Following what some characterized as a “meat cleaver” approach to creating it in the first place, the Costa Mesa City Council opted Tuesday to take more of a scalpel to a controversial 2-year-old program that allows potential high-density residential development at specified sites along Harbor and Newport boulevards.
Following a flurry of decisions on the 14 different areas originally included in the “residential incentive overlay,” only four remained: two at the intersection of Harbor and Gisler Avenue, including the Vagabond Inn, Motel 6 and some adjacent properties; one covering the site of the closed Costa Mesa Motor Inn on Harbor, where the city has already approved development of a new apartment complex; and another covering the Motel 6 and Ali Baba Motel on Newport.
Except for the area around the Motor Inn, the council decided to limit the maximum density in the surviving areas to 30 housing units per acre — down from the 40 originally allowed — and limit the height of any new buildings to three stories, as opposed to four.
Though the overlay hasn’t been used since it was created as part of a 2016 update to the city’s general plan, some council members said they felt it could still entice redevelopment of blighted or undesirable properties — particularly some local motels.
“We have an opportunity ... an option, potentially, to replace the Vagabond and the Motel 6 with something that has much less crime,” said Mayor Pro Tem Allan Mansoor. “It’s just outright foolish to throw away that opportunity.”
Mayor Sandy Genis said she originally favored eliminating the overlay at Harbor and Gisler but was swayed by area residents who urged the city to “please get rid of these things, whatever you do, whatever incentive you have to give them.”
Councilwoman Katrina Foley, however, said she felt the city would be better served taking a longer-term look at all the potential options for redevelopment in the overlay. She was the only council member who voted against retaining some of the areas at lower density.
“I don’t think it’s either you build high-density housing there or you’re stuck with a site that is creating a crime magnet,” Foley said. “I think there are plenty of opportunities to improve the quality … without having to create high-density housing.”
Councilman John Stephens pointed out that the overlay doesn’t change the underlying zoning, “so if somebody wanted to change the use to a commercial use, they would be able to do that.”
Though council members scrapped much of the overlay Tuesday, some residents urged them to go a step further and delete it entirely, citing concerns about allowing dense, tall development along two of the city’s major thoroughfares.
Others suggested keeping the overlay but allowing it to be used only to develop projects that include affordable housing or help the city meet its state-determined regional housing needs assessment, which outlines how much housing cities need at various income levels.
After dealing with the overlay, the council voted 3-2 — with Mansoor and Councilman Jim Righeimer opposed — to direct staff to move forward with creating or updating specific plans that would set a vision for development of Newport and Harbor boulevards south of Wilson Street.
Righeimer said he was uncomfortable with the city potentially telling private owners what should be on their properties.
“I’m telling you, you lay out a plan and tell somebody what’s going to go on their property … all heck is going to break loose,” he said. “You just do not do that. Visioning sounds great — we all do ‘kumbaya,’ we hold hands together and decide what we want to have on somebody else’s property. It doesn’t work that way.”
Foley, however, said such a process is not about “telling people what to do, it’s about engaging the property owners and the stakeholders.”