A Fight On The Heights
Marina Planning Commission ignores citizens' alternative; pushes Marina Heights project to council.
Thursday, November 6, 2003
For weeks, Marina City Councilman Bruce Delgado has been ringing the alarm about a huge housing project dominating city agendas. He''s been door-to-door handing out flyers about the Marina Heights project, pointing out its lack of housing for low-income families, alleged huge profits for developers--which take advantage of cheap former army land--and an absence of provision for schools.
But when he got up to speak as a citizen before the planning commission on the night before Halloween in the final hearing for the 1,050-home proposal, he was nearly silenced.
In a blatantly partisan display, Planning Commission Chairman Gary Wilmot quibbled that Delgado had not made it to the podium fast enough to be allowed to speak, as Delgado had been waiting at the back of the room for another citizen to approach the microphone. A small argument ensued, and Delgado was grudgingly allowed to speak after Wilmot''s initial refusal.
Then, Wilmot activated the traffic light-style speaking timer, which had not been used for previous citizens. While Delgado spoke Wilmot wore a disinterested and somewhat hostile mask.
One observer said later that Wilmot has a tendency to run the meetings with a heavy hand and in fact there was reportedly an ugly exchange later in the night between Wilmot and Grace Silva-Santella, a former commissioner and Marina Heights critic.
Delgado, Silva-Santella and a small group of Marina residents have been skeptical of the massive project, which looks to convert 248 acres in a former Army housing area off Imjin Road into a mix of homes of various styles and prices: 102 townhouses, 188 cottages, 337 homes on 5,000-square-foot lots, 338 homes on 6,000-square-foot lots, and 85 so-called "estate" homes on quarter-acre and half-acre lots. Of the 1,050 homes, 85 would be designated as "bridge" homes, designed for middle-income buyers and priced around $255,000.
In order to meet the city''s 20 percent affordable housing requirement, the developers could be given credit for 186 existing rental units nearby, in an area called Abrams B. Since it''s not part of the development, that arrangement is sure to get some attention when the project is heard by the council on Nov. 18.
"I''ll definitely bring it up," says Delgado.
In the flyer he''s been handing out, Delgado alleges that the developers stand to make $100 million on the project, based on land appraisals and construction costs. The 248-acre parcel was sold for $10.6 million.
Delgado and others also complain about a lack of commercial space, school sites or daycare center in the plan.
The pre-Halloween meeting waded through a number of issues as the developers had requested and were granted by the planning commission exemptions and adjustments to city subdivision and general plan rules.
The environmental impact report (EIR) also had to be approved.
During the planning process, a "citizens'' alternative" had also been offered that would have provided more affordable housing through rental apartment space, as well as street-level retail. Ten acres in the center of the parcel would be set aside for an elementary school.
The citizens'' alternative was rejected out of hand. It might have gathered more steam, but two commissioners, Chris Fitz and Tim Miller had to recuse themselves from the proceedings because they both live adjacent to the project area. Both likely would have been supportive of the reworked plan.
The only advocate on the commission for the citizens'' alternative was Dave Burnett, who said, "We''d be remiss if we ignored the citizens'' alternative and failed to give it proper consideration." Burnett was the sole vote against approval of the EIR.
Wilmot criticized the initiative, saying, "It''s sad, but the citizens'' alternative wasn''t all that well thought out." He told the advocates not to "come back now and complain."
The citizen opponents are not the only ones with major reservations. Letters submitted by various agencies during the environmental review raise serious questions about the project''s compliance with existing development design priorities. Monterey-Salinas Transit (MST), which runs local bus service, warns against "amending the transit-friendly components of these General Plans out of existence" and supports the citizens'' alternative. Likewise, the Transportation Agency of Monterey County (TAMC) criticizes the plan as encouraging sprawl, saying, "...the proposed density of 5.4 units per acre coupled with lack of on-site commercial land uses would not constitute a land use pattern that is adequately supportive of transit and pedestrian modes of transportation."
The Sierra Club, as well as several citizens who addressed the hearing, expressed concern about potential removal of existing trees.
The squashing of the citizen-generated plan was not the only sore point on the agenda.
Monterey Peninsula Unified School District (MPUSD) Superintendent Daniel Callahan stood up to say the district "can''t support" the proposed EIR that doesn''t include a specified school site. He noted figures from an AMBAG report projecting major growth in school-age children in Marina by 2020 with 1300 high school students, 975 middle school students and 1950 elementary school students. Speaking in an interview later, Callahan said those numbers can vary somewhat up or down but as it is now, some 800 Marina students commute to Seaside and Monterey because Marina has no high school.
"Given that they are going to build over 1,000 homes and it will generate a full elementary school by itself, to approve an EIR without a provision for an elementary school seemed a little short-sighted," Callahan said afterward.
The matter was left as an issue to be taken up later, with park space nearby also up for consideration. In the meantime, Callahan says the school district will be drawing up plans for facilities across its five cities and part of the county.
At its Nov. 17 board meeting the school district will examine all school sites, including provisions for school construction in Marina. Callahan says building a new school takes about six years from planning and permitting to actual use, but with current student-body growth it has to be done.
In addition to his concerns that the balance of housing in the project favors wealthy homebuyers--not the traditional Marina working-class resident--Delgado criticizes the lack of planning for a school, calling it "crazy" not to set aside land in burgeoning community.
"If you build 1,000 houses you should have that responsibility," he says.
Chris Fitz, the planning commissioner and deputy director of Land Watch Monterey County who had to recuse himself from the hearing, has a long list of criticisms of the project. While he likes plans for a greenbelt and the variety of housing types, Fitz has concerns about the lack of a defined school site or commercial area that would have made it more faithful to the pedestrian-friendly ideals New Urban design.
"The Marina Heights development falls short in a whole variety of ways of what I''d like to see there, but my sense is it''s going to go forward because there''s a lot of people in the city who like it," he says. "The bottom line for me is it''s not as good as it should have been."
The plan was recommended for approval to the Marina City Council, which will hear the proposal at its Nov. 18 meeting.