.Objective Standards for Multifamily Housing Proposal Faces Pushback

The proposal ensures that developers adhere to specific standards for housing, whether low-income or otherwise

Three years ago, the Santa Cruz City Council made the decision to scrap some four years of work by the city’s staff when it tossed out the so-called Corridors Plan, a proposal that would have aligned the city’s zoning rules with the community’s vision outlined in the 2030 General Plan. Among other things, the plan would have opened up various properties along the city’s major transportation routes—Water Street, Soquel Avenue, Mission Street and Ocean Street—to be redeveloped into mixed-use developments featuring shops and restaurants on the ground floor, with high-density housing on top.

At the time, some Santa Cruz residents, in an effort spearheaded by a group called Save Santa Cruz, pressured the city council to terminate the plan and send staff back to the drawing board to lower the impact on their neighborhoods.

History seems to be repeating itself.

The Objective Standards proposal, a spiritual successor to the Corridors Plan, is now facing the same pushback. Whether it’s the fact that some parcels would be rezoned to allow up to six-story developments, or that gridlock traffic and scant parking would worsen, residents are calling for the council to once again stop the city’s efforts.

Staff came to the council with a two-hour presentation on the plan at its Aug. 23 meeting. The council could have then accepted it, but instead chose to continue the review at its upcoming Sept. 13 meeting. And, according to city staff, the council will likely kick the plan down the road to mid-November at next week’s meeting.

secure document shredding

“Our intent is to use the brief delay to connect with those who provided comments, address various misunderstandings and accept comments for future evaluation,” says the city’s Director of Planning and Community Development Lee Butler. “The two months will provide us with an opportunity to conduct some final engagement work, after which time we will be recommending that the council take action on Nov. 15.”

Best Laid Plans

The proposal currently before the council is not only a way for the city to sync up its zoning laws with the 2030 General Plan approved in 2012, but also for it to also come into compliance with various state laws regarding housing design reviews. No longer can cities use subjective review standards that have allowed both staff and elected leaders to deny projects based on “community character” and the like. But what municipalities can do is lay out specific checklists—including standards for, among other things, lighting, roofs, landscaping and building materials—that developers must follow in order to receive approval from staff. The Objective Standards plan is that checklist, and without it things get messy, says Santa Cruz Senior Planner Sarah Neuse.

She highlights the recent troubles with the 145-unit 831 Water St. development that the city council first denied, only to reverse course when it realized it could not do so under state law. Had the city had its objective standards in place, Neuse says, the development could have looked much different—and some of the impacts on the adjacent suburban neighborhoods off North Branciforte could have been reduced.

“For instance, the project might have been less blocky and more articulated, incorporated more varied roof forms, included more private balconies for residents and provided different landscaping,” she says.

And while height and the number of units would likely not have changed, the review process would’ve gone much smoother for everyone involved, Neuse says.

“One of the biggest issues with the 831 Water St. project was that people were surprised by how much could be built. The rezonings will create greater transparency in how much can be built,” she says, emphasizing that the proposal “does not add any additional residential capacity than what is currently allowed.”

In the Aug. 23 proposal, various parcels on Soquel Avenue between Ocean View Avenue and Morrissey Boulevard were slated to be rezoned for Mixed Use High Density, which would allow for five-story developments. On Ocean, between Glenwood Avenue and Barson Street, some properties could be zoned up to six stories, though the majority called for a maximum of four or fewer. And on Mission Street between Fair Avenue and Laurel Street, four-story, mixed-use projects would be allowed.

Public Demand

Early in her Aug. 23 presentation to the council, Neuse presented two color-coded maps of Santa Cruz. The first showed the different zoning standards—single family, multiple family, mixed-use, etc.—from neighborhood to neighborhood. The second was the first map overlaid with 2010 census data of where people of different ethnic backgrounds live. White residents demarcated by blue dots dominated the areas of the city zoned for single-family homes. Hispanic residents, demarcated by orange dots, were largely concentrated in areas of the city zoned for multiple-family homes.

“That shows both that Hispanic communities are highly concentrated—they live in dense housing—and they are also limited to certain neighborhoods,” Neuse said. “You can see how having patterns like this, where there’s highly concentrated pockets of certain races, can create inequities between communities and challenges for households.”

Gary Patton, one of the co-chairs of Save Santa Cruz, took issue with Neuse’s insinuation that Santa Cruz’s decision makers have used zoning rules to keep minorities out of certain communities. The former Santa Cruz County Supervisor and current Eastside resident says that the coastal city doesn’t have “a historic record of trying to exclude people,” and that his group is not against housing construction—even if the group’s mission statement is to “stop overbuilding Santa Cruz.”  

“Save Santa Cruz is not like, ‘Don’t let anybody else come here.’ Save Santa Cruz is very pro-affordable housing,” he says.

However, Patton also says that East Side residents do feel that the Objective Standards disproportionately impact their neighborhoods, and he adds that the council should identify alternative areas of the city to rezone that “might be better for some,” and “may be worse for others.”

But his main gripe with the plan is that staff proposed to remove the public hearing process for projects that meet all of the city’s objective standards. Neuse says although it is rare for projects to meet all standards and not require a public hearing, staff will indeed come back to the city council with an option to have every project undergo a public hearing—whether it meets the standards or not.

When asked about where he thinks the council will go from here, Patton says that he expects the elected leaders to make staff show what the possible impacts are for every rezoned parcel. Save Santa Cruz submitted a letter after the Aug. 23 meeting saying that the city needs to conduct a California Environmental Quality Act review before moving forward with the project—a tactic that researchers have identified as a key tool in litigious Not-in-My-Back-Yarders’ anti-development war chest

Patton was one of a dozen or so people who spoke in opposition to the proposal during the Aug. 23 city council meeting. In addition, more than 100 people submitted written public comments opposing the plan. Many in opposition urged the council to preserve the “quality of life” and “character” of their suburban neighborhoods.

Housing Santa Cruz County Director Elaine Johnson says that she understands these concerns. Johnson grew up in public housing in the Bronx, and when she tells people that, they often think it’s a bad thing.

“And it’s not,” Johnson says. “Once these people know who I am and how I show up in the world, they see, ‘Oh, housing projects aren’t bad.’”

But changing the narrative around high-density housing, Johnson admits, takes time and patience. Presenting data on the demoralizing rental rates in Santa Cruz County—it was recently ranked as the second least affordable rental market in the U.S.—only goes so far. To truly destigmatize housing development, she says, people need to listen to one another—and leave their agendas at the door.

It is these missing conversations, Johnson says, that HSCC hopes to lead.

“There’s no, ‘I’m right, you’re wrong, you’re wrong, I’m right.’ With that, you just get more wrong and right. That doesn’t move the needle,” Johnson says. “What moves the needle are healthy conversations.”


  1. There is no shortage of people whom want to live in Santa Cruz. So there will always be a shortage of housing. And with it a high premium on what is available. And no amount of building will ever change that. We just need to decide how many people living here is enough.

  2. Right Chelsea, let’s keep up those “No matter where you’re from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor” and “no one is illegal” signs in our front yards, but then set arbitrary limits on who is allowed to move here. No logical contradiction there, right?

    Anyone who is honest about supporting affordable housing also needs to be in support of these standards — which simply bring Santa Cruz into conformity with state law — and reject the thinly-veiled xenophobia of “Save Santa Cruz.” Gary Patton’s claim that Santa Cruz doesn’t have a history of exclusionary housing is flat out wrong by the way. Red-lining was common throughout the Bay Area and is closely linked to the imposition of single family zoning in the early 20th century.


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Tony Nuñez
Tony Nuñez is a longtime member of the Watsonville community who served as Sports Editor of The Pajaronian for five years and three years as Managing Editor. He is a Watsonville High, Cabrillo College and San Jose State University alumnus.
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