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La Cañada council member buys church property, floats senior housing plan

The site of the Christian Science Church at 600 Foothill Blvd. in La Cañada Flintridge, across the s
The site of the Christian Science Church at 600 Foothill Blvd. in La Cañada Flintridge was purchased last month by a company owned by City Councilman Jon Curtis, who has a plan with partners to build an active senior community on the 1.29-acre site.
(Tim Berger / La Cañada Valley Sun)

A neighborhood preservation group reported last week that it had uncovered plans indicating a company owned by La Cañada Flintridge Councilman Jon Curtis seeks to develop a senior housing complex at 600 Foothill Blvd., where prior development plans that were hotly contested failed.

Actor Michael Gross, a spokesman for the nonprofit group Together La Cañada (TLC), said in an Oct. 3 interview the group came across documents indicating a limited liability company, “600 Foothill Owners,” had purchased the property — the site of La Cañada’s Christian Science Church since 1949 — for $4.2 million on Sept. 17.

Property records indicate the transaction includes a $2.1-million loan from the First Church of Christ Scientist was taken out by the buyer, whose address corresponds to Curtis’ residence.

Gross, in an interview, questioned the appropriateness of a council member bringing such a large-scale project before the city. He said he had his doubts whether the city’s Planning Commission, on which Curtis served until his 2013 election to the council, would reject a plan that involved him.

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Curtis confirmed Monday he and partners had purchased the property and were discussing plans for an active senior community housing development.

“We, as a group, came in and have now bought the property,” Curtis said, adding the sale allowed the church congregation to purchase and move into a smaller property at 827 Foothill Blvd. “It allows an opportunity for something that will really benefit the community — there are so many people out there who would love some type of senior housing.”

To Gross’s concerns about his role in city government, Curtis said he would recuse himself on any project-related vote that comes before the council and planned to keep his civic life and business interests separate.

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The councilman said partners envisioned constructing an active senior development that would be restricted to those 55 and older and might include mixed use, such as office space, on the ground floor.

The property, he added, is ideally located with several grocery stores, banks, restaurants and a post office within walking distance.

Curtis did not say when discussions first began, saying “it’s been brewing for a while.”

There’s been no definitive talk about the size and scope of the project or how the city’s zoning designation would have to change to allow the project to be built, he said.

The 1.29-acre parcel is zoned for institutional use within the relatively development-restrictive Downtown Village Specific Plan and, as such, does not allow for housing projects.

In fact, density and neighborhood impact were at the heart of a heated dispute last year over the last proposal made for 600 Foothill — a 72-bed senior care facility put forth by Santa Rosa-based Oakmont Senior Living.

While a senior care facility was one of the allowable uses for the DVSP institutionally designated property, TLC members and other neighbors argued the project was too massive and would negatively impact residents and nearby businesses when the matter came before the city’s Planning Commission in January 2018.

Commissioners held off on approving the Oakmont project, saying they needed more time to consider the many issues brought up by TLC members and other residents who spoke for and against the proposal. Oakmont representatives made no future pitches for the space.

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One of the concerns that Gross and other residents have about Curtis’ plan, however, sprung from documents provided in late May to TLC by a person who wished to remain anonymous and advised the group to investigate matters further.

The documents include what appears to be an investment proposal created by Cedar Street Partners, which details the company’s plans to build a 37,182-square-foot, three-story building consisting of 46 senior apartments and some 5,000 square feet of office space.

Preliminary total costs for purchase of the land and construction are estimated at nearly $26.2 million.

Curtis insisted in a follow-up interview Tuesday that partners were still examining all options. He declined to examine the documents produced by TLC and questioned their veracity. He suggested any discussions with potential investors were subject to confidentiality agreements but did acknowledge he was a principal in Cedar Street Partners.

“We haven’t made any decisions, and we certainly haven’t made any decisions on the number of units,” he said. “The principals have made it extremely clear we’re going through a process.”

The city’s community development director, Susan Koleda, said Monday the city had not received any specific information or inquiries regarding the property or project.

She confirmed that someone wishing to build apartments at 600 Foothill, a use not currently allowed, would have two options — adding a residential use to lots zoned institutional within the DVSP (which would have to be applied to all such properties in town) or seeking a zoning code amendment to change the designation.

In the latter case, there would still be limitations upon how many units a developer could build, specific to each zoning category. Mixed uses in the DVSP cap the number of units at 15 per acre. In the case of a 1.29-acre lot like the one in question, only 19 units would be allowed, Koleda said.

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For R-3 multifamily zoning, the maximum number of units allowed for a project greater than 7,500 square feet would be 30 per acre, or in the case of 600 Foothill Blvd., 38 units — eight fewerthan the 46 described in the document obtained by TLC.

Koleda said California law awards an affordable-housing density bonus for projects built for low-income or senior residents. If a housing proposal contains 100% senior housing, for example, a developer can increase the maximum allowable number of units by 20%.

If the project applied for an R-3 designation — which would put general plan and zoning code amendments before the Planning Commission and then City Council — and was granted a density bonus of 20%, the developer would be permitted to build up to 46 units.

“Is it technically doable? Yes. But taking one parcel in the middle of the specific plan out of the area and rezoning it, that’s extremely bad planning,” Koleda said. “There are a whole lot of things we’d have to look at.”

Meanwhile, Gross said he’s not opposed to senior housing in La Cañada and was open to learning more about the project.

“I’m not saying it couldn’t be a wonderful project. You could sell your big house in La Cañada and get out from under it,” he said. “It comes down to parking, traffic, pedestrian safety, density and the effect on the neighborhood. You just have to put it out there and let people make their own decisions.”

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