Harlan: City codes are hampering housing construction

The housing market appears to be recovering rapidly, and with property values increasing, some local developers and builders are intent on meeting the demand for new residential units.

After several years of depressed real estate activity, they are eagerly filing development applications and pulling construction permits.

But why are they trying to fit square pegs into round holes?

Let me explain. In a community that is 98% built-out, Costa Mesa's future growth primarily will be redevelopment of existing properties.

This means introducing more density on residential and infill sites or creatively redeveloping other types of properties (for example, converting commercial sites to mixed-use along Harbor Boulevard).

However, we are not expecting a huge surge of new residents in Costa Mesa. According to the California Department of Finance, the city grew 2% (2,187 new residents) over the past decade, and projections indicate a similar growth rate for at least 10 more years.

The demand for a range of housing options and the paucity of available raw land has driven developers, designers and builders to reimagine how to accommodate new residents.

These prospective buyers are not necessarily looking for the conventional single-family home with a spacious yard and oversized garage. A growing trend, illustrated by a few new proposals on the city's Eastside and Westside, is the transformation of large, single-family residential lots into more dense development to meet the needs of young, first-time buyers.

To make these projects work, though, requires a slew of zoning code variances, minor design modifications and administrative adjustments. The city's development codes and policies, in this narrow arena, are obstacles to much-needed housing. And so we get square pegs butting against round holes.

Not surprisingly, when project applicants request discretionary approval, the fireworks usually fly at Planning Commission and City Council hearings. Sometimes it's just your garden variety NIMBYism —neighbors objecting to anything new in their backyards. Often it's a matter of raising legitimate concerns about traffic, noise and congestion generated by a development that will be denser than what currently exists.

A common sentiment underlying these concerns is that the developer is trying to maximize his economic opportunity and get more than what's allowed by code. Unfortunately, when a developer makes these requests, he is often doing so out of necessity. In many cases, our zoning code is unable to accommodate new and inventive approaches to residential planning and building, requiring the developers to ask for some adjustments.

To complicate matters, what a developer can build "by right" (without approval from the city or input from the community) is often less desirable to the surrounding neighbors. For example, most single-family residential neighbors would object to an adjacent multifamily rental development allowable by code, probably preferring a project similar to or more compatible with their homes. The preferred option, though, requires some relief from the code requirements.

This inherent tension between the community and developers can be resolved, or at least minimized, with some concerted effort. Debating the issue on a project-by-project basis at the Planning Commission or City Council only heightens the tension and makes the approval process more political than it needs to be.

First, we need to take a hard look at the zoning code and assess how it addresses the kind of infill residential development we'd like to see in Costa Mesa. Although it's been amended periodically with minor revisions over 60 years, our zoning code does not necessarily reflect, or allow, contemporary design and development strategies.

It may have served us well when the city was a growing suburb, but a mature, urban city of 110,000 requires a different approach.

Second, the city should host a series of round-table conversations with developers, builders, architects, community members and city commissioners to develop a comprehensive policy. Assuming a small-lot ordinance is needed, it should be carefully crafted to reflect concerns about quality of life, developers' economics and the city's ability to process proposals expeditiously.

Third, we need to provide more certainty in the development process. Developers and the community should understand the rules and expectations for development in Costa Mesa. Asking for discretionary approval, especially zoning code variances, should be kept to a minimum.

Ultimately, we should be able to accommodate the small amount of projected growth in Costa Mesa with smart, efficient and reasonable use of available land. It's time to revisit our zoning and development codes and align them with forward-thinking planning and design methods for the modern home buyer.

JEFFREY HARLAN is an urban planner who lives on the Eastside of Costa Mesa.

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