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Planning Commission recommends allowing housing in commercial zoning

Thursday, November 10, 2022 by Jonathan Lee

The Planning Commission recommended a code change Tuesday to allow housing in more parts of the city.

The change, if approved by City Council, would allow housing on 7,474 commercially zoned properties, boosting the city’s housing capacity by up to 46,324 units amid a housing crisis caused in part by lack of supply. 

Council voted unanimously to initiate the code amendment last December via a resolution sponsored by Mayor Steve Adler and Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter. 

The change applies to properties zoned Commercial Liquor Sales (CS-1), General Commercial Services (CS), Community Commercial (GR), Neighborhood Commercial (LR), General Office (GO) and Limited Office (LO), and Neighborhood Office (NO).

If developers choose to build housing in these zoning categories, they will have to make 10 percent of the units affordable, with rentals priced for those making 60 percent of the median family income and ownership units priced at 80 percent MFI. 

After an initial discussion two weeks ago, the commission made several amendments to the proposed ordinance

Some amendments went against recommendations by city staffers. Staffers argued that housing should not be allowed on commercial properties within 500 feet of a highway because of health problems caused by noise and air pollution. Commissioners were confused by the recommendation, given that staffers regularly approve residential projects near highways. Without a clear direction from Council on the issue, the commission opted against the highway buffer but agreed it merits further study. 

The commission did agree with staffers that residential units should not be allowed within 500 feet of noxious industrial uses.

The commission also recommended changes to promote pedestrian-oriented ground floor uses. Commissioners argued that ground-floor commercial space should be required for projects along streets with public transit lines. They also recommended allowing an extra 5 to 10 feet of building height to accommodate a taller ground floor, since retail spaces with low ceilings are not very marketable and often sit vacant. The height change could also help create live-work units. 

The last set of recommendations aims to align site development standards for residential-in-commercial buildings with those in the Vertical Mixed Use density bonus program, as directed by Council.

Commissioners support borrowing some of VMU’s elements, including design standards and decreased parking requirements, but leaving out others, like VMU’s height allowance and reduced impervious cover requirements.

Staffers also included a minimum site area for each residential unit as part of their recommendation. That would mean a project in Neighborhood Office (NO) zoning, for example, would need at least 4,000 square feet of land for each one-bedroom unit. Other commercial zoning types would have less restrictive minimum site areas. 

Commissioners recommended against minimum site areas, which would likely reduce the number of units allowed. “That to me was going against what Council direction was,” Commissioner Jeffrey Thompson said. 

The commission also decided to prohibit short-term rentals in residential-in-commercial buildings.

Commissioners voted unanimously to recommended the proposed ordinance with the amendments, with only Commissioner Carmen Llanes Pulido abstaining on the amendment to increase allowable building height.

Council plans to vote on the code amendment at its Dec. 1 meeting.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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