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Council’s rejection of easement puts future of Larkin Place in limbo

by Steven Felschundneff | steven@claremont-courier.com

The Claremont City Council delivered a setback to the developer seeking to build affordable housing for formerly homeless people by denying Jamboree Housing Corporation’s bid for an easement across Larkin Park.

During a meeting that ended two hours into Wednesday morning, the council rejected, by a 3-2 vote, the proposed 24 foot by 275 foot easement across the easternmost parking lot at the park. Councilmembers Corey Calaycay and Sal Medina as well as Mayor Pro Tem Ed Reece voted no.

“Throughout the community outreach and development process of Larkin Place, we have been inspired by the passionate support for Jamboree and our development by the majority of Claremont residents. Additionally, we are grateful for the diligence and expertise provided by city staff,” said Marissa Feliciano, director marketing and communications for Jamboree.

“At the city council meeting on June 28, it became clear that several city council members have demonstrated willingness to violate state housing law. Nonetheless, Jamboree will continue to work with the supporters of Larkin Place as we pursue our mission of creating safe, affordable, and just housing opportunities,” she said.

The easement was an integral part of the “preferred site plan” which incorporated gradual increases of the building’s mass from two to four stories, and featured open spaces for residents to gather as well as common terraces. The easement would have allowed future tenants to access a rear parking lot from the existing lot at the park, negating the need for a long driveway on the property.

In exchange for the easement, Jamboree agreed to make about $700,000 in improvements to the parking lot at Larkin Park, including widening the existing driveway, constructing a turnaround at the north end, installing five light standards and resurfacing and restriping the lot.

Linda Mawby of Safe and Transparent Claremont, the main opposition group to Larkin Place, said the organization objects to the easement because it would create a hazard for people using the park.

“The safety of our seniors and children is more important than the aesthetics of a building,” Mawby said, referring to the alternate site plan that some have called “the box.”

Jamboree has proposed building a 33-unit permanent supportive and affordable housing development consisting of nine studio and twenty-three one-bedroom apartments, as well as a two-bedroom on-site manager’s unit. Future residents would be extremely low-income people, those who earn at or below 30% of the area median, who are either currently or in danger of becoming homeless. In addition, tenants will have some type of disability which could include mobility issues, autism, post traumatic stress disorder, mental disease or addiction issues.

On January 25, the city council voted 4-1 to provide Jamboree with a $1.5 million loan from its Successor Housing Fund to help pay for Larkin Place. A day later, the preferred site plan, including the easement, was approved by the Claremont Architectural Commission.

“The approved design utilizing the access easement allows for a superior design of the proposed development through improved massing and scale, increased open space, and increased landscaped areas,” according to the staff report prepared by City Manager Adam Pirrie.

But three city councilmembers did not see it that way, with Calaycay voicing opposition early into the hearing about the building’s height at four stories. He referred to a recent survey conducted by the city which found that many residents say they value Claremont’s small town feel. He called approving a four-story building a “slippery slope” that could lead to more large structures in town.

Calaycay said he was not going to have his vote hijacked by the state, referring to the “by-right” status of the project and a letter sent to the City of Claremont from the California Department of Housing and Community Development, commonly called HCD, warning that a denial of the easement could violate state affordable housing law.

City warned denial of easement could break state law

“Because the easement was imposed as a condition of approval for the project, the denial of the easement may equate to the disapproval of the project. As defined in the [Housing Accountability Act,] the “disapproval” of a housing development project includes not only an outright disapproval of that project, but also includes “any required land use approvals or entitlements necessary for the issuance of a building permit,” Shannan West housing accountability unit chief with HCD said in the letter.

The city’s special legal counsel, Thomas Clark, disagreed with West’s assessment because the easement was not an existing access way and the agreement between the city and Jamboree involved considerable negotiation and a complete reworking of the parking lot.

“It’s completely discretionary and I believe HCD probably didn’t have all of the facts when they opined, and I think with those facts they would conclude that it’s not subject to the Housing Accountability Act,” Clark said.

Claremont City Attorney Alisha Patterson had to recuse herself because Jamboree is also a client of her law firm, Rutan & Tucker.

One of the most contentions aspects of Larkin Place has been its status as by-right, meaning many of the decisions about what gets built are out of local control. Jamboree officials, including Chief Development Officer Michael Massie, have long maintained the company prefers by-in over by-right. However, the company has recently confirmed the by-right status of Larkin Place, and repeated that assertion during the council meeting Tuesday.

“The by-right statements by Jamboree are yet another example of how they have shifted their stance. They were very willing to portray being ‘a good neighbor’ and not considering this or any of their projects ‘by-right’ as stated at one of their community meetings; yet, when this is jeopardized, their position changes,” Mawby of Safe and Transparent Claremont said.

Council debate on the easement

During deliberations, Medina focused on the disparity between the process for approving the Village South Specific Plan, which took years and included ample public input, and Larkin Place which to his view seemed to be pushed through.

“Does a four story-project with difficult transportation accessibility fit the neighborhood where we are at? And whether it does or doesn’t, again was that process circumvented for the development to make its way through? I will try to choose my word wisely here. Village South, we don’t seem to have the same benefit to that developer. That development seems to have a very long process, a very extended process [and a] high level of communication, he said.

“You are right, [about] Village South Specific Plan, that was years and years of community involvement. But that was developing a specific plan, all with changing the zoning from industrial to mixed use. So, [Larkin Place] is not a zone change and so that is part of what makes it completely not the same,” Councilmember Jennifer Stark responded.

Reece said he struggled to make his decision, including losing sleep. He listened to others including city staff and the developer, even conducting his own research by going to Larkin Park to observe the parking lot at peak times and came to the conclusion that it was not safe to have it be a driveway for a housing project.

“The baseline facts here are that this project is by-right. It is a further baseline fact that at some point in the future there is going to be affordable housing at 731 Harrison. That is a baseline fact. Whether we approve this easement or deny it, Jamboree is going to build housing there,” Mayor Jed Leano said.

Mayor Leano expressed empathy for how his colleagues might feel about the state housing laws making their job more difficult. However, he emphasized the council needed to be clear about what the possible consequences of its action might be.

“The result of us not liking the state housing law and not granting this easement is [that] we get a rectangular box on Harrison Avenue. And is that okay with you?” Leano asked.

After the council voted the easement down, the room erupted in cheers from opponents of Larkin Place. However, their celebration may be short as Jamboree shifts its focus to alternate site plans and moves forward.

Asked for clarification Wednesday morning, legal counsel Clark confirmed that Jamboree could simply select the alternate plan and proceed with the development without any further entitlement process. Tuesday’s public hearing could be the last time the city gets to weigh in before ground breaks on Larkin Place, as long as the project is objectively compliant with state law and the city does not present any public health and safety findings to the state.

The legal standard for proving a project poses public health and safety hazards that cannot be mitigated is quite high, and city staff have maintained since the first hearing that the city cannot meet that requirement.

On Wednesday, Community Development Director Brad Johnson said that if Jamboree came back with a revised plan for a four-story building, the city would still like to have the architectural commission weigh in on the project, and that most applicants will be agreeable to that request.

“They could dig their heels in and say it needs to be done at a staff level, but most [developers] want to work with the city so they go through our process,” Johnson said.

That said, a project that complies with the general plan, as this one does, is limited to five hearings under state law, and Larkin Place has been reviewed three times.

“We still have hope the project can change from the target population of chronically homeless to homeless seniors, families, or transitional age youth. Jamboree has stated that approximately 60-70% of the chronically homeless that will likely be placed are single men. We struggle to understand how this population is a ‘good fit’ in this location next to a children’s play area. We also hope that if Jamboree does not get their funding, Pilgrim Place would be willing to do a smaller program that allows for local control like CHAP or Crossroads,” Mawby said.

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