South Pasadena city council declares opposition to senate bill encouraging higher density housing

Photo by Brandon Yung
Online Managing Editor

The South Pasadena City Council approved a letter stating their opposition to State Senator Scott Wiener’s controversial Senate Bill 827, which is designed to encourage development of “transit-rich housing” in the face of California’s current housing crisis. If passed, the bill has the potential to reshape land development and urban planning in many California cities by exempting projects from various municipal codes, such as parking space requirements and density limits.

The city’s Director of Planning and Building, David Watkins, gave a presentation prior to the vote on February 7th. In the presentation, he outlined the specific terms of the new bill, on which work began last month.

In the bill, a special “transit-rich” area is defined as any area within ¼ mile of a “high-quality transit corridor” (such as Metro 260/762 bus line), or ½ mile of a “major transit stop” (such as the Metro Gold Line station). Within these zones, new rules will override existing building codes. Around 75% of South Pasadena is considered “transit-rich”. The Monterey Hills area is excluded because it generally lacks public-transit corridors and stops.

The proposed legislation is intended to increase housing density and grow public transportation, thus lowering housing costs, discouraging dependency on private vehicles, and improving air quality. However, its impact may be far greater than these potential benefits, as its new building rules ignore long-standing local codes in favor of turning suburbs into densely populated urban areas, with buildings almost twice as tall as currently permitted.

The bill allows new building projects in “transit-rich” areas to be exempt from common building regulations such as minimum parking spaces, maximum density, and maximum floor area ratio. The bill also replaces current maximum height laws by extending the absolute maximum height from 45 feet to 85 feet, or from 4 stories to 8 stories. The bill allows 85-feet buildings to be constructed on any street wider than 45 feet and extends the limit to 55 feet on streets narrower than 45 feet. The impact of this height adjustment is that very tall buildings can be erected in residential neighborhoods, provided that they are close to transit corridors or stops.

Senator Wiener maintains that current limits on height and density obstruct the attainment of clean-air and affordable housing goals. According to the city, the bill does not include any concrete plans on how these goals will be achieved. The bill only obligates the developer to construct a certain portion of units for low to moderate-income residents.

South Pasadena is in desperate need of relief from drastic increases in the cost of housing. According to the Census Bureau, 42% of renters in the city are considered rent-burdened. The median rate for a 2-bedroom apartment increased from $2400 three years ago to $3000 currently. In individual cases, monthly rent increased by as much as 40% in one month.

The bill has been criticized across California for being influenced by lobbyists and advancing gentrification and has received the opposition of the League of Cities. Susan Groveman, the city’s Public Information Officer, says that the bill changes the fundamental character of the city and does not fit its culture.

“[The bill] is completely inconsistent with anything South Pasadena is about, any of our branding, any of the small-town, little houses [historic charm]; it’s just kind of an anathema to any of that.”, said Mayor pro tempore Marina Khubesrian, “This is just so outrageously tone-deaf to a small city like ours”.

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