Council to pass Housing Element Update on Jan 24 – Protect Historic Benicia!
Where…. City Hall Council Chambers, 250 E L St. When…….Tuesday, January 24, 2023, 6:00pm
In response to the State requiring designation of sites for new housing, the Benicia City Council will be voting on an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and a zoning amendment package which would impact the historic integrity of the :
Downtown Historic District
Arsenal National Register and City Historic District
City Cemetery National Register District
The zoning amendment would allow higher density housing and 3 story buildings up to 35 ft. tall – and on First St up to 40 ft. tall – on selected opportunity sites. These sites are located primarily in and around Downtown and the Arsenal, and include the City Cemetery.
The EIR states that environmental impacts to the Historic Districts can be eliminated by removing the Historic District opportunity sites and is referred to as the “environmentally superior alternative”. The City would still have more than double the proposed housing required by the State.
Please attend the meeting in person, if at all possible, to show your support for this Environmentally Superior Alternative EIR, rather than the staff recommendation, and removing the City Cemetery site. Speaking is not necessary.
By Elizabeth Patterson and Steve Goetz, January 19, 2023
Please attend the City Council public hearing on the Housing Element scheduled for 6:00 pm on January 24, in-person or via Zoom. You don’t have to say anything, just show your support for those who do say something
Adopt the Environmentally Superior alternative project
By adopting the Environmentally Superior Alternative (ESA), the historic districts and places are removed thus no significant impact to cultural resources
Housing Element with this ESA still has more than 15% buffer as “insurance” for parcels that may not be developed at designated densities and affordability
Remove Park Rd and Jefferson Ridge as “opportunity sites” because city has already approved development
Reduce impacts to aesthetic resources, energy, geology and soils, greenhouse gas emissions, hazards and hazardous material, hydrology and quarter quality, public services, population and housing, and transportation by adopting the ESA.
Avoid potential threats to the viability of our heavy industry while also avoiding threatening public health and safety.
After adoption of Environmentally Superior alternative initiate planning for community goals for East side where most of the high density and affordability parcels are identified.
After adoption consider planning tools to achieve density and affordability, e.g. minimum affordability requirement range between 20 and 25%; required density for designated parcels.
Avoid losing additional land use control in the next update of the housing element (2031) through “by right development” if city does not adopt planning measures to meet state housing requirements
The following letter is from Steve Goetz
Next Tuesday (January 24) the City Council will consider changing the Benicia General Plan to accommodate over 250% of Benicia’s share of the region’s housing need. Specifically, the Council will consider adopting a Housing Element to the General Plan that will accommodate 1,174 units above the 750 units mandated by the state for Benicia by 2031.
We need housing so why would providing more housing than what the state requires be a problem? A review of the information developed for the Housing Element shows this level of rezoning will significantly damage the character of Benicia’s two historic districts and historic cemetery disproportionately burden the East Side compared to other areas of the city, and concentrate new lower-income housing next to heavy industry. In other words, the City is proposing an effort in gross excess of what is required or suitable for the intended purpose, meeting the definition of the word “overkill”.
The City’s own Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the Housing Element says that the close proximity of the proposed housing sites to historic buildings will substantially damage the significance of these historic districts. The EIR says we can protect these historic districts and meet Benicia’s share of the regional housing need by removing the 17 housing sites proposed in these historic districts.
The EIR concluded that the project alternative to remove proposed housing from the historic districts is “environmentally superior”, meaning it not only eliminates damage to Benicia’s historic districts, it also reduces impacts to aesthetic resources, energy, geology and soils, greenhouse gas emissions, hazards and hazardous material, hydrology and quarter quality, public services, population and housing, and transportation when compared to the proposed project (i.e. Housing Element). Most importantly, the EIR finds that this environmentally superior alternative would accommodate Benicia’s share of the regional housing need.
The second problem with proposing an excessive amount of housing is that over 70% of the total amount of housing proposed in the lower income categories is located in the East Side. This proposal is clearly against the General Plan policy that requires dispersal of this housing across the city.
Finally, this Housing Element shows that this concentration of lower income housing is in the most environmentally challenged area of Benicia. There is a reason why there are some undeveloped sites in the East Side. These sites happen to be near heavy industry. We have located heavy industry away from housing so it can contribute to our economy without being a nuisance and without endangering public health. This Housing Element threatens the viability of our heavy industry while also threatening public health and safety.
Last week’s staff report to the Planning Commission on the Housing Element explained that these disproportionate impacts to the East Side are a result of the City Council’s direction. In other words, the City Council is choosing to propose 2.5 times the amount of housing needed for the region to the detriment of our historic districts, the East Side, our heavy industry, and public health and safety.
One commenter at last week’s Planning Commission hearing on the Housing Element said most public comments were only looking at how the Housing Element was affecting them and not how it could benefit those who need housing and want to live in Benicia. The comments in support of our historic districts, heavy industry, and public health were not generated by concern about how the Housing Element would affect them, but how it would affect Benicia’s future and the type of community we hand down to future generations.
We look to our City Council to address city needs in a way that balances benefits of a proposed action against the disadvantages and how it supports the city’s overall goals. The Housing Element is not balanced, but is overkill, representing new housing any cost. A balanced approach to meeting our state obligation for new housing is the EIR’s environmentally superior alternative, which satisfies our housing priorities while also serving other city priorities.
>> Please attend the City Council public hearing on the Housing Element scheduled for 6:00 pm on January 24, in-person or via Zoom. You don’t have to say anything, just show your support for those who do say something. You can also call your City Council at 707-746-4213 now and leave a message. Write to our Council members:
[Editor: Benicia’s housing needs, California regulatory requirements and regulations, and potential locations for new housing in Benicia are now being debated among residents and at our Planning Commission and City Council. The issues are complex and opinion is divided among friends and colleagues. See also perspective by current Benicia Mayor Steve Young. – R.S.]
Their sworn duty is to make decisions based on public health safety and welfare. They are to uphold the laws of the city including the general plan.
The draft housing element is part of the state mandated seven elements plus optional elements of the general plan. One optional element of the general plan is economic development. The highest and best use of the historic districts is to foster and support economic activities such as historic museums, parks and commercial uses. The draft housing element proposes to have multifamily housing in historic districts on the National Register – that is a big deal. The reason Jefferson Ridge (Park Road and Jefferson Street) is on this prestigious list is because it is the only presidio commissioned by President Lincoln to establish a union Army presence in California to prevent the pro slavery counties and confederates from pushing California into a slave holding state. That too is a big deal. The only one in California. The only one by President Lincoln. The only one in the West that is intact and complete. The only one.
On its own this treasure should be protected, championed, and developed for visitors to marvel at this one-of-a-kind Civil War Era enclave protecting California from becoming a slave state.
But there is more. Not only is this site of such rare qualities it is also smack dab in the vicinity (less than a thousand feet) of oil pipelines and a full port of shipping fossil fuel oil and products. These things can blow up. They also catch on fire. We just had one. A prudent Mayor and council would NOT put people – mothers, fathers, children – to live so close to such places. How will they shelter in place? How will they evacuate? How will they have less polluted air than is currently in that area? How will children not venture into these wonderfully complex and dangerous places for the excitement of risk?
And then there is the doctrine “when in a hole, stop digging”. The city can’t maintain the roads, sidewalks, trees, water lines, parks without more revenue. This council wants us to vote on another general sales tax to help pay for these things. The use of the historic districts that are far from walkable distance and little to zero services will require all that new and improved infrastructure to be maintained. But property taxes only go up 2% a year versus the cost of everything else which is at least 3% and right now at 9%. Don’t keep digging.
And we all agree that we need affordable housing – although the proposed Arsenal projects are only providing 10% of all the units– a shamefully low percentage. And the reason that housing is not affordable in most communities is the cost of land. And the cost of land is driven by investors who want the low capital gains tax at 14% to make their profits. The cost of land is disconnected from the marketplace. The only market for land is with the investors and developers. Wages have not kept pace with the inflationary value of investor-owned land. You can’t solve problems if you don’t focus on the root of the problem.
Nonetheless the state in service to the land investors and the good intention of others is mandating that California cities and counties provide for more new development. It seems regardless of the other state mandates to reduce greenhouse gases, reduce vehicle miles traveled and achieve clean air and save 20% on water use – just “build baby build”.
Can we meet the state mandate to provide opportunities for housing based on the state’s standards – Regional Housing Needs Assessment? Yes. The city staff and consultants have identified more than enough without residential in the Arsenal historic district. The Mayor and council can have their good intentions for housing AND protect the Arsenal. Will they? Tune in or show up this Tuesday the 26th at 6:00 PM at city hall. Share your thoughts and recommendations.
[Editor: Benicia’s housing needs, California regulatory requirements and regulations, and potential locations for new housing in Benicia are now being debated among residents and at our Planning Commission and City Council. The issues are complex and opinion is divided among friends and colleagues. See also perspective by former Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson. – R.S.]
I first want to acknowledge the passion and intensity of the concerns expressed by a number of people about the City’s effort to complete the Housing Element in compliance with State law. An engaged citizenry is crucial to the Council’s ability to make the best decisions while fulfilling our legal obligations.
On the Jefferson Ridge and Park Rd. projects, I think it is misleading at best to say that the City staff will “allow” the development of Jefferson Ridge or the apartments on Park Rd. under “ministerial discretion”. The City is not “planning to develop” these housing projects. The headline is also misleading (“Benicia moving to build apartment complexes”). Some fact checking is in order.
SB 35 specifically says that the City cannot exercise ANY discretion in this matter, as long as the project meets minimum affordability requirements (10%) and the city’s adopted Objective Design Standards. The project was initially rejected staff for not meeting those requirements, but adjustments have been made and a decision on compliance with the design standards is expected shortly.
This is not a project I would support in this location if I had the option to do so. But the fact we cannot make any discretionary decisions means that there will be no hearings at the Planning Commission or City Council and no EIR. That is what the law requires, and we intend to follow the law – even in this case where we disagree openly with it.
SB35 is not a good law, and was opposed by me and the League of California Cities. The Legislature, however, believed that cities were one of the chief reasons that housing was not getting built in California. And there is some validity to that belief.
In suburban communities all over California, there have been only a relative handful of multi-family projects approved for a variety of reasons. This has led directly to a variety of ill effects: increasing homelessness, longer commutes, increasing greenhouse gases, the inability of children to continue living in towns they grew up in, and few housing options for lower paid workers and seniors on fixed incomes.
I made a special trip to SF several months ago to meet with the author of SB 35, Sen. Scott Wiener, to argue that the Legislature ought to amend the law to exempt historic districts, like the Arsenal, from the blanket allowance of housing without local discretion. He waved off my objections dismissively and, despite my career in the field of affordable housing development, classified me as just another small town Mayor who has led the opposition to housing. Continue reading Housing in Benicia – Mayor Steve Young→