Commentary: With One Metro West project, Costa Mesa faces a watershed moment

A rendering of One Metro West from April 14, 2020.
A rendering of One Metro West from April 14, 2020.
(Courtesy of Brent Stoll)

In 2016, in response to what many perceived as out-of-control development in the city, supported and encouraged by the then-City Council, a few well-intentioned residents of Costa Mesa chose to place a stranglehold on development in the city by creating and placing Measure Y on the 2016 General Election ballot, which passed by an overwhelming 68%. That citizen-generated initiative requires that any proposed development that includes certain items, such as a General Plan amendment or an increase in density of specific percentages, triggers a requirement that it be placed before the voters for a confirmation before it can commence. With more than four years behind us it appears to have been successful. City officials have said publicly that many developers have been discouraged by the Measure Y constrictions and have simply chosen to take their development dollars elsewhere. Moreover, there are those who feel the constrictions of that measure will lead to widespread blight in Costa Mesa.

One potential survivor is One Metro West — a planned mixed-use development tucked into an industrial area in the northwest corner of the city. This project, which has been percolating for a few years, includes 1,057 much-needed dwelling units — some of them meeting the “affordability” standard — plus some retail and office uses. It also includes a big chunk of parkland that would be open to the public. If approved as-is it will certainly trigger Measure Y. It seems to be a very desirable project, one that’s in the right place at the right time, but has been met by strident opposition by some of the folks credited with the success of Measure Y.

Enter the state of California and the onerous Regional Housing Needs Assessment numbers. The state requires every municipality to plan for a specific number of new dwelling units within a prescribed eight-year period. During the most recent period Costa Mesa’s number was two units. The current arbitrary number imposed by the Southern California Assn. of Governments is 11,760! This is a completely unreasonable number for a city that in its current General Plan update is described as 99% built-out. Accomplishing the planning for those units will certainly require extensive rezoning and probably the demolition of existing structures to accommodate those dwelling units.

Keep in mind, the state does not require the actual building of those dwelling units — it requires the city to plan for them and to show good faith efforts to accomplish those goals. However, if the city fails to show that required good faith the state may, under the force of law, impose stringent fines, withhold grants and actually forbid the city to manage its own development — the state would take over that process. Measure Y, in its current form, is a barrier blocking the city from complying with the RHNA demands, but there may be relief on the horizon.

Currently AB1322 is floating around the legislature in Sacramento and may soon be sent to the Senate, then on to Gov. Newsom. This bill, as I understand it, can provide relief from citizen-generated initiatives that preclude municipalities from complying with the statutes governing the creation of the housing elements required by cities and counties. Again, as I understand it, this bill could permit cities to modify local ordinances like Measure Y to allow the municipality to comply with state laws, including ignoring those initiatives completely. A quotation from the text of the bill gives us a clue: “It is the intent of the Legislature that this act only be applicable to local measures related to land use that constitute a substantial obstacle to the local governing body’s adoption or implementation of a timely, substantially compliant housing element.”

California cities are under the gun from the state to create Housing Elements that comply with state rules, and the clock is ticking — they’re due in October. The clock also ticks on the One Metro West project, which will soon appear before the Costa Mesa City Council for consideration. If members approve it, Measure Y requires it to be placed on the ballot. Either the developer would have to pay for a special election or wait until the 2022 general election. If AB1322 is passed this summer, it would almost certainly have to be done on an emergency basis in order for municipalities to utilize it to comply with the housing element requirements this year. If it were to be made effective Jan. 1, 2022, for example, it would be of absolutely no use for this cycle.

If the city tries to generate a ballot measure for 2022 to modify or eliminate Measure Y, it would be too late to provide relief for this RHNA cycle.

Costa Mesa is at a crossroads. Measure Y, for all its good intentions, is proving to be a barrier for any kind of growth. Without remediation the city will likely lose much of its tax base and wither. It’s time for action.

Geoff West lives in Costa Mesa.

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