VMU Changes Won’t Happen Anytime Soon
Wednesday April 20th, 2022 by Jo Clifton
Without taking a vote, city council members decided during Tuesday’s business session that they would postpone Thursday’s vote on the most recent proposals to improve affordability options in the zoning category known as the vertical mixed use name, or VMU, and the new category VMU2. Mayor Steve Adler proposed a discussion at Council’s business session on May 17 and a vote at Council’s meeting on June 16, just before Council takes its summer break.
Adler suggested that he and his colleagues discuss the proposed changes ahead of that vote, as well as hold public meetings to hear community feedback.
Last fall, council member Ann Kitchen pitched the idea of allowing increased height, perhaps up to 90 feet, in exchange for additional affordable housing along city corridors. Council approved a resolution in November backing the changes and asked the Planning Commission to make recommendations.
The planning commissioners set up a working group to present the recommendations to their colleagues and forward them to council. Members of the commission had serious disagreements over possible changes to the compatibility requirements, and this will likely be the main sticking point when the order comes before the Board.
As approved by the Planning Commission last month, VMU1 would have slightly increased requirements for affordable units, but would maintain the current height limit of 60ft. VMU2 would require additional affordable units while allowing developers to build up to 90 feet.
Council member Chito Vela proposed that VMU2 developers be exempted from parking requirements as well as compatibility requirements so buildings could theoretically be considerably closer to single-family homes.
Kitchen’s response, as she pointed out on the Municipal council bulletin board, was to propose a “substitute to allow for future discussions related to compatibility along the transit corridors and to align with the Acuña decision”. This court case established that the city must announce changes to the city’s zoning bylaws and give property owners the right to protest those changes.
Kitchen wrote: “My replacement is establishing a public zoning process required for all future VMU2 development. Ensuring a public process, as is currently the case with the VMU program, continues to engage the community in ensuring affordability along our corridors.
Although the item is on Thursday’s Council agenda, Adler has made it clear that he will not be taking comments on the substance of the proposed changes, only on the postponement this week.
Kitchen and council member Kathie Tovo posed various questions to Assistant City Attorney Patricia Link regarding neighbors’ protest rights related to city code changes and individual zoning changes. Kitchen said he was concerned about the violation of state law in light of the decision requiring the city to allow neighbors to protest the passing of a new land development code.
As currently proposed, landowners could protest changes to the code, including the establishment of the new VMU category. In a case of regular zoning, the owner of the property or surrounding owners can protest against a zoning change. If 20% of owners protest, that triggers the requirement for a three-quarters vote to approve the change.
However, to change the code to VMU or VMU2, the number of landowners for each proposed site would be aggregated across the city, making it much more difficult to reach 20%. “Because this would be a text amendment, the denominator would be 20% of properties that have a V designation today,” Link said.
Kitchen proposes to create the zoning category but not designate any particular property as VMU2. A developer should go through the VMU2 zoning application process on an individual basis. It is unclear what support this idea has within the Council. Some of Kitchen’s colleagues, particularly Vela and Board members Pio Renteria and Natasha Harper-Madison, stressed the need to move quickly, and Kitchen’s amendment would prevent the Board from designating a property as VMU2.
Vela talked about tenants in her neighborhood who were being evicted and couldn’t find another apartment to rent. “The situation is really critical. I think all of our housing indicators are very negative right now. We talk about rent increases, we talk about assessment increases, we talk about vacancy rates… I just hope that our reaction and our response as Council to the housing crisis we are facing, as a member of the Council (Vanessa) Fuentes noted, corresponds to the magnitude of the crisis. I think unfortunately the time for small changes and adjustments has come and gone.
Council member Leslie Pool is on vacation and did not attend Tuesday’s meeting.
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