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December 20, 2005 > Editorial: Infill - A planning tool that can bite back

Editorial: Infill - A planning tool that can bite back

Item 2.10 of the December 13 Fremont City Council meeting agenda deals with a proposed infill development project slated for two addresses, 38853 and 38871 Bell Street, off Mowry Ave. near the Hub Shopping Center. The initial hurdle of the project through the city approval process is to change the planned density of the General Plan from medium density residential (18-23 units per acre) to high density residential (23-27 units per acre). A zoning change was also requested from R-G Garden Apartment Residence District to R-3 Multi-Family Residence District. This would allow the potential of a 23-unit condominium project, called "Bell Manor."

Looking through the standard environmental impact analysis and mitigation requirements yields little of note. The subjects addressed include air quality, biological, cultural, hydrology and noise. Traffic, recreation and effects on city services are minimal and pose little or no harm. The project appears to be without any major problems. Each of these lots currently have a very small home (noted as a bungalow) on them and are surrounded by, according to the document, "multi-family residential development" on the east, west and south sides and a "hotel" on the north side. With a negative declaration of significant impact, "Bell Manor" appears headed for easy approval.

The property in question is surrounded on three sides by apartment complexes and on the north side by the Islander Motel. This "motel," called a "hotel" in the report, is not what most people would consider a standard motel. Nor does it fit the definition of most dictionaries as a place of lodging for motorists. The Islander Motel is, in fact, not a motel at all. It is a dilapidated structure used as an apartment building, well-known to law enforcement, as a residence for parolees. Police cars are a typical sight at this address. An indicator can be found by looking at the Megan's Law map at the Fremont Police website and seeing a big blue balloon at that location indicating 2 or more serious sex offenders living at that location.

Originally, this infill project was designed to encompass not only the current location, but the "hotel" and a vacant lot on its west side as well. The neighborhood would probably applaud this since it would improve the appearance and tenant mix of the area. Currently, the two small houses at 38853 and 38871 and a vacant lot on the west side form a "buffer" of sorts between those living in surrounding apartments and residents of the Islander. The staff report notes that there was an attempt "to include the Islander Motel and the adjacent vacant site...and allow all the lands to be developed at the same density range." It goes on to say that through a number of discussions with the owner of the Islander Motel, it was made clear that "he did not want his land included as part of the subject project."

The goals of Bell Manor, stated in a General Plan Amendment Justification Statement, include increased housing through high density and " achieve usable and enjoyable open space..." It goes on to note that "each homeowner will enjoy a private open space of approximately 100 square feet of a patio-type located conveniently right off the living space." Bell Manor sounds ideal as the goals include a description of the site "very close to major city bus lines, retail stores, and various office complexes..." I hope these buyers enjoy their 100 square feet of outdoor living space, since walking outside their complex will give them uncomfortable exposure to a much different lifestyle.

For those currently living in the area, one buffer is probably as good as another, so there may be little, if any outcry about replacing two poorly maintained bungalows with well-designed condominiums. However, consider those unlucky enough to buy into Bell Manor without checking out the immediate neighborhood. The motel next door is not as advertised and suddenly, your $400,000+ investment takes a nosedive. As word spreads, either the Islander has to go or the condominium units become a failed project, subtracting rather than adding to the social environment. The benefit listed in the justification statement says, "Increased density of condominium housing is a very desirable type of living atmosphere which strengthens the promotion of a social environment and is more beneficial than single-family homes in terms of frequencies of contact with one another in the community."

Obviously, city personnel know of the situation and just as obviously, they tried to enlist the cooperation of the owner of the Islander Motel. This guy has no reason to work with the city; he is making a fast buck by charging high rates for housing parolees in substandard living conditions. Who is going to complain and who is going to call this place what it is, rather than a "motel?" With prime property, across the street from the Hub, he can bide his time to squeeze the most money out of his property. The problem is that those trying to elevate the neighborhood may find that just the opposite happens. This may be one case where the use of Eminent Domain is the answer. Were the Planning Commission and City Council advised of this situation? If not, why not and if so, why is this moving along without comment on the fiscal and social impact of and to this development?

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