ALHAMBRA — Southern Californians' quest for affordable housing has led many city planners to offer incentives such as "density bonuses" to developers.
But the strategy backfired on one project this week, when massive neighborhood opposition killed a 77-unit apartment complex planned for an older single-family neighborhood near the South Pasadena border.
The residents' message came through loud and clear Monday night at a Planning Commission meeting, where a standing-room-only crowd of more than 150 people confronted the commissioners.
After listening to more than four hours of public testimony, the commission voted unanimously to kill the proposed apartment complex near the corner of Huntington Drive and Electric Avenue.
Proposed by property owner George Harris and his family, the development would have been built on seven lots zoned to allow a total of 47 residential units. But by agreeing to include in the complex 16 apartments for very low-income families and four apartments for low- to moderate-income households, the Harris family would have been given a "density bonus," allowing them to increase the project's density.
The seven lots currently house 19 units, spread through several houses and bungalows.
Residents worried that the project would exacerbate traffic congestion and further burden an already overcrowded school system. Electric Avenue, with access to Huntington Drive, has become a thoroughfare where cars sometimes whiz pass at 50 m.p.h. or more, some residents said.
A 34-unit apartment building that was recently completed on Alhambra Road just south of the neighborhood also has irked residents, many of whom believe that an even bigger complex at the north end would box them in and signal the end of a quiet neighborhood of single-family homes.
Residents also wanted to save the craftsman-style houses and bungalows, some built as early as 1906.
Harris tried to persuade residents that the complex would merge well with the neighborhood, but the crowd remained skeptical. "Everyone agrees it's very attractive," resident Mike Preslicka said of the complex, which would include a swimming pool and spa. But, he said: "It's too big."
"I think low- and moderate-income housing is a good idea," said Preslicka, who helped lead a neighborhood group that mobilized residents to fight the new apartment complex. But he said density bonuses are a bad approach to the problem. "Give them some other incentive to do it."
Under state law, communities must replace low and moderate-income housing units that are demolished to make room for new developments. To encourage construction of affordable housing, cities ranging from West Hollywood to San Diego have dangled "density bonuses" as enticements to developers.
Other cities, such as Monterey Park, are considering incentives such as lower permit and building fees.
Although some Alhambra commissioners support density bonuses, the incentive should be used cautiously, they said. "It's the only one that's totally irreversible," Commissioner Fred Burkardt said.
Mike Martin, director of the Alhambra Redevelopment Agency, said several ongoing redevelopment projects will allow the city to meet, and probably exceed, its obligation to replace affordable housing.
But he said: "It doesn't hurt to build up a surplus" of low and moderate-income units in case future projects trigger a need for replacement affordable housing.
Density bonuses are available only in designated areas of the city, mainly the Central Business District and surrounding areas bounded by Woodward, Chapel and Commonwealth avenues and Atlantic Boulevard, Martin said.
But projects outside the area--like the Harris development--are eligible if the city or the redevelopment agency is involved in the development, he said.
The Harris family was eligible because the agency had agreed to help them obtain tax-exempt bond financing. Martin said the agency was willing to do that because it would have been credited for helping to build affordable housing, as mandated by the state.
But Burkardt said the agency shouldn't allow developers to use the financing assistance as a loophole to expand the designated density bonus area. Otherwise, Burkardt said: "The fact they approve the finance arrangement allows them to extend low and moderate (housing) to anywhere in the city."
After the commission's vote Monday, Harris said he was "most disappointed," especially because he said he tried to cooperate with the city. He said he has not decided whether he will appeal the decision.
Meanwhile, resident Mark Segal said he and his neighbors will keep a close eye on other proposals for development of the seven lots near their homes. He added that the group may also push for a slow-growth initiative.