LIV - Planning Commission.JPG

The above graphic displays one of the two Eden Housing buildings proposed to run from L Street to the extension of K Street on Railroad Avenue. (Photo - City of Livermore)

LIVERMORE — Despite residents voicing opposition, the Livermore Planning Commission on Tuesday recommended the development of the 130-unit, 4-story Eden Housing project in the city’s downtown core.

With Commissioner John Stein the dissenting vote, the commission voted 4-1 to send the project for final approval to the city council.

The project site, occupying 2.5 gross acres, sits on the southeast corner of South L Street and Railroad Avenue; the site once housed a Lucky supermarket. The proposed plan, revised over time, now consists of two four-story buildings — one on Railroad Avenue and the other fronting Veterans Way. Each building would contain one-, two- and three-bedroom rental apartments for people with incomes that are 20% to 60% of the Alameda County median income, in other words, those with low income, very low income or experiencing homelessness.

An area between the two Eden buildings would be dedicated to the city as a park. Two private underground garages would provide 117 on-site underground spaces for parking. The city’s public L Street garage would accommodate 16 stalls for the private use of Eden Housing residents.

Planning Commission Chairman Jacob Anderson said the project — which he called a very beautiful building with great amenities — will provide housing for teachers, emergency medical technicians and those in downtown service jobs.

“We’re talking about people that live in our community — a teacher, a family of three, a single parent with two kids,” Anderson said. “Every single service worker downtown would qualify for this housing. These are the people who serve you food. They are the people who teach your kids. They are the people who pick you up in ambulances … This is not a homeless shelter.”

While Anderson, along with Commissioners Steve Dunbar, Evan Branning and Daniel Leary voted in favor of the project, Stein voted against the plan after voicing concern that the project did not have enough available parking. He further stated that there could be challenges associated with placing an affordable housing complex in this downtown location.

“My major concern was the limited parking,” Stein wrote in an email to The Independent after the meeting. “The developer proposed not meeting the city's standard for number of parking stalls, 100% compact stalls and using a portion of the L Street parking structure to meet the requirements. There is no backup plan if the developer's parking need estimates are too low. It does not fail safe. I believe this sets a poor precedent with approximately 3,000 more residential units still zoned in the Downtown Redevelopment Area. The community has expressed a strong preference for adequate downtown parking. Having worked for over three decades to create a vibrant downtown, I would not like to see it negatively impacted by limited parking and associated traffic congestion. Overall, this is a reasonable project. Eden housing has a good record both in the Bay Area and Livermore. The architecture and landscaping are attractive. There is a need for a broad range of housing types in Livermore, particularly housing affordable to low-income families.”

During the meeting, Stein also pointed out an issue with the trees that cover the buildings.

“Some of the trees close to the building(s) (according to staff) are going to spread out more than 60 feet, but I don’t think that will happen if they’re within 10 feet of the building. So perhaps you could look to more colander trees for the ones that (are) planted close to the building,” he said. “I think you need to look more carefully at the large trees next to the building.”

Steeped in controversy, the plan was addressed by 157 speakers from the public, with about 30% favoring the plan and 70% opposed. Their opinions on the housing project and its impact on the city were read by a clerk for three hours.

Those in favor of the current plan argued that affordable housing in the community is urgently needed and should not be postponed any longer. Supporters said the additional residents in the core area would support the downtown businesses. They further expressed concerns that a delay in developing the site could result in a loss of the Alameda County A1 funds.

Those against the project asked for the city to consider an alternative location, stating that more affordable housing units can be provided across Railroad Avenue. They added that the vacated space would leave room for a community park. In addition, they pointed out that the current plan violates city law.

The planning commission functions in various capacities when making recommendations to the city council. Most commonly, its roles are legislative (establishing or amending laws) or quasi-judicial (determining whether a project conforms to the standards of those laws). In this case, the Eden Housing project fell into the quasi-judicial category.

In short, Eden was seeking the planning commission’s recommendation to the city council that its design conforms to the Downtown Specific Plan’s standards and that a vesting tentative parcel map should be approved.

Ruth Gasten, the spokesperson for Save Livermore Downtown (SLD), explained in the comments from her group that the project violates several development standards in the Downtown Specific Plan and other city documents. She said that the commission could not legally approve the project as currently proposed. She noted that SLD has received legal advice from Latham & Watkins, a law firm that practices land-use law.

Gasten’s statement concluded that the current Eden plan does not satisfy the Specific Plan’s density requirements and needed several density bonus incentives to obtain relief from parking, setbacks, massing and design standards.

Her comments initially addressed why the project does not meet the city’s density requirements. They noted that when the extra 0.5-acre area of adjacent street frontage is included in the site acreage of the Eden project, the city calculates the gross acreage of the site to be 2.5 acres. The 130 units then yield a density of 52 units per acre, which is allowed under the Specific Plan. However, Eden and the city proposed that an estimated 31,200-square-foot parcel between the two buildings be dedicated to the city and turned into a public park. A public park dedicated to the city is not a residential use. Therefore, under current city law this estimated .72-acre parcel must be excluded from the gross acreage. Removing the park area means that the project does not meet the city’s density requirements. Eden would need to revise its density bonus exemption request to ask for relief from the normal density rules.

Gasten’s statement then turns to the density bonus incentives that they believe are needed. “Because the Eden project is a 100% affordable housing project, the city can provide Eden with up to four incentives as part of Eden’s density bonus request. The current project needs even more than four incentives to proceed.”

The statement lists five incentives that Gasten’s group believes are necessary, beginning with parking. The city’s staff report argues that the project seeks one incentive related to parking, but SLD claims that the project really needs two. The group says that the city cannot combine the parking-related requests into one incentive. Each request for a parking-related incentive should be treated separately, not collectively. Reduction in a compact parking space (from 18 to 16 feet) counts as one. Reduction in a standard parking space width for 100% of the spaces (from 8.5 to 8.0 feet) requires a second incentive under the density bonus law. To review city legislation on parking, visit http://bit.ly/Indy_Parking1 and http://bit.ly/Indy_Parking2.

Gasten’s group then points out that failure to meet setback requirements triggers the need for a third density bonus incentive. According to Section 5.1.B. of the Specific Plan, the maximum street frontage setback is 20 feet. To review the Specific Plan, visit http://bit.ly/Indy_SpecificPlan. The frontage along Railroad Avenue has two areas in the plan that exceed the 20 foot setback. On page 70 of the city’s staff report for Eden Housing, the plans show that the north building’s setback of 24’11” and 35’6.5” in segments along Railroad Avenue exceed the maximum allowed setbacks.

Staff only mentioned orally and in the report that Eden meets the minimum setbacks. They did not address the maximum setbacks.

On the topic of massing, the Specific Plan allows four stories, so long as the “fourth floor does not extend for more than 60% of the site frontage along L Street, Railroad Avenue and South Livermore Avenue.” The city staff report said both buildings will “occupy approximately 33% of the catalyst project site frontage along L Street, Railroad Avenue and South Livermore Avenue when taken as a whole.” However, Gasten's statement noted that the city is misapplying the standard, as the project does not front on Livermore Avenue.

She commented that all that is important here is the frontage on Railroad and L Street, and the fact that the fourth floor extends more than 60% of the total site frontage on those portions of the site along Railroad Avenue and L Street, as well as Railroad Avenue alone. Gasten continued, “Eden does not meet this standard and needs a fourth density bonus incentive to be able to move forward with the project.”

Gasten also mentions in her statement that Eden’s architecture violates a design standard specified in the Downtown Specific Plan, one that would require a fifth incentive.

Standards for overall building massing (chapter 6, page 130 of http://bit.ly/Indy_Massing) mandate that multi-family buildings “convey a sense of home and give individuality to each unit that lies within it” and avoid a monotonous or overscaled massing. According to Gasten’s comments, Eden’s design does not make clear that there are individual units; the design is monotonous. Just to the west of the project across L street, the Legacy Apartments on the Groth Bros. site incorporate balconies and porches that provide architectural relief. Eden’s plan does not do so. As a result, the Eden project does not meet the required design standard in the Specific Plan, according to the community group.

In the opinion of Gasten’s citizens’ group, the failure of Eden to ask for relief from the Specific Plan’s maximum density requirements and the need for five bonus density incentives means that Eden’s project could not be approved by the planning commission.

In addition to the legal issues raised by citizens, others denounced the city as having lost its direction and predicted the high-density project would destroy the downtown’s character.

Supporters, meanwhile, called the project “desperately needed” — one that would create diversity, build housing for a local workforce, provide construction jobs for local union members and develop affordable housing for teachers, rookie police officers and other lower income residents. Proponents suggested the apartments will provide homes for what are actually middle income people whose salaries are considered “low income” in the Bay Area and who cannot afford the region’s housing costs.

Although the project is supported by several Livermore and Bay Area anti-poverty and environmental organizations, including the Livermore Housing Authority, East Bay Housing Organizations, the Tri-Valley Anti-Poverty Collaborative and Greenbelt Alliance, it also faces stiff opposition from community groups. Throughout the meeting, commenters found fault with the tall, block-long buildings and parking.

“We do not want to look like Dublin or like Pleasanton with their high rises everywhere,” Gretchen Rutherford said of neighboring cities. “The Eden project needs to be taken out of this area and moved to another location.”

Many of those suggested an alternative plan proposed by SLD that would put a park on the Lucky site and move the residential buildings to seven parcels north of Railroad Avenue between L Street and Livermore Avenue. Doing that, the group said, would allow for its expansion from 130 to 230 units and create adequate parking.

Speakers agreed that affordable housing is needed in Livermore, but they disagreed on where it should be located and how tall it should be.

Andrew Barker supported the plan. “Our community has a desperate need for housing at all income levels, especially the below market rate levels proposed in this project,” Barker wrote in his comments to the commission. “Livermore’s character is in danger of complete transformation into an insular community for only the rich and the old, and this project will help preserve its character as an inclusive and welcoming community.”

Dawn Argula, CEO and president of the Livermore Valley Chamber of Commerce, said Livermore was fortunate to have Eden Housing working on the project, which she said would provide economic impacts, including construction, management and maintenance jobs. Investing in housing, she said, is “critical to Livermore’s long-term success and economic competitiveness.”

“While communities across the nation recover from the highest unemployment rates in decades, job growth will keep our community afloat and allow it to flourish,” Argula said. “Reduced housing costs gives residents more disposable income to spend at local businesses … Investing in housing is critical to Livermore.”

Several union workers encouraged the project, saying it would provide jobs and apprenticeships for the construction community.

Downtown resident Eric Dillie called Eden Housing a mistake.

“Everyone seems to understand this except the mayor and council,” he said. “Approving construction in the proposed location will be one of the largest political blunders in Livermore history. It’s time to problem solve the situation, be bold, and do whatever it takes to relocate the Eden Housing project.”

City staff weighed in as well. They said the development will jibe with Livermore’s plans to provide housing for its workforce and help aid with state requirements to provide affordable residences for lower income earners.

According to a city staff report, residents whose salary ranges will meet the median include police department assistants, school district receptionists, emergency medical technicians, and retail and restaurant employees working in the downtown.

The project also will include rooftop solar panels that will provide enough electricity to handle the energy consumption in common areas, including hallways, lobbies and garages. The staff report adds that the units will be all electric, and garages will include five electric vehicle charging stations.

According to Planning Commissioner Evan Branning, the project appears to meet the city’s design guidelines.

“It looks very nice in my opinion,” Branning said. “I’m very excited about the open space that will be going with it.”

The Livermore City Council will hold a meeting Monday, April 26, at 7 p.m. The agenda has been revised to include item 6.3. The item will provide discussion and direction regarding "the city council's commitment to a culture of welcome, inclusion and respect and the comments made by Planning Commission Stein at the planning commission meeting on April 20, 2021." The agenda noted that complaints have been received by the community.