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City of Santa Ana looking to amend zoning code for future Downtown development

January 11, 2010

From the Orange County Register – City officials are working on a sweeping rewrite of the development rules for Santa Ana’s downtown core that would clear the way for high-rise towers and hundreds of new homes.

The city has not yet released a public draft of the proposal, which would represent an entirely new zoning code that tells developers what they can build, and where. But the city’s director of redevelopment, Cynthia Nelson, said it comes directly from an earlier effort to refashion Santa Ana’s downtown into a more-urban place.

That effort was known as the Renaissance Plan, and it envisioned hundreds of new lofts and apartments sharing space with shops, restaurants and offices. City leaders shelved it nearly two years ago amid growing community opposition and concern that it would zone out some existing property owners.

But city officials have dusted off the zoning code that was at the heart of the plan and, with a few key changes, are now moving ahead with it. The city plans to release a draft as early as next month; the City Council could vote it into place as early as this spring.

“I call it Renaissance Two,” said Sam Romero, a community activist who represents the Logan neighborhood in the downtown area. “We’re going to be vigilant. See what happens.”

The latest proposal keeps many of the big changes that were in the original Renaissance Plan, Nelson said. It would create new development rules for a bustling swath of Santa Ana that includes neighborhoods and business districts, from the city’s train station to the downtown Civic Center.

It would encourage a kind of urban development known as mixed use, in which one building can house shops or eateries on one level, condos or apartments on another. It would, for example, allow property owners downtown to turn the floors above existing shops into new homes.

It would also create a new high-rise district near the train station, just east of downtown. The original Renaissance Plan envisioned towers as tall as 25 stories sprouting from the mostly industrial land there, which would make it the most densely developed part of the downtown area, by far.

The zoning code wouldn’t force those changes, Nelson said; it tells property owners and developers what they can do with their land, not what they must. Even industrial land – which the original plan rezoned for homes – would be allowed to stay as it is under the newer version, she said.

“They seem to be living up to their commitment” to leave industrial land industrial, said Mike Tardif, the owner of Tardif Sheet Metal and a strong voice against the earlier plans to rezone industrial land.

That was one of the most divisive issues with the original Renaissance Plan. The city has also crossed out a proposal to shut a major street into the Logan neighborhood. And, while it still envisions some new open space, such as parks, it no longer pinpoints specific locations, as it did in the original plan.

The city has a reason to be working on a new zoning code. It owns nearly 50 pieces of vacant land in the downtown area, and the new zoning rules will help shape what happens there.

The plan for those lots calls for as many as 155 apartment units, including a possible senior-housing project, and as many as 65 for-sale homes. It also envisions a new park, a small tot lot and a community center, according to a draft description of the project known as the Station District.

City officials also believe a new zoning code will help them compete for federal grants to pay for a proposed streetcar system through the downtown area. Those grants favor more-urban areas with the population and the density to help make a streetcar system pencil out.

The city decided that it could save money and time by reviving the zoning rules developed for the Renaissance Plan, rather that create entirely new rules for the Station District and the streetcar route. “We shouldn’t be starting from scratch,” Nelson said.

By Doug Irving
Orange County Register

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