvergate principal Ian Gill said that despite “some of the remarks made about [Silvergate],” he would work with residents on solutions to any “unlikely” parking issues that arise in the Porter Hill neighborhood. One such solution would be an amendment to rental agreements that Little Flower Haven residents would sign, directing them to avoid parking in surrounding neighborhoods and developing an expedited way to have violators towed.
Despite the concerns raised by residents, the City Council voted 4-0 to approve the project, overturning an Aug. 8 decision to reject it. Councilmember Colin Parent, who lives nearby, recused himself from the vote. Councilmembers cited the potential for a lawsuit by the developers and state laws that tie their hands at stopping affordable housing development as the main reasons for the about-face.
“As far as anyone suing anyone, this came down to, ‘What happens next?’” Mayor Mark Arapostathis said. “And what I was told was that this would go to court and based on other cases and based on communication with the state, we’ll lose. Then what next? Well, we’ll go to court and pay attorney fees and that will hurt, but what after that? Then we’ll be directed by the state to approve this. And then when we refuse? Then [we’ll] be held in contempt of court, each one of [us].”
Resident Steve Lumpe likened the threat of lawsuit to “intimidation.”
“I’m upset because now I’ve seen a bully come in and throw their weight around trying to get their way,” he told the council. “You didn’t give them what they wanted on the last vote, so what they did is what a typical bully does — threaten to sue.”
A flawed process?
In addition to issues with the parking, the state’s rules governing affordable housing and the lawsuit threat, another sticking point for residents and the City Council over the Little Flower Haven project was the city’s review process.
“The issue that caused me to vote last time is that I do not believe that the decision from the Design Review Board (DRB) was valid,” Councilmember Bill Baber said.
In the initial vote on Little Flower Haven, Baber saw the makeup of the DRB as problematic because there were members of city staff on the board who in essence were voting on their own work.
In a separate agenda item, the City Council discussed ways to avoid the issues that came up with the Little Flower Haven project. Although there was no vote to make changes to the DRB at the Sept. 12 meeting, several possible changes to it were discussed.
Some of the changes suggested for the DRB included banning city staff from serving on the board and increasing the time restriction on board members who previously worked for developers whose projects are up for review. One of the DRB members had worked for Silvergate just a little more than a year before the board made its recommendation.
“All of those created what I saw as an inherent system where the DRB wasn’t being objective,” Baber said. “Nobody was doing anything illegal; everybody was operating in their own world trying to do their best, but the system is wrong.”
Another possibility to correct the system that was floated was to scrap the DRB altogether and instead have that function be carried out by the Planning Commission.
Michael McSweeney, senior public policy advisor at the Building Industry Association, said he called five cities of similar size to La Mesa to find out if they had DRBs and found that none had them — that the job of design review was either handled internally by staff and the planning departments or handled at the planning commission.
“My question is, ‘Why you feel you need to have a DRB?’ Because when it comes to design, everyone has an opinion,” he said. “What we have found is that … it is important to have clear design standards, then you eliminate uncertainty. You also eliminate the need to go to another body to have people opine on something they don’t have a financial interest in, which then adds more time to the approval process.”
Several people spoke out in opposition to that idea, citing the need for qualified building and landscape architects to look at projects to make sure they fit in with La Mesa’s aesthetics.
John Schmitz, a La Mesa city staffer who also served on the DRB for about year, said his experience is that projects that go through a design review process are “better for it and better for the community.”
“I would strongly recommend that you keep the DRB,” he said. “If your concern is with the makeup of the DRB, change that as you see fit, but please do not eliminate the process. The Planning Commission has a much larger scope, its focus is on land use issues. They will not have the same focus as a DRB.”
After public comment and discussion, the council voted to direct staff to look at the options of keeping the DRB but adjusting its makeup to reduce conflicts of interest; and also look at folding the DRB function into the Planning Commission.
—Reach Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.