The Merced City Council on Monday night denied an appeal made against a proposed apartment complex designed for college students near UC Merced, and approved the project “with modifications” after months of hearings, continued meetings and arguments by lawyers representing residents and developers.
At the heart of the debate are plans for a 214-unit housing center, with 22,000 square feet of retail space, and 14,000 square feet of office space on a nearly 6-acre lot located at the southeast corner of McKee Road and Yosemite Avenue. It would have four buildings, with two 2-story wings, and two 3-story wings.
The vote was 4-2, with Mayor Mike Murphy and Councilman Fernando Echevarria voting no. Councilman Kevin Blake recused himself from the vote because he lives near the project site.
The council decision came with the stipulation that staff formalize findings for project approval with 1) the number of apartments reduced to a maximum of 200 units; 2) confirmation that a planned roof deck was redesigned with various protections to significantly reduce its visibility from nearby neighborhoods; and 3) a stretch of McKee along the borders of the project widened to improve traffic flow.
It’s not clear that the developers — represented by Raj Joshi and Joe Englanoff — will agree to terms after the findings are formalized and signed off by the council at an upcoming meeting; however, on Monday night their lawyer Elisa Paster signaled they would be willing to reduce the number of units. They were down to 207 with an offer during the meeting.
It’s also not clear whether the lawyer, Richard Harriman, who represents resident Casey Steed, will continue legal action against the developer, and/or the city. The appeal was also supported by a group called Merced Smart Growth Advocates and the San Joaquin Valley Environmental Defense Center.
Criticism of the project from several residents included the points that: 1) There were sewage capacity issues that require the need for special on site pumping and a holding tank; 2) A likelihood of increased traffic congestion on both McKee and Yosemite, along with safety issues; 3) Inadequate parking on site; and 4) Unclear projections on UC Merced growth and how the housing project will be used years into the future.
Former City Council member Michael Belluomini was also vocal in his opposition, writing an Op-Ed in this newspaper, and coming up with his self-titled “Belluomini Alternative” — a proposed solution to limit the number of units per acre to 24, or a total of 144 apartments. He also said the project is inconsistent with the city’s zoning ordinance and state law on housing.
A few years ago, the site was approved for commercial development as a retail site. When the developer changed the plans to a housing project is when the opposition began. Housing plans were developed with the help of staff last year, and the initial project was granted a conditional use permit by the Planning Commission in January. An appeal by Steed came shortly after, and matters eventually came before the City Council in May.
Steed, who lives near the project site, has said the plan is way too dense for the location. He denies any sort of neighborhood nimbyism is at play in any way.
Paster, the lawyer for the developer, pointed out that there have been six public hearings — “a very robust process” — and developers have responded to public concerns, modified the project and reduced the number of units.
Before Monday night’s vote, Councilman Matt Serratto spoke candidly: “Do we want to see this thing happen or not?” he asked. “You look at us as a city, and we need apartments more than anything. We need housing like crazy. Right now we have less than a one-month housing supply. Our rents are going up. We have this unbalanced housing market, that with supply and demand being so out of whack right now, rents are artificially raised. A lot of people are in danger of getting priced out. We are hearing affordability concerns coming up, over and over again, and the No. 1 reason for that is the lack of apartments. It’s not our fault. We have approved many, many projects. But they haven’t been built yet. From a citywide standpoint, we need housing and affordable units as rents go up.”
Serratto added that Yosemite is a “natural student housing corridor” but that idea is causing friction with an older neighborhood that has been accustomed to being on the “outskirts of town.”
Councilman Anthony Martinez supports the project, but he links the trouble the city has been having over the plan to issues of “implicit bias” with regard to how projects are approved or denied in north Merced as compared to projects in south Merced.
He mentioned a decision by the council to approve a liquor license in his southern district was quickly “rubber stamped” despite opposition from local residents, but … “Why is it that a grad student housing project, almost as close to the UC as we can get within the city limits, takes almost a year to deliberate?”
He added that the Grove Apartments affordable housing project in his district also was met with fears by residents some 20 years ago, but today remains a viable source of housing for families and has led to other developments in the area.
Tremendous dialogue over BLM controversy
In the longest meeting of the year so far, the City Council decided after midnight Monday to deny a request to place a Black Lives Matter “street mural” in downtown Merced.
The council voted 5-2, with council members Anthony Martinez and Jill McLeod voting “No.” Leaders also sent a draft “Public Art Policy” back to the Arts and Culture Advisory Commission for further review.
The proposed street mural was basically going to be a 400 foot-long display of the words “Black Lives Matter,” in yellow letters, along the stretch of Canal Street that runs behind Bob Hart Square toward 18th Street.
he groups behind the privately-funded project were the local chapter of the NAACP, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the WeCed youth group and the United Way of Merced County. It also had approval from the city’s Arts Commission.
Nevertheless, before Monday’s meeting, leaders received 82 voicemails and 115 emails submitted for public comment at the meeting held remotely because of the ongoing pandemic. A majority of the comments were in opposition to the project. This was in addition to a lot of back and forth comments in social media circles leading up the meeting.
The voicemails alone took a little less than an hour to be played for those watching and listening in.
“I have received more emails in opposition of this project than I have ever received,” said Council member Fernando Echevarria.
Some in opposition pointed out that they believe “all lives matter,” but the so-called BLM movement was linked to a political organization that has various agendas to change American society, along with economic and health care systems that they don’t necessarily agree with.
Some warned of potential violence from BLM agitators.
“It’s destructive,” said one caller. “I promise you if you allow it to go downtown you’re going to bring chaos. It’s going to be unsafe. You’re going to have a lot of bad things happen.”
Others wanted equal access to streets if leaders approved the project.
“If you were to do that, then I would petition the city that I would like to have a road where I can put MAGA 2020 or Trump 2020, because that’s my political affiliation,” said Maria Gonzalez of Merced in a voicemail.
Supporters of the street mural described it as an urgent humanitarian effort, and a way to support the black community during a national awakening to wrongful deaths at the hands of police.
Some referred to the phrase “all lives matter” as just a way to dismiss what many believe is an oppressed African American population in the United States.
In a voicemail, Elisabeth of Merced, said: “Public art can uplift, energize and celebrate communities. This mural can illustrate to the city of Merced that the fight to dismantle systemic racism continues.”
Mural organizers also said they submitted a petition to the council that included 400 local signatures in support of the project.