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Opinion

Commentary: Wonder why the City Council approves so much housing? A brief tutorial

Proposed residential high-rise in downtown Glendale / Lucia Park
An early-design-stage rendering of 35-story, 348-unit residential high-rise planned for 610 N. Brand Blvd. The Glendale City Council on a recent 3-2 vote, OK’d the advancement of the project to its second design stage. Mayor Ara Najarian writes to explain the considerations behind approving such new projects.
(Courtesy of John Friedman Alice Kimm Architects )

As council members, we are often asked “Why does the City Council keep approving more housing development?” Well, there are critical factors that must be considered in a discussion of the answer.

One factor is the statewide housing crisis and the state of California’s response. Under state law, every city is required to provide sufficient residentially zoned land to comply with its Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA), as determined by the Southern California Assn. of Governments (SCAG).

Indeed, the state has recently tasked SCAG, a regional board of elected officials across six counties, to come up with zoning mandates to permit construction of 1.3 million new homes across Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura and Imperial counties by October 2029.

Glendale Mayor Ara Najarian touted the city’s accomplishments over the past year — including affordable housing, transit, environmental and public-safety initiatives, while lamenting the local effect of some state-level mandates during the annual State of the City address on Wednesday.
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If SCAG’s initial allocation for Glendale is ultimately approved, 14,000 new residential units in that period must be buildable. Taken as a whole, state law and regulators are forcing Glendale to create housing opportunities to help solve the current crisis.

While the city of Glendale is not required to construct housing, it must zone for it and may not impose unreasonable constraints on the construction of housing. Faced with these marching orders, the Glendale City Council has chosen to direct development downtown and in our transit corridors to preserve the character of our existing neighborhoods.

To that end, the city’s zoning must allow for “by-right” consideration of residential development. Most projects go through environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) to address projects’ environmental impacts. Most development projects in Glendale are also subject to a design review process, a discretionary review process that is intended to ensure projects are tastefully designed and compatible with surrounding neighborhoods.

While the city’s design review process allows the city to review projects in accordance with its design review standards pertaining to mass, scale and architecture, state law also significantly restricts the abilities of cities to deny or reduce the density of projects that are otherwise consistent with a city’s general and specific plans, and its zoning.

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If a project is consistent with Glendale’s general plan and zoning, we may only deny a project when we can specifically identify public health or safety impacts that will be created or exacerbated by a project. For example, if a project has a significant and unavoidable environmental effect as identified in an Environmental Impact Report, a city may be able to meet this standard and deny a project.

Additionally, in most cases where a city reduces the density of a project from what the zoning allows, the city will be required to identify and possibly rezone or “upzone” other areas of the city to make up for that lost density.

Thus, calls for the city to simply say “no” or “pump the brakes” on new development must be taken in context with the city’s obligation to comply with these state laws and requirements.

I understand the frustration, especially when community members are not aware of these mandates imposed on us; so I hope that this information is helpful.

Ara Najarian is mayor of the city of Glendale.

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