Habitat for Humanity project draws opposition
By Lou Fancher
A Habitat for Humanity East Bay/Silicon Valley proposal to build 45 townhomes near the Pleasant Hill BART station received robust evaluation Feb. 9 at a Walnut Creek Planning Commission meeting after generating some controversy among prospective neighbors.
During a pre-application review session that lasted over two hours, no decisions were made. But questions and opinions from planning commissioners and area residents made it evident improved dialogue between the developer and the community is crucial.
The 2.05-acre parcel where the townhomes would be built is a few hundred feet northeast of the Contra Costa Centre station off Las Juntas Way is in Walnut Creek. It was formerly owned by Contra Costa County; Habitat for Humanity acquired the title in March 2016. The City of Walnut Creek loaned Habitat $3.15 million to buy the property and for associated expenses.
In an interview before the Feb. 9 review session, Associate Planner Alan Carreon said he had received considerable correspondence from the public, some of it misinformed.
“This meeting is a feeler; Habitat gets the input, takes it, revises and eventually goes through the formal process,” Carreon said in response to residents’ worries that the project is “a done deal.”
Carreon’s staff report, presented at the meeting and available online, explained county, city and developers’ jurisdictions. A “density bonus ordinance” would allow Habitat to develop 16 units over the allowed maximum density of 29 units, and concessions include building setbacks, non-covered parking and tree-removal permits.
“There’s a regional and Bay Area need for affordable homes,” Carreon said. “What do I hope this review session accomplishes? I hope this concept goes through its due process and lets the public comment on it. Everybody gets a fair shot and that’s what this applicant is seeking.”
Charles Sun, who’s owned his single-family home on Foss Court since 1999, said this increased density is an issue with concerned neighbors, many of whom are Pleasant Hill residents.
“If you drive around, there are the Avalon apartments and already a lot of people living there. With BART, there’s already increased traffic,” Sun said.
Leo Dominguez has owned his home near the proposed project site since 1985. He is a member of the Walden Homeowner Improvement Association of Walnut Creek. “We thought this project went ahead without the neighborhood being informed,” he said. “We’re planning to ask if the 45 units can be pulled back.”
The possible negative impact on property values, Sun added, is a secondary objection. “It’s low-income housing and developed with substandard design. The 45 units are very squeezed together.The amenities are limited. I worked as a real estate broker for over 10 years: I know there’s a lack of common areas and space between units.”
Sun planned to give to the planning commission a petition signed by over 70 homeowners opposed to the Habitat project. He said petitioners’ objections included the lack of transparency about the county’s initial transfer of land to Habitat, whether or not an environmental impact report was required, BART noise levels for residents living in the project and exemptions regarding parking and building design.
“Habitat for Humanity is supposed to be helping families. Looking at the plan I ask, where are the happy children to play? A smaller project that addresses the concerns about traffic and noise—and designs that conform to neighborhood standards would be my preference.”
Carreon explained that the city has no legal obligation to notify residents of county land transfers. Meeting notices are, by law, only required to be posted within 300 feet of a proposed project site. Carreon reiterated that the project was still in the pre-application phase and design modifications are expected and welcomed by Habitat. Upon submission of a formal application, he said, “All projects are subject to environmental analysis and other necessary regulatory steps in the process.”
At the Feb. 9 commission hearing, project supporters and foes were approximately equal in number. The project’s density drew the most commentary from the planning commission, with commissioners acknowledging that low-income housing was essential in light of the Bay Area’s tight housing supply. Commissioner Peter Lezak spoke most directly about the lack of communication between the applicant and the community. Saying that the city “had culpability,” he suggested extra notice posting and more community meetings.