WHITTIER — The City Council has unanimously voted to limit apartment construction in many neighborhoods north of the Uptown business district, a decision reflecting the council's increasingly stringent attitude toward new residential development.
The decision follows almost a year of lobbying by homeowners who have packed City Council meetings to complain that developers were being permitted to replace earthquake-damaged homes with nondescript apartment buildings.
"It's been a long time coming," said Helen McKenna-Rahder, a resident who has led the protests against apartment construction. "It's tremendous progress."
The council's vote changed the zoning north of Hadley Street to permit about 1,400 more apartments in the area--about half as many as allowed under the old zoning. In areas where apartment development will continue, the council imposed stricter building standards, including minimum lot sizes and square footage for apartment buildings.
"I know we can't make everybody happy," said Councilman Robert F. Woehrmann, "but we've tried to make a decision that is best for the community."
The apartment issue caught fire last summer when residents of Dorland Street protested plans to build 55 more apartments on the narrow, three-block strip that has seen an influx of apartment buildings in recent years. A study of the area disclosed that the zoning, which determines what can be built on each lot, did not always match Whittier's General Plan, the city's overall blueprint for development. The council's Tuesday night decision brought zoning consistency to the area, which includes some of Whittier's oldest residential neighborhoods.
Most homeowners argued for lower zoning overall, saying the area was not well-suited for apartments because of narrow streets, aging water and sewer lines and limited parking. Developers and residents who had purchased property as investments because of the high-density zoning countered that the zoning changes would be unfair to them.
To help resolve the dispute, the council hired consultant Michael Brandman Associates to study how many more apartments the area could sustain. The consultant generally agreed with residents, and prepared a lengthy environmental impact report in support of reducing density in the area.
The council adopted almost all of the Brandman recommendations, and rejected the pleas of nine developers whose apartment projects have been stalled since last July, when the zoning study began. The developers, who had submitted plans to City Hall before the controversy began, asked to have their projects "grandfathered" into the zoning changes.
Instead, in areas where the projects were pending, the City Council approved a compromise between the R-2 or medium-density sought by residents and the R-4 or high-density favored by developers.
The council approved an R-3 zoning for those areas, including Dorland Street, but imposed special standards. Lots for apartment buildings must be at least 100 feet wide and 10,000 square feet in size. This means developers will have to purchase at least two or three contiguous lots in this area to build apartments, since lots there are typically 40 to 50 feet wide.
A special zone was established to preserve the historic character of the area bordered by Painter Avenue, Camilla Street, Greenleaf Avenue and Hadley Street. The Whittier Conservancy and Whittier Historical Society had requested the special "historic overlay" zone, which will require new development to blend with the area of mostly single-family homes. The new standards also will require three parking spaces for every new apartment instead of the current two spaces.
The apartment controversy north of Hadley Street ended quietly, as the council laboriously reviewed the zoning in each block before approving the changes. Residents and developers trickled out of the council chambers after the council voted on the blocks they were interested in.
City staff will prepare a map consolidating all of the zoning changes for the council's final review at a meeting Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Michael Brandman Associates is continuing its review of zoning consistency in other areas of Whittier. Zoning recommendations for the area south of Hadley Street around the Uptown business district will be presented to the council sometime in May, City Manager Thomas G. Mauk said.