Community split emerges over environmental, aesthetic, and traffic problems from potential construction
For many Acalanes students, the breathtaking view of Mount Diablo at the top of Deer Hill Road is a highlight of the morning route to school. However, the request for city approval for an apartment complex construction project that would threaten this view has sparked a citywide controversy, dividing many Lafayette residents, businesspeople, and leaders into two factions.
“I love driving over Deer Hill Road in the mornings on the way to school because it [offers] an incredible view of Lafayette and Mount Diablo. Sometimes I even walk up there because it is so beautiful. I’m worried that the new apartments might ruin the views and make it less peaceful around school,” said sophomore Jared Finney.
Such community-wide love of the beautiful scenery across from Acalanes has contributed to controversy regarding the construction of a new apartment complex that would occupy the land on the hillside and the empty strip of land diagonal from Acalanes High School, commonly known as the Christmas tree lot.
The project application for the complex, called “Terraces of Lafayette,” was first filed with the city of Lafayette on March 21, 2011 by the O’Brien Land Company, and since then it has faced notable opposition.
The company believes that the apartments will bring affordable housing to Lafayette in a location that is close to the city’s largest employer: Acalanes Union High School District (AUHSD). The apartments are conveniently located near public transportation and downtown Lafayette. Many residents, however, feel that the project is threatening Lafayette’s quaint, semi-rural charm and are concerned about the project’s environmental impacts, blocked views of Mount Diablo, and potential for added traffic on Pleasant Hill Road.
“The proposed Terraces project is inconsistent with the city general plan, defies local and state environmental protection standards, and would significantly add to traffic problems to one of the most traffic-impacted intersections in the city,” said Lafayette resident Karen Zemelmen, creator of the Facebook page “Stop the Terraces of Lafayette.” “The project’s Environmental Impact Report prepared by the City of Lafayette’s consultant identified 52 significant environmental impacts if the project were to proceed, many of which are unavoidable regardless of mitigations deployed.”
The proposed project consists of 315 rental apartments spread throughout fourteen buildings, including a leasing office and 569 parking spots on the 22.27-acre site. If the project is approved, it will be the largest apartment complex in Lafayette.
Norm Dyer, the architect who designed the plans, believes that the project will have a tremendously positive impact on Lafayette, particularly for lower-income families.
“As an architect, my main goal is to provide quality aesthetic and environmental design that meets the owner’s objectives within the marketplace,” said Dyer. “Good architecture must be economically viable while integrating art, technology, and environmental concerns along with legal and political realities. The main objective of the project is to provide much-needed affordable housing in Lafayette, located close to employment, education, and shopping.”
The project site lists three different floor plans with a range of anticipated rents. The one-bedroom option has an anticipated rent ranging from $1,750-$2,150, the two-bedroom $1,950-$2,450, and the three-bedroom $2,150-$2,700. The rooms will range from 750-1,290 square feet.
Many Lafayette residents oppose the plan and have worked to ensure it will not be approved at the city level. Approving the Lafayette Terraces project has been particularly complicated and laborious because of local controversy stemming from the project’s location.
“There have been three public meetings as part of the environmental review process,” said Special Project Manager Ann Meredith, the city staff member responsible for processing the project application. “Environmental review is the first step in the planning process, and it is regulated by CEQA [California environmental Quality Act]. Except for staff recommending the complication of an Environmental Impact Report [EIR], the City has not taken any position on the proposed project.”
The Final Environmental Impact Report lists fourteen significant and unavoidable impacts including air quality, traffic, and aesthetic and visual resources. It is a significant step in the process toward approval by the City.
However, David Baker, who is in charge of obtaining permits for The O’Brien Land Company, claims the report has some inconsistencies.
“The EIR consultant originally came out with the only significant impact being [the removal of] the old oak tree, which we could have been easily mitigated by eliminating one building,” said Baker. “But the city staff rewrote the EIR so that it included more impacts.”
Meredith disagrees with Baker’s statements and feels that the report was compiled fairly and accurately.
“The EIR was prepared by EIR professionals, The Planning Center and an outside consultant company called DC&E. City staff provided information where needed regarding existing city policy. City staff did not prepare the EIR nor overrule the conclusions of the EIR professionals.”
Regardless of the report, Lafayette residents have exhibited strong criticism of the proposal and have been voicing their complaints at town meetings and on social media sites.
“Many people, particularly residents in the area, have expressed their concerns about the project’s potential impacts on traffic, air quality, public services, and other issues,” said Meredith.
There have been petitions, Facebook pages, and websites dedicated to defeating this proposal. This was no surprise to the O’Brien Land Company, who expected this to be a controversial proposal in Lafayette.
“We know [in] an affluent city like Lafayette [that] we have a lot of affluent people that tend not to like anything pretty much, so we knew going in that that was going to be an issue, especially a multi-family project,” said Baker.
Zemelman opposes this project for many reasons, including traffic concerns. Part of her problem with the apartments is the project’s proposed location, which may ruin the area’s character.
“The quality of life that Lafayette residents value will be forever altered by a few non-residents that are looking to make a lot of money,” said Zemelman. “The project proponents have advertised in the local press that The Terraces is sustainable and brings environmental benefits. Unfortunately, once you look past the pleasing copy and read more about the project, you find that it is misleading green washing designed to make greenbacks. Don’t be suckered by a large developer’s marketing materials.”
Residents also rallied against the project by signing an online petition that has collected 769 signatures. The goal of the petition is to convince the city staff members to block the project and instead follow through on a separate zoning project introduced three years ago. In April of 2010, the city voted to rezone the same property to allow for one home per five acres, resulting in a maximum of four homes on the 22 acre parcel. The city failed to finalize the permit before the Terraces of Lafayette project was proposed.
Of all these issues, traffic has been the greatest concern of residents and commuters, who fear the project will increase congestion on Pleasant Hill Road.
Sophomore Ryan Ericksen worries that the added buildings will make accessibility to school more difficult due to traffic.
“I wouldn’t like a big apartment complex because traffic is already bad enough on Pleasant Hill Road, and with added construction and living complexes, it would just make it worse,” said Ericksen.
David Baker, who is in charge of all the entitlement work for The O’Brien Land Company, feels that there is more to the traffic issue than most Lafayette residents understand. He claims that the project planned to add an additional lane that would solve the traffic problem, but the city declined this proposition.
“We pretty much solved the traffic issue, by adding an additional southbound lane along the frontage of the project on Pleasant Hill road. The staff told the EIR consultant to basically say we can’t build that extra lane because there’s a city policy that they want congestion there, because they want to slow people down from traveling through,” he said.
Aside from traffic, another concern is that the apartments may pose a safety threat to students going to Acalanes. Acalanes parent Ashok Aneja, father of sophomore Sunil Aneja and junior Sasha Aneja, explained why he has trepidation about apartments near the high school.
“It can increase crime and it is a security risk. There will be so many people that there is always something going on, which will impact the school and I can see that if that happens the school will become more gated. I can picture metal detectors. I don’t want to see all that-it would be like having a school in San Francisco instead of the suburbs.”
Dyer has seen four of his children graduate from Acalanes and has one currently attending, and he expressed that he does not have an issue with apartments going up near the high school.
“As a parent and a professional planner, I see no problem with apartments adjacent to the high school. I do a lot of planning work and if I were to design a city from the ground up, I would place higher-density housing around schools. Apartments are more noise and traffic tolerant than single-family homes. Starting teachers and staff are more likely to live in apartments. To the extent that apartment dwellers have lower socioeconomic status, I welcome and embrace the diversity that it would bring to my son’s school.”
There have been several concerns regarding how the project will directly affect Acalanes High School. An addition of 53 or more students would exceed Acalanes High School’s capacity, according to Acalanes Union High School District Associate superintendent Chris Learned, so an influx of students from the new apartments could push Acalanes over the edge.
The EIR goes on to state that the declining enrollment in other schools in the district could accommodate the excess students through transfers. The report concludes that there will be no need for Acalanes to expand and “therefore, the impacts to AUHSD would be less than significant.”
“Beginning in 2014-2015, the District’s enrollment is likely to reverse its current decline and grow significantly,” said Learned in a letter to Meredith. “The district does not agree that the impact would be less than significant.”
Suggestions and complaints regarding the EIR have been, in part, what has made it take so long to compile.
Susan Callister, an Acalanes graduate and former Blueprint writer, is a member of both the Lafayette Homeowners Council and the Happy Valley Improvement Association. Callister personally supports the project, but says that her associations are remaining neutral and not releasing opinions. Callister thinks the project will be good for the city and referred to many of the newcomers as “NIMBYs,” an acronym for Not-In-My-Backyard, because many current residents don’t want to have apartments built close to them.
“People say, ‘Yeah, we should have affordable housing, but build it somewhere else,’ and that is a classic,” added Baker. “I’ve learned from every community I go into that people who oppose housing say, ‘Well, I’m not opposed to affordable housing, just don’t build it here.’ ”
Callister also pointed out that support for the project might be greater than it seems because people against it are more vocal.
Another Acalanes graduate, Ann Marie Dettmer, owns the land that would be used for the project, as well as some additional land north of Deer Hill Road. She inherited the land from her father, who purchased it in the 1940s and lived there until he passed away in 2007. She chose the O’Brien Land Company for specific reasons and thinks this project will make good use of the land.
“I chose the O’Brien Land Company because of their experience and reputation for building quality projects and their willingness to design a green development. This is exactly the type of development I had hoped to put on the property and I think it will be a wonderful addition to Lafayette. Over the many years that this property has been in my family, we have received proposals for several different uses, but I have always felt that housing would be the greatest benefit for the community,” she said.
The O’Brien Land Company has the support of the Greenbelt Alliance, the Sierra Club, and the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County, three organizations that wrote letters of endorsement. Baker also claims that they unofficially have the support of all the big unions in the city.
The letters of support all condone the way the environment will be impacted and point out that Lafayette is in need of need of more affordable housing.
Sophomore Christopher Mickas is also supporting the projects because he agrees with Baker that Lafayette needs to expand and be less exclusive.
“I feel that more affordable housing should be encouraged because Lafayette has been usually exclusive to people making a lot of money. More middle class people living here could benefit the city and bring more diversity.”
Almost two years after the project was first proposed, it remains unclear whether it will be approved. Baker is not optimistic that the city will approve it, but she is confident the O’Brien Land Company will get their way eventually.
“I’m pretty sure the city will deny the project, and then we’ll take it to court, and I’m almost 100 percent sure that we’ll prevail in court. Fortunately, we are protected by the Housing Accountability Act. The city will actually have to reimburse us for all of our legal fees, so that’ll probably cost them one million dollars. The law is very clear on our side. But there’s tremendous pressure on the Lafayette city council to turn the project.”
Meredith commented on the possibility of the matter being taken to court.
“Anyone can sue the city over anything,” said Meredith. “However, the city is following its development processing procedures and regulations and is complying with the California Environmental Quality Act. Everything the city is doing and will continue to do is legally sound.”
There will be another Planning Commission meeting on Monday, March 4 at 7:00 pm in the Community Hall at the Lafayette Library and Learning Center, in which residents will have the opportunity to voice their concerns regarding the merits and drawbacks of the project.