EL CERRITO -- Citing El Cerrito's dismal record of providing new housing, a majority of the City Council on Aug. 19 approved a hotly contested project that will build 14 new condominiums on a half-acre of mostly open space.
The project, at 1715 Elm St., will also relocate and restore a historic 117-year-old house for use by the community and provide a small park that can be used by the public as well as condominium residents.
In approving the project by a 4-1 vote, the council denied an appeal of a Planning Commission approval of the project over density, traffic congestion, shading of nearby dwellings and other issues.
The council also agreed to allow the developer, Albany-based Edward Biggs, to keep a stretch of creek running across the property as a rock-lined channel, as opposed to restoring it to a more natural state.
Councilwoman Rebecca Benassini led the way in arguing for approval, while Councilman Greg Lyman held out in favor of making Biggs restore the creek, a requirement that project designers said would force them to do a new environmental impact report, adding considerable cost and time for the approval process.
Benassini said she thinks high-density development near public transit makes sense for El Cerrito, which she said has failed to provide its fair share of new housing over the past 20 years.
The project site is a short walk from the El Cerrito Del Norte BART station and has only one parking space per unit, which a city staff report says will encourage residents to use public transit.
"There are no condos and no townhomes on the market in El Cerrito," Benassini said. "We should be contributing more to solving the regional need for housing."
Councilman Mark Friedman, Mayor Janet Abelson and Councilwoman Jan Bridges joined Benassini in voting to deny the appeal.
Lyman brought up the idea of the creek restoration at the council's initial hearing on the project appeal in June. At that time, the council agreed, by a 3-2 vote, to ask Biggs to pay for a hydrology report to determine the feasibility of a creek restoration.
Biggs commissioned the report, by Berkeley-based Restoration Design Group, that was introduced at this week's meeting.
RDG principal Drew Goetting told the council that a restoration of the 115-foot section of the creek tributary running through the property would have a minimal effect on the ecology of the entire creek.
The report estimated the entire cost of the restoration at $410,000.
"The ecological benefits (from a restoration) would be pretty small," Goetting said. "There would be not a lot to show for a lot of money spent."
Lyman, joined by several speakers at the meeting, went on to make the case that the restoration would amount to a "toehold" in a long-term goal of restoring larger portions of all the undergrounded creeks throughout the city.
However, the rest of the council decided that the housing crisis trumped the creek restoration issue.
Benassini acknowledged that the city has several high-density housing projects near transit in the development pipeline, but she added that, because of financing issues,"they could take another decade to come to fruition."
"We have a pretty sad development record, and we aren't being true to who we are (as a city that encourages use of public transit),"she said.
Construction could begin in seven to nine months after the design is completed and permits are approved, according to Terry Bush of LCA Architects in Walnut Creek, the design firm on the project.
The council also unanimously approved a new ordinance that would ban smoking in parks, playgrounds and sports fields, public sidewalks and all public events in the city.
It would also outlaw lighting up in multiunit housing and common areas, workplaces, shopping centers, outdoor dining areas, as well as bus stops and ATM lines.
The ordinance defines multiunit housing as two or more units. That provision will take effect on Oct. 1, 2015 or whenever a new lease or lease renewal is signed, whichever comes first.
The staff report on the ordinance says that the new rules will provide needed protection for nonsmokers from side stream smoke and could result in a further reduction of smoking in the city.
County health services statistics say that the percentage of smokers in Contra Costa has dropped from about 24 percent of residents to 10 percent as anti-smoking campaigns have stepped up over the past 25 years.
The council will vote on a final reading of the ordinance later this year.