On Tuesday night, the city council seemed to be leaning towards continued consideration of the main project proposal for the Mace Ranch Innovation Center, despite the request from the applicant to consider a mixed-use component and 850 high-density housing units.
In fact, council had a motion on the floor from Councilmember Lucas Frerichs moving forward the current option, when Councilmember Brett Lee pointed out that the council really did not have to take action at all. Instead, the council could simply wait until the final EIR comes out in early January and act accordingly at that point.
The council, while of mixed views on the consideration of a mixed-use housing proposal in concept, is leery of whether the voters would support such a measure. As Elaine Roberts Musser put it, “As you are well aware, a Measure R vote looms large, if citizens feel there has been a bait and switch from MRIC as proposed to a mixed-use option only, it very well may doom the MRIC project.”
Eileen Samitz added, “There have been concerns by the citizens from the beginning about housing being proposed at this project and we were told not to worry, that it’s going to be an innovation park because the city needed revenue.”
Ms. Samitz argued that everyone gave this project a chance due to the lack of housing and now, “lo and behold, here we are a year later and the developers are asking for not just some units, 850 housing units, that’s the same number of units in Wildhorse. They are going to somehow jam them into this innovation park.”
For his part, Dan Ramos argued that there was no attempt to deceive, he and his team have simply “become convinced that a viable innovation center should contain a housing component such as the one reflected in the mixed-use alternative.”
He said this was a change “because we initially were highly opposed to the inclusion of a housing component in our project.”
In his comments to council, he noted that the housing would be geared toward housing for workers. He said he is not advocating more housing than already currently planned, and that housing would simply be re-prioritized.
Prakash Pinto, who presented on their proposal, noted that it would be the same square footage for the research and development space, however, the housing would greatly increase the density on the site.
Council, however, for the most part was skeptical of the change.
Councilmember Rochelle Swanson noted that she was one of those “who said, housing’s a third rail on this one, so don’t include it. I find myself in an interesting position because I also understand the SACOG principles and blueprint and all the good reasons.” At same time, she noted, with the “accusations of bait and switch,” that “I think it’s realistic to raise those concerns.”
Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis noted that going forward with the current plan does not preclude the council from switching course at a later point and propose a mixed-use project. He said, “I understand it may slow things down.”
He argued that we may need to do things differently from how we usually do things on these projects. “You’re hearing it in the comments of the community, some discomfort, and that means… we need to give more time for processing,” he said. He then pushed for the commissions to look more into some of these components for instance, the Natural Resources Commission to look more into the sustainability plan and Finance and Budget to look further into the EPS (Economic Planning Systems, Inc.) report and the mixed-use component.
He noted, “The EPS actually is mixed on the mixed use… On one hand it’s clear that it reduces the net revenue to the city to have a mixed-use approach. On the other, the EPS report is clear that the very feasibility of the study might depend on mixed use.”
Robb Davis noted that he wasn’t on the council that put out the RFEI (Request for Expressions of Interest), which was clear on no housing. He said that gives him the luxury of thinking outside that without being accused of baiting and switching.
“What I found troubling in the RFEI is that the prior Chief Innovation officer, even as he was presenting you with the RFEI, was also publishing article after article, that if you read the articles in their discussion of innovation was making it clear that the direction that innovation centers are going are towards housing,” he said. He noted that there was no courage at that time for people to ask what an innovation center was supposed to be and why there was no housing there.
He called that “a really serious error.” He added, “We can rectify that error by at least reconsidering what we’re doing.”
Robb Davis said when council agreed to add in a mixed-use component to study, he said, “I support that partly because we have a housing crisis in this town and we need to look at all options. Why would we entitle 200 acres and not at least consider putting dense, mixed-use housing on that.”
“I don’t have a particular axe to grind except to say that we have a housing crisis and we should be looking at all alternatives,” he said.
Nevertheless, he noted that he is happy to stay with the current option for now while reserving the right to switch down the line, knowing that it may slow things down.
Councilmember Lucas Frerichs made a motion to move the staff recommendation that would direct the staff to proceed with the current plan. Like his colleague, he said, “I will reserve the right moving forward to support or not support the potential of mixed use at that site.” But, in his opinion the council has been consistent all along that the innovation park proposals should not include housing.
He added that “there is no application before us other than the MRIC as proposed, I think we should be adhering to the principles articulated in the RFEI.”
“For me keeping the eye on the prize of economic activity, job creation and revenue enhancement for the city are the top priorities and I’m not personally at this point inclined to include housing or a mixed-use component as part of this process,” he said.
Councilmember Swanson said that the reason housing wasn’t included in this process was “frankly because nobody felt that housing could pass a Measure R vote.” She said that “that’s part of leadership, we have to look at the big picture… When you’re dealing with the threats that the project’s not going to get approved if we build a house on it, and we’re sitting here looking at the revenue measures.”
“I don’t know why we’re going to dance around the issue,” she said. “We have to make a choice about what’s going to be successful in the community.”
Dan Ramos said he acknowledged the risk of pushing this issue past next November, however, he thinks they have time to consider mixed use. Nevertheless, he told the council they were fine with them taking action at this time.
Councilmember Brett Lee suggested that, in fact, no action needed to be taken at this time. He said, “We’re a little blind here, we’re trying to go off the draft EIR trying to evaluate possibilities, I don’t see that any action is needed tonight.” He said making a choice at this time “seems reasonable except for the fact that within four weeks we will have the final EIR” which will take into account the concerns of the community and councilmembers.
At that time, he argued, they would be a in a better position to give staff a well-informed direction.
Councilmember Swanson stated, “I’m more comfortable without an action, that [would say] go on ‘2A’ and say even without a formal document we’re just willing to pretend like all that information’s not there.”
Mike Webb told the council they expect the Final EIR to be done by January 19 and Brett Lee suggested either January 26 or February 2 as dates for council consideration.
Mike Webb summed up the council’s direction as staying the course in terms of the current review of the project and keeping working on the EIR as though the path remains the same, but they will check in with the council once more information becomes available.
This was seen as a hybrid approach, where the council didn’t direct the applicant to prepare for two alternatives but it keeps both alternatives alive for now.
While the direction of council seems clear that there is a hard lean against a mixed-use approach, they have not foreclosed that possibility going forward.
—David M. Greenwald reporting