HomeCity Government NewsCouncil OKs Plan to Replace Affordable Units With New Build

Council OKs Plan to Replace Affordable Units With New Build

The Glendale City Council voted on Aug. 15 to sustain the Planning Commission’s approval of a construction project at 246 N. Jackson St., which will demolish an existing three-unit multifamily building with affordable rent and replace it with a new three-story rental building with 10 market-rate units and one mandated affordable housing unit.
With Councilmembers Elen Asatryan, Ardy Kassakhian and Ara Najarian voting yes on the project and Councilwoman Paula Devine and Mayor Dan Brotman voting no, issues of ethics and city staff’s communication practices were brought to the dais.
Grant Michals, president of the Glendale Homeowners Coordinating Council, requested the Council deny the Planning Commission’s approval of the project and resubmit a density bonus application with additional units of affordable housing.
According to the city staff’s report to the Council, the project qualifies as a density bonus project because “the project provides at least 5% of the total units (not including the density bonus units) of the housing development for very low-income households.” Without the bonus that allows the building to have 11 units, its natural base density is seven units, which exempts it from the city’s Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance that requires 15% of buildings with eight or more units to be designated to low-income households, according to the report.
Cassandra Pruett, a senior planner with the city of Glendale and the case planner for this appeal, said that in addition to the four bonus units, the project’s density bonus allows for reduced parking, incentives such as increased height and stories, and waivers for relief from code standards.
Catherine Jurca, who presented the reasonings behind Michals’ request for appeal, referenced state law regarding density bonuses.
“If units were subject to a form of local price or rent control within the last five years, the city can require that they all be replaced with affordable units even if those units were occupied by people who had more than low incomes,” Jurca said, adding that Glendale is able to do this through its Rental Rights Program.
She went on to say that Glendale has a “moral obligation to demand as much affordable housing as you can get.” Jurca also raised concerns over the project’s lot size calculation, which she said relied on an old easement to calculate the base density, which “violates municipal code.”
Bruce Merritt, who during public comment identified himself as a “recovering lawyer” with experience representing and suing government agencies, echoed Jurca’s point about the project’s lot size calculation regarding easements.
“The mere fact that staff was willing to go along with this creative way of giving up an old easement, secretly — it was never disclosed until it was forced to be brought out by this appeal — that was an obvious evasion of the intent of the statute which is that old easements are not to be counted as part of the lot size,” Merritt said.
Jurca went on to criticize the Planning Hearing Officer review process and asserted the project was given special treatment and excess incentives and waivers.
During her presentation, Jurca referenced an email regarding the project and its designer, Art Simonian, sent from Pruett to her supervisor Erik Krause, the city’s deputy director of community development and planning. The appellants requested the email be included as part of the city staff’s report under examination of the appeal.
In November 2021, Pruett wrote in her email: “I agreed to do two other things to give him special treatment and got his agreement. I don’t think it’s OK that he just calls you to go around whatever I tell him. It just enables him. He already agreed to play ball with our preference. Why can’t we hold him to that?”
Simonian denied any special treatment during the Council meeting and said this project was by far the hardest experience of his career. He added that the project is the perfect example of a density bonus project.
Merritt, along with other public speakers, also raised concerns over the ethics and alleged “special treatment” of the project.
“I don’t think I’ve seen a situation where members of a bureaucracy or government agency have bent over backwards as much as they have in this case,” he said. “You cannot read that record and believe that the primary motivation of the staff in this matter was to advance the position or interest of the city of Glendale or the people of Glendale.”
Public commenter Mary-Lynne Fisher, the president of the Crescenta Valley Neighborhood Association, agreed with Jurca.
“For the myriad reasons stated so eloquently by Catherine Jurca, this project needs to be redone to ensure that in the very least, the city gets as much as it’s giving away,” she said. “It offends me the sheer hypocrisy of allowing a developer to demolish a building with three naturally affordable units and replace it with only one.”
Richard McDonald, the attorney speaking on behalf of the developer, said that the appellant’s claims did not provide substantial legal-based evidence to deny the project.
“For the appellant to come in and say, ‘the process is wrong’ is looking at this through the wrong end of the telescope,” he said. Najarian agreed with McDonald’s sentiments, calling the project “beautiful.”
While Devine recognized that city staff has “all the answers to the legality of this,” she found issue with the ethics involved.
“I totally understand the perception of impropriety by residents. I think the emails were damning. Some of the decisions that were made were shocking to me as well,” Devine said. “There are ethical questions to be asked … We need to adhere to and not spin or bend or bargain with the laws and our codes.”
Devine suggested a compromise. Currently the building has three one-bedroom units renting for $1,500 per month. The new project will include one affordable two-bedroom unit for $709 per month. Devine asked that the building include two affordable units: a two-bedroom for $1,500 and a one-bedroom for $700.
Simonian replied that starting a negotiation with developers would set a “terrible” precedent and that the building would not work with two affordable units. “No way, not going to work.”
Brotman, who voted in favor of the appeal, expressed concern over the project in January 2022. Jurca presented an email sent from the mayor to Philip Lanzafame, the city’s director of community development at the time.
“Essentially the developer is getting the benefits of the density bonus and we are losing two affordable units,” Brotman wrote. “Something seems broken here. Do we have any discretion with this?”
Herbert Molano, a public commenter who said he owns a building 500 feet from the project site, said the current building is an “eyesore.” He also said that he believes halting this project would be short-term thinking as opposed to long-term thinking.
“If we want lower rents or sustainable housing, we need to build … and the more housing that we build the better it is for everybody,” Molano said, adding that this project provides more housing units overall.
Kassakhian noted that he believed there were good points on both sides before eventually voting to deny the appeal with the request that the way city staff conducts communications with developers be examined in the future. Asatryan also expressed concerns about staff’s communication practices, while also stating the importance of not pushing away local developers during a growing housing crisis.
City Manager Roubik Golanian noted that these were valid concerns, and that the city would take a deeper look at their practices.

First published in the August 26 print issue of the Glendale News-Press.

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