A controversial housing development in Santa Cruz set for the location of the Food Bin, a natural food and herb store dating back to the 1970s, will move ahead, following the City Council’s approval of the project and rejection of two community appeals last week.

The project by developer Workbench will entail the demolition of two commercial buildings at 1130/1132 Mission Street and the removal of a heritage tree to develop a five-story, 48-studio-unit housing project with commercial space on the first floor. The Food Bin will move into that space once construction is completed.

The approval followed months of heated debates from both sides, with proponents citing an urgent need for housing and opponents pointing to various flaws within its plans, including miscalculated floor area ratio and setbacks.

Vice Mayor Renee Golder said during the May 28 Council meeting that the project will help to alleviate the housing shortage in the city. However, she noted her concerns with last-minute changes from the developer that alarmed many community members.

“I think moving forward, we need to — and I’m including myself — develop a process where people aren’t finding out about things seven days before they’re getting approved,” she said.

The project was first approved by the Planning Commission in January before it was immediately appealed by two different groups who raised environmental, parking and building code concerns, among others.

In April, Workbench’s revisions included the addition of 11 storage units that could later become accessory dwelling units, thus allowing the developer to gain approval for a project with more units than allowed under the California Density Bonus Law. This law allows a developer to increase the density of units that is typically allowed under the municipal code to address the state’s housing crisis. Due to the last-minute revisions, along with complaints of inaccurate calculations for rear yard setbacks and floor area ratio, the Council postponed its decision until May 28.

Jamileh Cannon, Workbench founding partner and principal architect, acknowledged that changes were made in response to appeals but said her organization had been transparent about those changes. She further noted that state law and interpretation of that law change often.

“We are constantly navigating an ever-changing landscape when we do our work,” she said.

YIMBY-NIMBY conflict

Last week, Councilmembers Sandy Brown and Martine Watkins said they would have rejected the project had it not been for Councilmember Scott Newsome’s compromise of a motion that called for the project to omit the storage units.

Brown further called out the developer and “the YIMBY chorus,” as she called it (Yes In My Backyard), for blaming the appellants for the delays.

“In fact, much of this delay came because the developers submitted false information, false calculations, whether intended or not,” she said.

“It’s kind of disappointing to me as well that our Planning staff did not catch that, and here we are — not because of the resistance to a project, but because of the pushback on trying to get more than legally you get by right under the Density Bonus Law,” she continued. “I just think it’s disrespectful to say we’re NIMBYs if we don’t support whatever a developer wants.”

Prior to the Council’s decision, public opinion on the project was mixed. Proponents said the city urgently needed more housing.

Alex Santiago, first year student at the University of California Santa Cruz, was one of several who spoke in favor of the project.

“Many people who work here commute here — not short commutes, but long commutes — because as it stands, Santa Cruz cannot sustain the people who sustain it,” she said. “The truth of this project is that this land has already been developed. And this is the best thing that we can do for the environment — build housing so the people who keep the city running can actually afford to live in it.”

“Housing without good planning is a disaster. Good planning needs good enforcement.”

James Mueller, Laurel and Cleveland Area Neighbors

On the other hand, those backing the appeals said they were not opposed to housing at the location but rather they were opposed to careless approvals that could harm the community and environment.

Husband and wife Ian and Natasha Guy filed one of the appeals together, alleging the development was not eligible for the parking requirement exemption the applicant sought, since the housing was not close enough to transit.

James Mueller — representing the other appellant group, calling itself Laurel and Cleveland Area Neighbors – said they agreed the project location was a great spot for in-fill housing. However, the only way the project could improve Santa Cruz is if it’s built in compliance.

“Housing without good planning is a disaster. Good planning needs good enforcement,” he said. “Because good, centralized planning — a good planning department, good rules and enforcement of those things — develops great cities that we can be proud of.”