The San Leandro City Council approved one of the city’s most contentious housing projects in years on Monday night amid continuing concerns from neighbors over parking and traffic. 

The project, referred to as the 1388 Bancroft Apartments, is a three-story, 42-unit, multi-family residential development initially proposed to include more than 70 units. The higher density had been vehemently opposed by neighbors for nearly four years, stoked in part, by advocacy from former San Leandro Mayor Stephen Cassidy.

At the behest of residents in the area last February, the San Leandro City Council urged the project’s developer, Tom Silva, to lower the number of units from 42 to 39. Residents had been upset over the city’s previous moves to rezone the property, located across the street from Bancroft Middle School and in an area nested between the city’s downtown and residential areas. 

The council’s decision early Tuesday keeps the proposed green building at 42 units, but with two units reserved for below market-rate tenants, another two pegged at 120 percent of Annual Median Income. The developer will pay in-lieu fees for two additional affordable units. A parking management plan will need to come back to the council for final approval of the project later in the process. 

The council voted, 4-1, with one abstention. San Leandro Mayor Pauline Russo Cutter, Councilmembers Pete Ballew, Deborah Cox, and Corina Lopez backed the proposal. Coucnilemmber Victor Aguilar voted no, and Councilmember Benny Lee abstained. Councilmember Ed Hernandez was absent on Monday night.  

The property had been originally zoned for 24 units per acre, a key fact often raised by neighbors who believe city leaders had acquiesced to the developer’s wishes for higher density.

At 1.27 acres, the 1388 Bancroft Apartments property would have previously been allowed up to 31 units of housing. The range in potential units–from 73 to 31 units–led both Silva and residents who opposed the project to posture over who was compromising and who was not. 

San Leandro developer Tom Silva at a community meeting in 2018 to discuss the 1388 Bancroft Apartments project with neighbors.

“We all got to get along to move along,” Silva said. The political landscape at the state-level has changed drastically since the project last came before the council in February, he added. For instance, the onset of a pandemic and a number of new state laws on the way that will further take local control of housing approvals and zoning away from municipalities. 

“We think we could put 81 units here,” Silva told the council. “We wanted to compromise. Compromise is needed more than ever.”

Some councilmembers took Silva at his word. Councilmember Cox, who represents the area where 1388 Bancroft is located, said she struggled with the Monday night’s vote. “I’m worried that I won’t be able to walk in my neighborhood,” she said. “There’s been a war of words and I understand and appreciate the side of my neighbors and studying this so closely,” Cox said, before adding, she believed Silva could have built far more units at the site. “I wished it would have come in [at 39], but it didn’t,” she lamented.

Councilmember Ballew repeatedly quizzed San Leandro’s city attorney about the ramifications of voting no against the project amid changes in state housing laws, including whether the city could be at risk for a lawsuit. “I don’t believe we have a strong prospect of winning,” said Richard Pio Roda, San Leandro’s city attorney.

When asked whether Silva would contemplate a lawsuit against the city if the council voted down his project, he said, “Will I do something about it after? I reserve the right to do so.”

Sentiment by some councilmembers to increase the number of below market-rate units will add an additional $800,000 in costs to the project’s bottom line, Silva said. “We’re close to the fine line of making this project unfeasible.” But a counteroffer by Silva to designate two below market-rate units at 120% of Area Median Income, essentially making them potentially workforce housing, was accepted by the council.

For several reasons, the project ticked many boxes prized by housing and environment groups. It’s slated to be green-certified and is predicated on future residents accessing transportation other than cars. High-speed internet included in the buidling’s design aims to attract tech workers who may be eyeing the ability to work from home. It is also within a mile of the San Leandro BART station.

In addition, while many municipalities have chosen to build a raft of new market-rate homes and developments in recent years, while lagging behind on building affordable housing, San Leandro has it reversed. 

The city has stumbled over the past decade in attracting market-rate units, while approving a steady number of affordable housing units. The 1388 Bancroft Apartment project could fill the up-market void in San Leandro’s housing market, city staff said. Silva told the council rents for a two-bedroom-two-bathroom unit would run up to $4,000 a month.

Councilmembers Lopez and Aguilar equated the high rents to redlining and gentrification. When Mayor Cutter disagreed with the characterization, Aguilar said the comment was an example of “white privilege.”

The amount of enmity between some councilmembers has festered for years between the project’s future neighbors and the developer. Silva, a thoughtful, but sometimes brash local developer who eschews business suits and perfectly coiffed hair for sweatpants, flip-flops, a thick ponytail and long goatee, has often jousted with neighbors at community meetings in recent years. Silva flashed similar discontent with some councilmembers on Tuesday night.