Against accusations that it was trying to circumvent voters’ rejection of Measure Y, the Tracy City Council on Tuesday agreed to fund continued study of a new downtown plan.
On a 4-1 vote, with Councilwoman Eleassia Davis dissenting, the council agreed to pay DeNovo Planning Group of El Dorado Hills nearly $500,000, which would come from state grants, to complete preparation of a downtown transit-oriented development specific plan.
The council also voted 4-1 to proceed on a workforce and affordable housing policy. That effort could lead to another ballot measure which, like Measure Y, could create exemptions to the city’s growth management ordinance.
By the time the council took the second vote, it had spent about 2½ hours discussing two items that had been on Tuesday’s consent calendar, the part of the agenda where matters that are usually considered routine are typically approved without discussion or comment.
In this case, those matters were the subject of a contentious discussion, with members of the public stating that the city was defying the will of the citizens by voting on a development proposal that voters had already rejected.
Discussions on the transit-oriented development (TOD) specific plan go back to 2019, when the city and DeNovo held workshops that began to define what transit-oriented development would look like, including commercial, office and high-density housing, as well as paths that encourage walking and biking instead of automobile traffic.
The city was looking at the area bordered by 12th Street to the north, Schulte Road to the south, Tracy Boulevard to the west and MacArthur Drive to the east. It includes Tracy’s downtown area as well as the undeveloped Bowtie area, now owned by Union Pacific Railroad, between Fourth and Sixth streets.
At the center of the plan is the Tracy Transit Station at Sixth Street and Central Avenue, which could become one of the stops along the Valley Link commuter rail line, expected to begin service by 2027.
In a December 2019 policy, the Tri-Valley/San Joaquin Valley Regional Rail Authority, which would operate Valley Link, stated that transit-oriented development plans should be featured at stops along the Lathrop to Dublin/Pleasanton route. The authority defines TOD in part as 2,200 housing units, either houses or apartments, within a half-mile of a transit station.
Previous discussions showed that about 1,750 homes already exist within a half-mile of the transit station. Another 1,050 new units, including 850 in the Bowtie, could be added.
Also included in the city’s discussion about transit-oriented development is another 760 acres between MacArthur Drive and Chrisman Road, known in the city’s General Plan as Urban Reserve 1.
Measure Y came into the picture in July 2020, when the Tracy City Council agreed to create a ballot measure that would give the TOD plan an exemption from the city’s growth management ordinance. The ordinance effectively limits development to 750 homes per-year, or an average of 600 homes, with priority for up to 150 affordable housing units. With the Ellis and Tracy Hills developments under way now, nearly all of the residential growth allotments needed for new housing are spoken for.
Supporters of Measure Y saw the exemption as a way to jump-start downtown development in advance of Valley Link, but the measure ended up failing in the Nov. 3 election, with nearly 55% of Tracy voters opposed.
Opponents of the plan told the council that they expected rejection of Measure Y to be the last word on the TOD concept.
“It’s clear to everyone that the citizens of Tracy voted a solid ‘no’ on Measure Y,” said Tracy resident Ubbo Coty. “The referendum on the TOD transit-oriented development should be clear to the council, but sadly it appears you have not heard the message.”
Davis asked specifically about Urban Reserve 1, which is outside of Tracy city limits. It is presently used as farmland, but the city’s general plan has that land identified for future development.
Assistant development services director Bill Dean said the actual number of homes in that 760 acres would depend on the land use policies the city draws into the new specific plan document.
“You’re adding now several thousand units, and that density hasn’t been established,” he said, adding that it could be up to 8,000 units or more, “And that’s a big caveat because we haven’t gone through that process to completely hone it in and hear from the community, through the council, what that ultimately should be.”
Councilman Dan Arriola directed a series of questions at Dean, essentially getting at the types of development – workplaces, mixed-use, offices, bike paths and parks – that would be defined in a transit-oriented specific plan.
Mayor Nancy Young emphasized that the policy before the council doesn’t require exemptions to the growth management ordinance.
“I can’t say everybody up here even supported Measure Y, but as far as TOD itself, we all agree that that is something that we need to be considering and we need to look at,” she said.
“By no means are we trying to slide in anything. This is not Measure Y in action, unfolding before your eyes or behind closed doors. This is a plan for looking at TOD for downtown, and it doesn’t necessarily mean this is exactly what it’s going to look like, because this is the beginning of a study, and the study will come back.”
Dean affirmed that the specific plan and the city growth management policies would remain as separate issues.
“What’s before you tonight as part of this agenda item does not, unless council directs us to, does not involve any adjustments to the growth management ordinance, or guidelines, itself,” Dean said, adding that the ordinance already allows priority status for affordable housing or infill development with the limits already established in the ordinance.
“The study itself isn’t going to make any adjustments to those numbers, and we’ll have to confront the implementation realities as we dialogue about this in the community.”
Davis said that the plan still goes against the slow-growth sentiment voters expressed in passing Measure A in 2000, which established the current limits on development, and expressed again in rejecting Measure M – which would have provided exemptions for senior, higher-density and affordable housing – in 2018.
“Then again, not even six months ago, Measure Y was overwhelmingly defeated by the voters. They don’t want this,” she said. “They don’t want a bunch of homes in downtown Tracy. We love the idea of affordable housing, but we can accomplish that without a TOD.”
“Why we keep wasting our time, talent, and taxpayers’ money to find other opportunities to find ways to bring affordable housing and new businesses, that doesn’t upset the will of the voters, is beyond me.”
Arriola said the plan and its design guidelines would define the city council’s vision for the downtown area while also laying the framework for the infrastructure of a modern city center.
“Otherwise we’re doing this piecemeal when we have an opportunity to create a developed project, a united project that has the synergy to really revitalize our downtown,” he said.
“This gives us a strong analysis and foundation on which we can talk about it, discuss it, and really look at a complex plan to revitalize our downtown, whether that includes Valley Link rail or not, and we can have the public conversation to go along with it.”
A followup item on Tuesday’s agenda the council agreed to hire PlaceWorks Inc., of Berkeley, at a cost of up to $200,000, to create a new policy framework for development of affordable housing.
The city is looking for a way to redefine its land use policies in ways that would allow workforce and affordable housing within a wider range of zoning designations. That could include higher densities as well as adjustments to standards for building heights and lot setbacks within the city’s development standards.
Many of the same commenters that opposed the transit-oriented development plan opposed this proposal as well, noting that the council was still trying to create exemptions to its growth management ordinance for the benefit of developers.
One aspect that the city is asking PlaceWorks to include in its scope of work would be possible creation of another ballot measure, this time providing exemptions that would allow developers to build homes above existing growth management ordinance guidelines, provided they include significant affordable housing within their projects.
Councilman Mateo Bedolla made a motion to approve the contract but remove the direction to create a ballot measure. He could not get a second to his motion. Eventually the council agreed 4-1 to hire PlaceWorks, with Davis again the dissenting vote.
• Contact Bob Brownne at email@example.com, or call 209-830-4227.