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On Tuesday night the Eureka City Council voted to move forward with a land swap between the city and the Pierson Company, in which the city will trade three publicly owned downtown parking lots for a piece of land near Winco to facilitate the development of affordable housing.
This was the second time the proposed land swap came before the council, and although the council had already voiced overwhelming support for the proposal during its Dec. 22 meeting, it voted 3-2 to postpone the vote for a couple of weeks to give the public more opportunity to comment on the issue.
And many community members – close to a dozen – did comment during Tuesday’s meeting. Many were in support of the land swap, either because they felt the Pierson property is a much better location for housing or because they did not want the downtown businesses to lose parking. Others were adamantly against the proposal, saying that they felt the downtown parking lots were more desirable for low-income housing.
The three downtown parking lots the City is swapping
Tom Wheeler of the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) said he is opposed to the land swap, largely because it will take the three parking lots off the table for future housing developments. If the City were to retain the parking lots then the Pierson property would likely be developed into housing anyway, Wheeler argued, mentioning that the Pierson Company had previously submitted plans to the City to develop housing there.
While there is nothing in the agreement to prevent the parking lots from being used for housing developments in the future, it seem likely that the land swap will result in the parking lots remaining parking lots. The Pierson Company will own the three lots initially, but the intent is for Redwood Capital Bank to lease and eventually purchase them from the company. Jennifer Budwig from Redwood Capital Bank said during the meeting that the bank has no intention of developing the lots and wants to retain them as parking for their own and other nearby businesses.
Some land swap opponents – including the Coalition for Responsible Transportation Priorities (CRTP) and Vernon Price, a local advocate for the homeless – have threatened litigation against the City, saying that the action would violate the City’s Housing Element, the Surplus Land Act and the No Net Loss Law. (You can read the letter sent to the City by Northern California Legal Services on behalf of CTRP and Price here.)
City Manager Miles Slattery addressed the letter during the meeting, saying that the land swap plan has been vetted by the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) and will not violate any of the mentioned laws.
Slattery also addressed several other concerns previously brought up by the community, including the number of units that could be built on each site, the property value of the parking lots versus the Pierson property, and the different properties’ proximity to services. Slattery said that the three parking lots combined could only hold 65 housing units, whereas the Pierson property would be able to hold 104 units. As far as property values, Slattery said that the three downtown lots have an estimated value of $718,000 while the Pierson property is valued at about $2.9 million.
Addressing the locations of the properties in relation to services, Slattery told the council that the Pierson property is closer to a grocery store, a pharmacy, local parks, schools and a community garden than any of the three downtown properties.
The property that the Pierson Company is swapping with the City.
In the end, the council voted 4-1 to approve the land swap. The dissenting vote came from Councilmember Leslie Castellano, who had concerns over the City giving up the three pieces of downtown property, essentially allowing them to be maintained as parking instead of developed into housing.
“The point of the Housing Element is not to fill in a bunch of numbers on a page. The point is to increase the overall housing in our community,” Castellano said prior to the vote. “To that point I think we’re actually undermining our efforts in this.”
The other four councilmembers did not agree and felt that the Pierson property is a safer and more suitable location for housing – especially for families – and that development of the Pierson site would yield more housing units than development of the parking lots.
“What’s more important to me about this whole conversation is not, frankly, parking,” Councilmember Natalie Arroyo said during the meeting. “It’s how many units we can get out of available land and how much flexibility we have with the design of that so that it meets the goals of the City of Eureka.”