It seems clear that the Democrats who took control of the Carlsbad City Council in November are looking for ways to reconcile the beach-town vibe they love with the larger housing crisis that’s playing out across California.
Last month, Councilwoman Barbara Hamilton pitched her fellow City Council members on a six-month pause in the review process for new projects. In the meantime, she asked officials to reassess the ability of developers to buy their way around the city’s parking and affordable housing requirements.
Hamilton said she was sounding the alarm on the rapid pace of development that primarily benefited wealthier residents and put at risk the character and charm of the Village and Barrio.
Sound an alarm she did. But not in the way she might have expected.
Most of the members of the public at a June 25 meeting expressed opposition to a temporary ban on development in the Village and Barrio. They included pro-housing activists and property owners who argued that a delay would only help push development further away from the city’s core, making traffic worse for everyone while doing nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“You’ve been averaging, for the last seven years, approximately 400 units a year in construction — it’s hardly runaway growth,” Michael McSweeney, senior public policy adviser for the Building Industry Association, told the City Council.
Another speaker pointed to a report by the chief economist for San Francisco, where in 2015 residents considered an 18-month ban on new housing in the Mission District. Before the initiative was defeated at the ballot box, the report concluded that a temporary moratorium would cause rental prices to increase across the city and was unlikely to prevent gentrification, as its supporters claimed.
The bulk of Carlsbad’s housing supply for “very-low income residents” is already located in the Village and Barrio, and according to city staff, those neighborhoods have the highest densities in the city because of their proximity to transit.
Community and economic development director Debbie Fountain also cautioned elected officials at the June 25 meeting that California housing regulators were monitoring their discussion of a temporary moratorium. To declare an emergency of this kind in Carlsbad, officials would need to cite specific and immediate threats to the public health, safety and welfare.
Carlsbad’s politics and priorities are changing. And it seems clear that the Democrats who took control of the City Council in November are looking for ways to reconcile the beach-town vibe they love with the larger housing crisis that’s playing out across California. What we’re witnessing is not necessarily partisan, but it is a clash of values within the coastal liberal establishment as development shifts from open space to existing neighborhoods.
Hamilton and other members of the Council — although they punted the moratorium discussion until later in the summer — have been critical of their predecessors’ approach to planning and want more say over the type of housing that’s being constructed. In the Barrio, for instance, the city’s planning commission has the final authority on housing designs, not the Council.
The document at the center of this conversation is the Village Barrio Master Plan, which took years to craft and involved lots of feedback from consultants and residents. It lays out a vision for both neighborhoods over the next 20 years with an eye on public spaces and mobility, solidifying a 45-foot height limit for new buildings. It includes “a number of grand ideas,” the Union-Tribune reported in 2018, “that could be pursued in the future, such as closing part of Grand Avenue to vehicles and turning [the area] into a pedestrian promenade.”
Councilwoman Cori Schumacher was the lone Council member to vote no on the master plan in 2018. She argued that officials were giving too much leeway to the building industry over the city’s future look and feel. She proposed that developers be limited to 35 feet unless they agreed to include a certain number of affordable units in the overall project. In that case, they could take advantage of the full 45 feet.
Her remarks weren’t enough to sway the other members of the Council at the time.
So far, though, Schumacher has offered the harshest criticism of the moratorium that Hamilton is proposing.
“In the middle of a housing crisis, you can’t say because we’re not hitting the character we want … we want to stop development to reassess,” Schumacher said. “It’s not responsible.”
The city still has control over the things that Hamilton wants to revisit — like parking and affordable housing requirements — so a moratorium wouldn’t accomplish anything, Schumacher argued. But on the bright side, she said, the conversation should “set a precedent” in the community on what the Council wants to see when it comes to affordable housing.
“I still feel a sense of urgency,” Hamilton told her colleagues, but agreed to drop the issue for now. Officials are reviewing the city’s inclusionary housing policy, and the California Coastal Commission is expected to release comments on the Village Barrio Master Plan in August. Hamilton plans to revisit the possibility of a temporary moratorium then.
“I just think we need to be honest about what we’re doing,” she told me Wednesday.
There’s an incongruity, she said, between the values of the community on the one hand, the city’s existing policies and long-term goals, and the larger push across the state to create more housing and better public transit. She noted, for instance, that 80 percent of the new units that Carlsbad is supposed to build are supposed to be located in the Village and Barrio, but that’s not happening. Those new units are on the luxury end.
“My end goal is not to stop development,” she said. “My goal is to mitigate the actual impacts of development in the community, so when we’re done building, we can look back in 10 years and say, ‘Yeah, that’s what we wanted to do,’ and we exercised our local control.”
For what it’s worth: Check out my colleague Lisa Halverstadt’s report about San Diego’s recent changes to its inclusionary housing policy. Progressives had wanted City Council President Georgette Gómez to do away with the fee entirely and force developers to set aside at least 15 percent of units for low-income residents. Instead, she proposed that the city simply increase the fee.