February 2020

Anaheim City Council approves 54 condos despite mass objections

Serrano Center

By Stephanie Lesinski

Disregarding impassioned pleas from hundreds of Anaheim Hills residents to save a neighborhood retail center, the Anaheim City Council voted 4 to 2 to replace the Serrano Center with the Residences at Nohl Ranch.

The project is an up-to-three-story, 54-condominium development at the corner of Nohl Ranch and Serrano Avenue. The Anaheim Planning Commission had unanimously rejected it, and the property owner appealed to the city council. Mayor Harry Sidhu and Councilmember Jose Moreno voted against the appeal; Councilmembers Denise Barnes, Jordan Brandman, Lucille Kring and  Stephen Faessel voted in favor. 

Councilmember Trevor O’Neil, Anaheim Hills’ representative, recused himself from voting, citing a conflict of interest regarding his presentation opposing the project to the planning commission. 

“We are shocked that council would land this devastating blow to our community,” said Anaheim resident Bill Leming. “This vote goes against the city’s own master plan that calls for reducing traffic by minimizing distances between residential, shopping and employment.” Leming is president of a newly formed group, Anaheim Citizens for Sensible Development. 

Exceptions prove the rule
The investor  requested waivers to allow for smaller setbacks and exceptions that are meant to preserve native species currently on the site, which is located within the city’s Scenic Corridor Overlay Zone. “We’re not opposed to development,” said Leming, “but it needs to make sense for the neighborhood. We are a community with thousands of homes and only one retail center. How does wiping that out benefit the community?”

A champion of affordable housing, Moreno said he met with business owners and residents at the center.  He concluded that adding just 11 affordable units didn’t justify eliminating a true community center where residents could gather.

Apparently others didn’t do as much due diligence. Kring said, “we’re only talking about 12 businesses.” In fact many of the businesses occupy multiple suites, nearly filling the entire 30,000 sq. ft. of retail space.

At the planning commission hearing in October, the applicant maintained that the center was underperforming. However, the community circulated an online petition that garnered more than 700 signatures. Supporters say the center is heavily used, especially by Anaheim Hills Elementary School students who are able to walk across the street for after-school activities. 

The center hosts Orange County Performing Arts Academy with a reported 600 students, as well as Kumon Math and Learning Center of Anaheim and 3K Martial Arts.  The school’s PTA also sent the city a letter, opposing the high density and citing safety concerns. During the comment period, residents raised multiple objections to the Draft Environmental Impact Report. The traffic study, for example, claimed the condos would generate less traffic than the center, which generates nearly zero traffic when children are crossing the street to school.

A small sacrifice
During the meeting, councilmembers agreed to a minimal reduction – from 58 to 54 units, and a decrease in the number of three-story dwellings. Of the 54 units, 11 will be reserved for low-income families, which won the applicant a density bonus. At the planning commission meeting, O’Neil expressed his concern, “We’re looking at a code that requires the project size to be five acres and this is three. And the density — we’re cramming more units in there than our code allows.” He continued, “The state says if somebody offers to build these affordable housing projects, we have to grant them these concessions.  

O’Neil is referring to California housing legislation that applies to projects already zoned residential. Since this land was zoned commercial, council had no obligation to amend the general plan or change the zoning.

The Serrano Center’s owner John Saunders, reportedly paid a lobbyist to convince council members that the center was underperforming. However, Leming says his group’s survey proved just the opposite. The center is currently at near-full occupancy. Leming said among comparable Anaheim businesses, Serrano Center rent rates fall in the middle of the group surveyed. “It’s a shame this owner chose to spend his money on a lobbyist instead of using it to upgrade this center. If he had, he could justify charging higher rates,” said Leming. 

Anaheim Hills residents are considering their options following the city council’s decision.