Los Altos is a wealthy suburban enclave in the Northwestern part of Santa Clara county. It has a population of just under 30,000 people and is comprised primarily of low-rise single family neighborhoods. A small portion of the city, Downton Los Altos, is zoned for non-residential and multifamily residential uses, though these are still subject to a height limit of 40 ft in most places. Los Altos has permitted relatively few new housing projects in recent years and have thus far failed to meet even their above-moderate income RHNA goals. The community is not affordable whatsoever. The median home price is over $3.3 million and average rent for a one bedroom is over $3000.
This project involves a 15 unit 5-storey multifamily project in Downtown Los Altos. Initially the project sponsor planned to build exclusively office space and accompanying parking. This proposal was denied. On the second try the developer decided to make the project primarily residential and offer affordable units in the project to qualify for ministerial approval and streamlining under SB 35. SB 35 is working! What was initially going to be an office project is now mixed income housing, because of the streamlining offered by SB 35.
After the application was submitted, the planning department in Los Altos returned to the applicant with a number of concerns and items that they said prevented the project from qualifying for streamlining under SB 35.
First the planners claimed that the project did not comply with Los Altos municipal code governing parking ingress/egress and parking circulation (they would later cite a specific code but did not at this point in the process). Without supporting code this cannot be considered an objective standard.
The planners also alleged that the project would have to reach the 50% affordable threshold under SB 35 rather than the 10% threshold because they believed that Los Altos was subject to the higher standard. This was incorrect and planning staff withdrew this complaint after being corrected. It should be noted that Los Altos is subject to the lower threshold because it failed to submit an annual progress report on housing production.
The final complaint they levied was that the application was incomplete and they had not been given the materials necessary to ensure that the project complied with Los Altos’ zoning and design standards. The project sponsor alleges that they have submitted all necessary materials and the lack of specific code citations on the response supports this assertion.
SB 35 requires that planning staff communicate any violations of objective standards to the project sponsor within 60 days. If no valid violations are found and conveyed to the project sponsor in that time period the project is deemed to satisfy all objective standards. The project sponsor alleges that the violation conveyed within the 60 day window are all baseless or incorrect and that therefore the project must be deemed to comply with all objective standards. The project sponsors also take issue with the violations identified after the 60 days elapsed but don’t believe they are admissible regardless.
The contentions raised after the 60 day window had elapsed are as follows:
1.The ratio of residential square footage does not reach the ⅔ required by SB 35
This is demonstrably false. The applicant believes, with verification from CA Dept of Housing and Community Development, that residential parking is included in total residential square footage and that therefore the residential square footage is greater than ⅔.
2.The parking lift included in the project plans fails to conform with Los Altos city parking code
Los Altos does not have any rules or restrictions prohibiting the use of parking lifts. The planning staff alleges that their rules and guidelines regarding parking ramps preclude the use of parking lifts. The planning staff has previously deemed projects complete/compliant that have utilized parking lifts. In the previous case the planning staff failed to identify any way in which a parking lift violates design standards related to parking.
3.The number of units exceeds the number allowed by the state and local density bonus.
Los Altos believes that the developer should not be able to apply their local density bonus to a ministerial project. The Project sponsor believes that SB 35 allows developers to utilize both the state density bonus and local density bonus without requiring any discretionary approvals.
To reiterate, none of these three possible violations were identified prior to the expiration of the 60 day window and therefore should not be considered in evaluating whether or not the project violates any objective standards. Only those standards identified within 60 days should be admissible.
SB 35 requires a ministerial process for projects that fulfill its criteria. As part of this ministerial process a permitting agency may only deny a permit to a project if it violates specific zoning or design standards in place when the application was submitted. These violations must be communicated to the project sponsor within 60 days of the submission of the application.
In this case no valid violations were communicated to the project sponsor within 60 days and Los Altos has failed to demonstrate that this project does not qualify for streamlined permitting under SB 35.