Has the gauntlet finally been thrown down?
Or is it just another false start?
On Tuesday the Manteca City Council did something so extra ordinary that it has to be noted. They rejected approving a new subdivision without hearing a peep from protesting neighbors demanding they do so.
Granted it was only 9 new homes, but they still said “no”. And to make it more of a head turner it was a unanimous vote although Debby Moorhead was not present due to recuperation from a hospital stay.
The subdivision on the southeast corner of Woodward Avenue and Union Road is a small part of the puzzle that has made the area south of the 120 Bypass one of the fastest growing areas for residential development in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. It essentially is a missing piece to complete the existing Blossom Grove Legacy Homes neighborhoods that border the southern side of Woodward Avenue.
Manteca has rejected subdivisions before. Just ask Richland Communities that has tried twice to help the city deliver on its general plan promise to encourage more housing that is attainable for those earning paychecks on this side of the Altamont Pass. In those incidents elected leaders did so after a vocal band of neighbors armed with the proverbial pitch forks and torches descended on the council chambers intent on killing higher density housing in their backyard that wasn't a cookie cutter replica of their McMansions on larger lots.
This time around it was all the doing of the council. Not one neighbor of the 9-home project objected through the entire planning process.
What first caught the council’s attention was the fact three of the nine homes would be facing Woodward Avenue.
Many on the current council have never been a fan of the solution their predecessors came up with to slow traffic down and retain Woodward Avenue as two lanes and not be widened to four west of Main Street as the city envisioned back when Mayor Ben Cantu was on the city payroll as a municipal planner.
The preference clearly is to continue the pattern born in the 1970s of walling off neighborhoods behind sound walls.
Councilman Gary Singh pointed out the housing facing Woodward — even with hammerhead driveways to turn around so they could enter traffic facing forward — has created a dangerous situation especially given how too many drivers confuse Woodward Avenue with the Pomona Raceway Drag Strip. He also added that the newer homes facing Woodward had a higher turnover rate than those located within nearby walled off subdivisions. Singh clearly meant this to say the house buying public isn’t all that wild about the homes although none are vacant.
Instead of completing what he viewed as a mistake that has created an unsafe situation, Singh wanted to eliminate three homes facing Woodward to make what he believed was a much safer project.
Jose Nuño concurred adding that the developer might consider increasing density after his representative indicated an additional street would need to be put in place to make sure the homes didn’t face Woodward Avenue and would likely eliminate the ability to build two of the nine homes.
Council then suggested the developer could opt for a shared private driveway that often have three homes off of them as you see in areas of Lathrop. That has never been done in Manteca because the city doesn’t exactly encourage it.
The developer then noted that neighbors who didn’t object to having more of the same size of housing on similar sized lots being built might have an entirely different opinion about high density housing or a different housing type going next door.
When Cantu essentially suggested that the developer eliminate two homes, put in a road to re-orientate homes that would have faced Woodward and then simply build smaller homes than proposed on the remaining six lots so they could sell for less the developer’s representative — in response to an inquiry about how that would fly — answered the land would likely go undeveloped in such a scenario. It wasn’t a threat as much as it was a concession to the cost of creating developable lots that require being able to retrieve the cost of infrastructure. As such smaller homes on larger lots are contrary to the concept of building attainable houses.
Even though two of the council members jumped on the idea of remaking the project to secure more attainable housing, it isn’t clear that they were willing to dangle carrots to make that happen given they offered no incentive to deviate from the basic bread and butter of Manteca builders of homes more than 2,000 square feet on lots consisting of 7,000 square feet or more.
Whether the developer can pencil out the project to make it work financially remains to be seen.
And if he can’t a section of Woodward Avenue could go for decades without the road widened and sidewalks put in place.
That said the city council, if they are serious about changing development standards, might want to establish new policies first so their wishes are known at the start of the long and winding development approval process and not wait to bring it up at the tail end.
The action the council took Tuesday — assuming they don’t flip flop — bodes well for the chances of the third reincarnation of Richland Communities plan to develop the Hat Ranch property off of Pillsbury Road. At least two council members have staked out a position that would make it hard for them to join forces with the not-in-my-backyard crowd that twice has beaten back efforts to build higher density and smaller housing on the Hat Ranch plan.
Even though the higher density housing is away from existing homes, the plan for land were the granddaddy of all McMansions sits calls for building a concentrated collection of 125 half-plexes or the first time in Manteca for years mixed in with traditional single family homes for 739 overall housing units
As clumsy as the last minute urban planning might have been, the council clearly has a somewhat different take on “getting things right” from their perspective when judging development and city approval of subdivisions than has been done in previous years.
Unless their eagerness to step in and get their hands dirty with planning decisions involving subdivisions was a one shot wonder, the council is going to have a hard time saying no to Richland on the third go around.
A shift in city housing development patterns to make it more attainable to own or rent by those earning paychecks in Manteca and nearby 209 cities has been promised in virtually every council campaign going back 22 years.
Now that we have a retired planner, an affordable housing expert, and a real estate agent on the council there is a breadth of experience that is needed to transform lip service on affordable housing into reality.
The real question is do they have the moxie to make a real push or are they simply culling off the smallest and weakest projects from the rest of the herd to score brownie points with those who see a rising tide of housing development that — in its current form — will drown not just their dreams of owning a home but wipeout chances of them remaining even as renters in Manteca as the city grows toward 120,000 people over the next 30 years.