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Developers propose 576 homes in Orange, some at the mall, others by hospital

The city of Orange became Southern California’s fifth municipality facing housing proposals that could bypass local zoning restrictions because it lacks a state-approved housing plan.

Two preliminary applications landed at City Hall in January seeking to build 576 new townhomes and apartments under the so-called “builder’s remedy.”

The 1990 state provision requires local governments without approved housing plans, or “housing elements,” to approve projects that conflict with local zoning and the general plan, so long as 20% of the homes are for low-income households or all of the homes are for moderate-income households.

“They should call this a builder’s free-for-all instead of a builder’s remedy,” newly elected Orange Mayor Dan Slater said in a text. “This is but one of many knucklehead decisions that our Sacramento representatives have foisted on cities to interfere in long-standing local planning processes.” 

One application seeks to build 297 townhomes plus 75 low-income “accessory dwelling units” along the back side of the partly vacant, 50-year-old Village at Orange shopping mall on North Tustin Street. The 14-acre project would take over much of the rear parking lot, a vacant JCPenney building and part of the mall.

The other seeks to build 204 apartments — including 41 low-income units — in six-story buildings on 8 acres along Santiago Creek behind the Chapman Global Medical Center.

An attorney for Stonefield Development, backer of the Santiago Creek apartments, said his client still wants to pursue its original plan to build 158 senior apartments in five, three-story buildings. The new application was filed as “a fallback” plan to lock in their right to develop the property if the senior housing gets denied.

Some residents raised objections to the proposals, saying the new homes are too tall, too massive and too close to existing single-family neighborhoods.

But they’re at a loss about what the city can do to stop them since Orange still doesn’t have a plan for where to put the 3,936 homes the state mandated it build by 2030.

“What I really object to is the state taking away the ability of the city council to regulate zoning and the general plan,” said Orange resident Shirley Grindle, a local government watchdog who opposes the developments. “I went down to City Hall. Everybody is opposed to this. I wish the city would get together and sue the state agencies behind (this provision).”

 

The vacant JCPenney building would be the center of a plan to build 297 townhomes and 75 low-income “accessory dwelling units” on the back parking lot of The Village at Orange shopping mall. Because Orange failed to adopt a state-approved housing plan, the city can do little to stop the development even though it violates local zoning rules. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Missed deadline

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Orange isn’t alone in missing state planning deadlines.

The city of 140,000 is one of 109 municipalities in the six-county Southern California region without a state-approved housing element, which was due in October 2021.

The builder’s remedy submissions come after developers ran into opposition to previous proposals at the two sites.

The Santiago Creek proposal wasn’t meant to pressure the city into approving the developer’s previous senior housing plan, even though it features 46 more units in much taller buildings, said Allan Abshez, Stonefield’s attorney.

Grindle, however, objects to both plans, saying the buildings would “just loom over the backyards of those homes” on the opposite side of Santiago Creek.

A vacant lot located at the intersection of Yorba Street and Chapman Avenue, just east of Santiago Creek, behind the Providence St. Joseph Heritage Medical Group building and the Chapman Global Medical Center in Orange on Tuesday, February 7, 2023. It is a proposed location for future housing in Orange. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

A building and back parking lot of the The Village at Orange shopping mall in Orange, east of Canal Street in Orange, on Tuesday, February 7, 2023. It is a proposed location for future housing in Orange. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

A building and back parking lot of the The Village at Orange shopping mall in Orange, east of Canal Street in Orange, on Tuesday, February 7, 2023. It is a proposed location for future housing in Orange. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

The view from La Habra’s Westridge Golf Club, which could become a future site for 530 new homes under Lennar’s new housing plan, filed with the city on Jan. 17. The plan includes 110 low-income apartments, in addition to 238 houses and 138 townhomes. (Photo by Jeff Collins, the Orange County Register/SCNG)

The proposed Ten21 mixed-use development in Redondo Beach, which is being applied for as a “builder’s remedy” development. City leaders say it can only be considered once the applicant applies for amendments to the city’s zoning laws, general plan and local coastal program. The developer disputes that, saying his application was made before Redondo Beach had an approved housing plan. (Rendering from preliminary permit application)

The vacant JC Penney building would be the center of a plan to build 297 townhomes and 75 low-income “accessory dwelling units” on the back parking lot of The Village at Orange shopping mall. Because Orange failed to adopt a state-approved housing plan, the city can do little to stop the development even though it violates local zoning rules. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Golfers line up their putts at La Habra’s Westridge Golf Club. Lennar Homes is seeking to build 530 new homes on the site despite city objections. Because La Habra has yet to adopt a housing plan, state law may require city approval even though the proposal conflicts with the city’s general plan. (Photo by Jeff Collins, the Orange County Register/SCNG)

An 8-acre site along Santiago Creek designated as open space could be transformed into six-story apartment buildings with 204 units under a fallback plan a developer filed last month. The “builder’s remedy” will be used to build the apartments if the city doesn’t approve the developer’s smaller senior housing proposal, an attorney said. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

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Another resident complained that the Village at Orange proposal, which abuts “your typical Leave It to Beaver neighborhood,” would violate zoning and height limits. The mall is zoned commercial with two-story height limits, said Doug Hamilton, a local real estate broker.

“We didn’t like (the plan) because most of the homes they were planning are three stories,” Hamilton said. “They want to tear down (30% of the) walkable mall. … Retail taxes is what pay for city services. It’s not good for the city, it’s not good for the community and actually not good for the longevity of the mall.”

Malls throughout the nation have been converting space into housing as online shopping takes a greater share of retail spending. A former owner gave the aging Village at Orange mall a facelift to boost foot traffic, then promptly sold the 855,728-square-foot center in 2016. In addition to the former JCPenney, the Sears building and the former Todai restaurant near the main entrance have long been dormant.

20 other applications

Although the builder’s remedy is now 32 years old, the first such applications surfaced last summer.

In addition to Orange, developers filed 20 other builder’s remedy applications in Santa Monica, Redondo Beach, Beverly Hills and La Habra, according to government records and press reports. All told, the proposals in all five cities call for 8,240 new homes, nearly 1,700 of them affordable to low-income households.

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The passage of Senate Bill 330 in 2019 “transformed (the builder’s remedy) into a nuclear option for developers to deploy in municipalities with persistent barriers to housing production,” Rand Corp. economist Jason Ward said in a commentary published last fall in the Santa Monica Daily Press.

The city of Orange is scheduled to vote on a revised housing element on Friday, Feb. 10, and state housing officials indicated last month they probably will approve the new version. But state approval won’t invalidate the two builder’s remedy applications since they were filed while the city still was out of compliance.

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The state rejected the city’s earlier plan, submitted last February, citing technical reasons, including discrepancies and a desire for more analysis of homelessness, segregation and the location of affordable housing sites.

Hamilton conceded the city may share some of the blame by not adopting an approved housing element sooner.

“If they were caught flat-footed, they should have known more about (the builder’s remedy),” he said.

“I’m not aware of what was done prior to my election,” added Slater, who took office in December after defeating incumbent Mayor Mark Murphy.  “But … we have been pushing to get our updated housing element approved since before we were even sworn in.”

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