The Coast News Group

Finding just the right height for high-density housing proves challenging

ENCINITAS — As Encinitas attempts to get in compliance with state housing laws, the city must decide what high-density housing should look like within its boundaries — and height is both the main consideration and sticking point.

The City Council met on May 23 to continue discussions on the proposed development standards, with its consultants, outside legal counsel and housing task force members weighing in.

The main change that has to be implemented to pass muster with the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) is increased unit density. Encinitas plans to adopt new zoning on selected parcels that allows for 25 to 30 dwelling units to be built on one acre.

In order to hit the moving target of supplying about 1,300 units of very low- and low-income housing, the city must decide how it will balance that state requirement against the reality that developers in Encinitas typically have built complexes that are 85 to 90 percent market rate and 10 to 15 percent affordable.

Brenda Wisneski, development services director, said a feasibility study would have to be completed to gauge whether the city could reasonably require a 25-percent-affordable or similar stipulation per development, an idea floated during the meeting.

Regardless of the percentage of affordable versus market-rate units built, in order to fit 25 to 30 units on one net acre developers would generally need to build three stories, which was also HCD’s direction.

City consultant Dave Barquist recommended three stories, with each one consisting of 9-foot or higher ceilings. Buildings with pitched roofs could go up to 37 total feet in height, while flat-roofed complexes with parapets could be 33 feet tall.

Barquist based those suggestions on “creating architectural variety … so you don’t get the same cookie-cutter type of thing” throughout the city.

The Encinitas Planning Commission had suggested a cap of 34 feet. As housing task force member Bruce Ehlers noted, the people who voted against Measure T — a housing-density plan that failed at the 2016 ballot — want 30 feet maximum. “That could cause a good portion of them to go against this,” he said.

The proposed Housing Element will go before voters this November with high stakes attached. If the city does not get an approved, state-compliant housing plan in place, it could face more legal troubles and fees. Hanging in the balance is the fate of two lawsuits filed against Encinitas by the Building Industry Association of San Diego County and San Diego Tenants United.

Mayor Catherine Blakespear expressed concerns at the meeting about imposing restrictive height requirements that could detract from the quality of the developments. She explained that she didn’t want short ceilings or height regulations that would force people to have air-conditioning units on their balconies instead of the roof.

Blakespear said, “That’s the kind of thing that really impacts people. I want them to have storage space. I want them to have a place to park. I want it to be a nice place. To me, we’ve already made a lot of concessions by not going to four or five stories, which would have made getting the density a lot easier.”

According to Barquist, HCD wants to see the city’s proposed development standards to ensure that height, parking and other requirements do not impose “an undue burden on the creation of affordable housing.”

The proposed development standards will continue to be discussed and refined before going before the City Council again on June 20.