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Infamous, Decade-Long Battle Over 315-Unit East Bay Housing Project Ends In Approval

It took nearly 10 years, but the city of Lafayette has officially voted to give a long-contested 315-unit project final approval in a win for California's YIMBY movement.

Lafayette, California

Originally proposed by developer O'Brien Land Co. in 2011, the project, Terraces of Lafayette, will move ahead following years of back-and-forth between the city and pro-housing activists.

By 2015, staunch resident opposition to hundreds of apartments led Lafayette officials to convince O'Brien he should instead seek approvals for 44 single-family homes, which led to nonprofit California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund, or CARLA, suing the city for denying the developer's original proposal.

The following year, resident group Save Lafayette sued the city for the fate of O'Brien's 44-home proposal to be decided in a ballot referendum. Lafayette voters voted against the project in 2018, and that same year O'Brien restarted the approval process for his original proposal, receiving a 4-1 approval vote in a nearly nine-hour City Council hearing that ended early Tuesday morning.  

"It's obviously ridiculous that this kind of thing takes this long," YIMBY Law President Sonja Trauss, who co-founded CARLA, said in an interview. "Apartments in Lafayette is a great idea."

The fight over Terraces represented many happening across housing-starved California. It eventually got pushed through with the help of a number of factors aimed at ameliorating the state's housing crisis, including SB 167 and then SB 330 by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, a Democrat from Oakland.

Both bills strengthened California's long-standing Housing Accountability Act by reining in the discretion cities had to deny zoning-compliant housing proposals like Terraces. Passed last year, SB 330 limited the number of hearings for such proposals to five, among other constraints.

"This thing getting approved was a combination of the HAA, which already existed, plus the HAA getting stronger with SB 167, and also SB 330," Trauss said. "The five-hearing limit was really key because [the city] would absolutely have tried to have another hearing if they could."

The decision represents a win for local and state pro-housing groups like YIMBY Law and also East Bay for Everyone and California YIMBY, with much of their momentum stemming from the early tribulations of O'Brien's project, according to Matthew Lewis, director of communications for California YIMBY.

"This particular project played a central role in, I don't want to say the birth of the YIMBY movement, but it certainly added fuel to the fire," Lewis said.

Trauss pointed to the formation of recently formed, city-specific pro-housing group Inclusive Lafayette as a strong sign for the cause of the YIMBY movement.

After a design-review process in the coming months, O'Brien's development will start to rise just north of Highway 24 near the intersection of Lafayette's Deer Hill and Pleasant Hill roads. It will have 63 of 315 apartments, or 20%, be affordable, and it will have 550 parking spaces. 

An O'Brien Homes attorney earlier this summer cited requirements of the state's strengthened HAA in a letter to the city saying further delays of a decision on Terraces would lead to a $15M court battle. 

"We are enormously grateful to the many supporters in the community who spoke in favor of this important project, city staff for their years of hard work and the council for their confidence in us in the face of relentless pressure,” O'Brien Homes President Dennis O'Brien said in a statement after the vote this week. 

“Although it has been frustrating to see this project take nearly a decade to obtain approval, we are happy that we have finally reached that point, and we look forward to our project becoming a part of the Lafayette community.”