Planning commission backs Chinatown development—if developer includes affordable housing

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The city planning commission today voted to endorse developer Atlas Capital’s plans to put a large project along Spring Street in Chinatown, provided it include some affordable units.

“There’s a citywide need [for affordable housing], and we need to start solving that with every project that’s built,” said commissioner Renee Dake Wilson.

As proposed, the College Station project would include 725 market-rate units, no affordable units, almost 900 parking spaces, and retail space including a large grocery store—all directly across the street from the Chinatown Gold Line station.

College Station project has been in the works for years, undergoing some minor and major changes over time. The project already has several approvals from the city that were acquired when it was under different ownership.

Now Atlas Capital is asking for a few new approvals, including a general plan amendment that would change the site’s zoning to allow for residential uses.

Commissioners voted to approve the project’s requested approvals, including the general plan amendment, on the condition that 5 percent of the apartments at College Station be designated for very low-income households.


The College Station site is the big, empty, triangular lot in the center of the image.
Google Maps

Supporters of College Station who spoke at the commission meeting were happy to see density close to the Gold Line station and eager to have a new large supermarket in the neighborhood. They were glad to see what is now a large, vacant transformed into shops and much-needed housing.

“We need to take every opportunity to build new housing and to build it at all levels,” Councilmember Gil Cedillo, whose district includes the project site, told the audience and commissioners. The city’s housing crisis “cannot be resolved by not building,” he said.

Housing was also on the minds of those who opposed the project. Commissioners and members of the public who spoke against College Station took issue with the total lack of on-site affordable housing the developer proposed.

Especially of concern was the effect that a large, market-rate project would have on the predominately low-income and working class neighborhood, where nearly 60 percent of residents are already paying more than 30 percent of their monthly income toward rent.

“I’m very concerned about the development of 725 market-rate units in Chinatown without any on-site affordable housing,” commissioner Dana Perlman said.

A number of residents of the area expressed the fear that by creating new units that people living in the neighborhood would not be able to afford, College Station would virtually push out existing Chinatown residents.

Atlas Capital doesn’t have a legal obligation to include affordable housing. Because College Station was approved in 2012, it is not subject to Measure JJJ. The voter-approved measure mandates that affordable housing be included in projects seeking a general plan amendments.

Project representative Jerry Neuman of DLA Piper told the commission that, in the firm’s outreach to the community, residents said they didn’t want more affordable housing, so they didn’t consider including it.

Touted as both a substitute for the on-site inclusion of affordable housing and as an instance of Atlas Capital being a “good neighbor”is an agreement that the developer entered into with councilmember Cedillo to subsidize rents at a neighboring apartment building, which it doesn’t own.

Tenants at Metro Lofts, an affordable apartment complex for seniors, were facing a rent increase that, while small on paper, would have been devastating to the residents, most of whom live on fixed incomes.

To help keep people in their homes, Cedillo stepped in to broker a deal in which Atlas Capital would cover the rent increase for the rest of 2018. The developer also agreed to cover the increase for the next 10 years, provided that College Station was approved.

A number of Chinatown organizations, including CCED, have spoken out against the deal, which they see as effectively forcing residents to support a project in order for them to maintain their housing. The agreement, reached privately between the developer and Cedillo, is not enforceable by the city; its success depends on the developer keeping its word.

Ultimately, the commissioners did not accept the Metro Lofts agreement as a stand-in for on-site affordable housing in College Station.

The planning commission’s decision still needs to go before the city’s planning and land use committee as well as the full council before it is final.

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