Solana Beach opens the door for affordable housing at city hall

After a decade of minimal progress toward state mandates, Solana Beach this summer will consider proposals for building below-market housing alongside—and possibly, in place of—city hall.

The Solana Beach City Council on March 14 voted 3-1 to issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) calling for designs to redevelop the 1.3 acres at 635 S. Highway 101. The March 26 RFP will cap construction at two stories no taller than 27 feet, and assumes that the housing will be built in the city hall’s parking lot, along with a parking structure to replace the lost spaces and provide parking for the new housing. The parcel is zoned for 14 housing units; a state density bonus could allow up to 19.

While the RFP is written for city hall to remain, three of four councilmembers showed interest in changing those terms to give developers wider latitude in crafting their proposals.

“I would prefer more flexibility as it has to do with the [city hall] structure, and keep it, or not keep it, or build over it, whatever—just all possibilities that you can envision for this property,” said Councilwoman Judy Hegenauer. “I think it’s a brilliant idea.”

Razing city hall and redeveloping the entire site could increase the housing total to as many as 28 units, depending on various factors—including setbacks, mixed-use requirements and the number of units designated affordable—that won’t be known until designs come in, said City Manager Greg Wade.

Flexibility may yield better proposals, but Councilman Dave Zito urged the city not to overstate its willingness to demolish the 14,000-square-foot building.

“People can get creative, but don’t expect us to come up with $16 million to rebuild city hall like Del Mar,” he said.

Submissions are due June 4. The city is not obligated to approve any of the proposals. If viable projects emerge, the council would select a developer at its Sept. 12 meeting.

The potential project would be Solana Beach’s second sizable effort this decade to expand its scant stock of affordable housing. The site is one of five candidates identified in the housing element of Solana Beach’s General Plan, along with the train station, the Solana Highlands apartment complex and two city-owned parking lots.

One of those parking lots has been eyed since 2009 for a project known as The Pearl. The city council in April 2014 approved the plan to develop the lot at 500 S. Sierra Ave. into a mix of uses topped with 10 “very low-income” apartments—reserved for tenants who make 50 percent of the county’s Area Median Income. Neighbors along South Sierra immediately sued and took their case to state appeals court, where the city prevailed in December 2016. Despite a $2 million loan from the city, the $6 million project has stalled for lack of financing.

Solana Highlands, a 47-year-old apartment complex on Nardo Avenue, is bogged down in preliminary planning stages to redevelop the 194 multi-family units into 260, more than 50 of which would qualify for designation as affordable. A plan unveiled in 2015—which would increase the buildings’ height limit from 30 feet to 68 feet—met stiff opposition from the city’s View Assessment Committee. Alternative designs have yet to be submitted.

Faced with similar affordable-housing shortages throughout California, state officials have been pushing more and more mandates onto local governments, said City Attorney Johanna Canlas, including a requirement to explore the viability of city-owned property.

Nonetheless, Mayor Ginger Marshall voted against the city hall RFP.

“I just don’t like state government shoving this down our throats,” she said.

Marshall has voiced concern before about South Sierra becoming an “affordable housing row,” and last week reiterated her disdain for clustering below-market projects close together. Building The Pearl’s 10 units followed by even more units one block to the north, she warned, would incur the wrath of the scores of residents who fought so hard against The Pearl.

“I’ve had conversations with those property owners, and there’s a lot of negativity and opposition, I should say, to putting a second affordable housing project on South Sierra,” Marshall said.

But Zito countered that not having a state-certified housing element, as happened to Encinitas, would jeopardize Solana Beach’s ability to secure state funding along the lines of the $500,000 used to upgrade Stevens Avenue last year.

“Construction prices are really high right now, the market’s different, who knows what’s going to happen, but it is our responsibility to put this [RFP] out there because it’s part of our housing element,” he said. “… We have limited land. We’ve got to make use of what we have, and these projects can be nice if they’re done correctly.”

Compounding the decision’s gravitas was the once-per-decade update of the county’s projected housing needs. To the dismay of elected officials from cities across the region, the San Diego Association of Governments announced a few days earlier that 171,685 housing units will need to be built during the upcoming housing cycle (2021 to 2028). That breaks down to 21,000 new units per year, three times the rate San Diego County has allowed over the past decade, “and probably a much higher rate than that in Solana Beach if we’re going to try to stay compliant,” Zito said.

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