Costa Mesa wants to use high-density zoning as a lure to flip motels to housing

The Costa Mesa City Council began a new incentive plan this week that could convince some motel owners to redevelop their properties into new housing projects.

Members voted 3-2 to recommend a zoning change for portions of Harbor and Newport boulevards from commercial to high-density residential, allowing up to 40 units per acre.

Affected properties include the Costa Mesa Motor Inn, Vagabond Inn and Harbor Bay Motel, all on Harbor; and the Alibaba Motel and Sandpiper Motel, both on Newport Boulevard.

The changes will be incorporated into Costa Mesa’s updated general plan — its blueprint for future development — that’s scheduled for final approval in March.

Councilwomen Sandy Genis and Katrina Foley dissented on the plan. Others decried the possible loss of affordable housing, saying motels often act as a last resort for families and others facing homelessness.

Kathy Esfahani, of the Costa Mesa Affordable Housing Coalition, said she plans to stage a protest at the Costa Mesa Motor Inn, where low-income families live.

The council’s decision, she said, lacks affordable-housing options and looks more like “a very sweet deal for developers.”

Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer and Councilman Gary Monahan praised the changes, arguing that the motels are a blight on the city and attract criminal activity.

Monahan, whose Eastside home and restaurant are near Newport Boulevard hotels, said he routinely witnesses problems there.

“I’ve seen drug deals go down at them,” he said. “There’s police cars at them all the time.”

Righeimer said the plan is “about cleaning up sections of the city where there is crime.”

Foley said she did not want Harbor becoming a residential corridor of tall complexes, making it look like “a canyon of apartments.” The result would be too urbanized, she said.

“That is just not the sleepy city that we want to be,” Foley said, adding that if Costa Mesa starts “putting apartments going down Harbor Boulevard — four-story apartments — that changes the entire character of our community. I don’t know what we’re becoming.”