Planning Commission | Members Recommend Against Building Height Measure

The city must decide whether to put any height increase on the ballot at its next meeting Aug. 5 to get it on the November 3 ballot

FILE PHOTO: Bill Glazier | News | Mission Street during City Event

In a decision that is bound to complicate life for the Planning Department, the city’s Planning Commission during a special meeting Tuesday voted unanimously against recommending the City Council support placing an increase in the 45-foot building height limit on this November’s ballot.

Joanna Hankamer, Director of Planning and Community Development, asked the commission to consider giving the Council recommendations on increasing the height as way to help the city meet the state’s demand that South Pasadena plan to accommodate 2,062 affordable housing units, including 1,151 low income units, 333 moderate income units and 578 “above moderate” income units.

The Planning department has put considerable time and effort into figuring out how the city could accommodate this mandatory target, which is a 3,000 percent increase over 63 units the state demanded in the previous eight-year cycle of the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA).

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Cognizant of how unpopular a city-wide building height increase would be, the planning department and its contractor PlaceWorks, came up with a plan. An estimated 1,136 units could be accommodated through an “aggressive” restructuring of the city’s policies for construction of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and development on vacant lots in town under the pending General Plan and Downtown Specific Plan revisions.

The Department devised several approaches to deal with the remaining 926-unit shortfall: redevelop underutilized lots in downtown and neighborhood centers (370 units); rezone non-residential for multi-family buildings (100 units); rezone open space for multi-family buildings (not recommended); rezone and incentivize single-family neighborhoods to allow multi-family buildings (not recommended); and increase building heights and densities at five specific locations (476 units).

The five sites proposed are the Gold Line storage site at 919 Mission St., the Vons supermarket site on the 1100 block of Fair Oaks Ave., the Ralphs supermarket site and neighborhood center at 1745 Garfield, and two sites in the Ostrich Farm neighborhood including the vacant area at 123 Pasadena Ave. and the Tyco Site at 220 Pasadena Ave. If building heights are raised modestly at these five sites, developments to accommodate up to 542 units could be built.

The Department’s ideas are only briefly summarized here; anyone interested in details should refer to the staff report. Hankamer and the consultant acknowledged that considerably more work would have to be done to establish the viability of using these five sites, including on the receptiveness of the current owners, not all of whom have been consulted. Staff represented that height limits at these five sites could be lifted without running afoul of spot zoning restrictions.

The commissioners puzzled over these and other details at some length. But they were also faced with a short deadline. The city must decide whether to put any height increase on the ballot at its next meeting Aug. 5 to get it on the November 3 ballot. That’s because there is a deadline for the city to finalize its approach as part of the Housing Element in its General Plan by October 2021, or face the prospect of the state coming in an enforcing its own approach to ensure the city will meet the RHNA targets. There was a more parochial time pressure as well because the commission had to wrap up its meeting before the scheduled start of the city’s Transportation commission meeting, since both must use the same teleconferencing line.

As during a City Council meeting last week, commissioners were appalled at the unreasonableness of the 2,026-unit requirement and were inclined to seek ways to appeal or fight it. Council liaison Diana Mahmud sought to warn against that course. While empathizing with the frustration, she reported that her efforts to test the viability of amendment or appeal have shown both unlikely to succeed, while increasing the prospect for even more draconian consequences. “I am very concerned about the ramifications of not providing staff with an opportunity to demonstrate we can meet the RHNA number.”

But commissioners said they needed more information on alternative approaches and the viability of the five-site strategy. Commissioner John Lesak said while staff did a good job presenting information, he felt rushed and did not understand how the RHNA numbers were developed. “This is not a good time to do this. There needs to be more outreach” to the community as well, he added. There are unanswered questions about how adding all these new units will affect the school district and the city’s water, sewer, and other infrastructure.

Commissioner Laura Dahl supported a “strategic increase in heights” but said the matter had not been thought through well enough to be put on the ballot or to sufficiently educate voters. Commissioner Richard Tom agreed.

Commissioner Lisa Padilla said the only way she could recommend the Council to proceed is if the ballot language were written to preserve considerable flexibility on height, density and the sites involved.

Chair Janet Braun told the commissioners they had 7 minutes left to decide. She summed up the sentiment by saying the group was not ready to put the matter on the 2020 ballot. While supportive of the staff’s efforts there needs to be more consideration of the consequences for density, infrastructure, and other impacts.

“We are generally supportive” of the staff approach, Lesak added, “but need more information on ripple effects.”


Ben Tansey
Ben Tansey is a journalist and author. He grew up in the South Bay and is a graduate of Evergreen State College. He worked in Washington State as a reporter in a rural timber community and for many years as an editor for a Western electric energy policy publication based in Seattle.