12 years later, apartment project at center of Bay Area housing battles cleared to move forward

by | Mar 17, 2023 | Business | 0 comments

After more than a decade, one of the Bay Area’s most contentious housing battles has finally come to a close.

Over objections from neighbors who sued to halt a 315-unit apartment project slated for the East Bay suburb of Lafayette, the California Supreme Court this week declined to review a lower court’s decision that the development meets state environmental requirements and construction can begin.

Pro-housing advocates cheered the move while at the same time highlighting the 12-year fight as an example of the region’s challenges in building more desperately needed homes.

“This decision is a win for housing, but the fact that this project has taken so long is exactly why we have such a catastrophic housing shortage,” Sonja Trauss, founder of YIMBY Law, said in a statement.

Save Lafayette, the neighborhood group that sued to stop the development, known as Terraces of Lafayette, said officials and courts who have backed the project are ignoring the increased traffic, air pollution and risk of wildfires they say would come with building on the 22-acre site just off Highway 24 in the affluent city.

Michael Griffiths, president of Save Lafayette, said in a statement the group was disappointed but not surprised by the court’s decision.

“We knew that the Supreme Court only accepts about 5% of cases,” Griffiths said.

The move culminates a series of protracted skirmishes that helped galvanize a growing YIMBY — or “Yes In My Backyard” — movement, a new generation of outspoken and sometimes litigious pro-housing activists. The controversy, and the YIMBY coalition it ignited, have since spurred California officials to crack down on growth-averse cities blamed for exacerbating a deepening housing crisis.

In 2016, Trauss gained widespread media attention for suing Lafayette to force the city to approve the embattled Terraces apartment complex. A flood of support poured in for the YIMBY cause. And while that lawsuit ultimately failed — the city would eventually approve the project in 2020 — she and her allies harnessed the newfound energy to create multiple nonprofit advocacy groups, including YIMBY Action, which now has chapters across 17 states.

At home in California, the YIMBY nonprofits would go on to sue many more jurisdictions — often successfully — including Santa Clara County, Palo Alto, Cupertino, Berkeley, Richmond, San Francisco, Huntington Beach and Rancho Palos Verdes.

The decision by the Supreme Court comes less than a month after a state appeals court ruled UC Berkeley violated the California Environmental Protection Act in its plans to build student and homeless housing at historic People’s Park. The court sided with two nonprofit groups that argued UC officials didn’t adequately analyze how much noise could be caused by the roughly 1,100 students who would move into the project.

Save Lafayette had also argued plans for the Terraces violated the state’s controversial environmental law by failing to address their concerns. But the state Supreme Court has now put that issue to bed.

Dennis O’Brien, the Terraces developer, expects the project and its 63 below-market units could be completed by 2026.

“People have long been in need of housing like this for themselves, family members, and local workers, and all we could do was add their name to an interest list and ask them to be patient while we saw the project through an incredibly difficult and time-consuming process,” O’Brien said in a statement. “We are elated that we can now move forward.”

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