North Merced housing project rejected, divides city council

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A housing project north of Merced faced resistance Monday from residents and city leaders concerned about what they see as a failure to address critical local issues ⁠—including a lack of affordable housing and employment options for Merced residents.

The Branford Point annexation projectwhich would add 50 acres of mixed-use development near UC Merced to the city if approved, ultimately received an opposing vote from half the Merced City Council.

The vote represented a first step in the city’s pre-annexation process. After reviewing an outline of the project, the city council indicates general support or no support for a formal request for annexation to move forward. Candidates then decide whether or not to continue.

Mayor Matt Serratto and council members Kevin Blake and Sarah Boyle each voted in favor of annexing Branford Point.

Council members Jesse Ornelas, Fernando Echevarria and Berth Perez opposed the project in its current form. Council member Delray Shelton was absent from the meeting.

Although critics praised elements of the plan, they expressed doubts about whether it adequately met the needs of the Merced community.

City council members who voted against backing the annexation pre-bid said the plan needed revision and further clarification on certain aspects before they could give it support.

“They’re seeing the results of us wanting more people coming to Merced to do business,” Perez told the Sun-Star. “We are so used to doing business as usual. And the only people left are the people from Merced.

Affordable housing and local hiring divide city council

As presented on Monday, the annexation would add more than 650 new homes to the city when built, including 92 affordable homes. The remaining units would consist of 325 apartments, 233 townhouses and an undetermined number of mixed-use units, According to city documents.

The development would also include nearly 759,000 square feet of commercial and industrial buildings including office, hospitality, retail and research space.

The land for the Branford Point Annexation project is owned by Greg Opinski Construction and is represented by Precision Engineering. The project site is located on the west side of Lake Road, south of Bellevue Road.

“It looks like a fantastic project,” Blake said before voting in favor of the plan on Monday. Boyle and Serratto echoed his approval, but were met with equal disapproval by their colleagues on the city council, as well as several townspeople.

Community members and city leaders often noted the need for more affordable housing in the generally more affluent northern region of the city.

The same supporters have also criticized what they see as an over-concentration of affordable units in South Merced, which is often seen as more disenfranchised and lacking in essential resources like groceries and medical care, compared to north of Merced.

Affordable units have fixed costs so low-income occupants spend no more than 30% of their income on housing. But not all affordable housing is developed equally ⁠—housing ranges from moderate to extremely low income housing.

Although affordable housing developers on Monday welcomed the inclusion of 92 affordable housing units in the annexation plan, they also expressed concern that there was no clarity about the income brackets that these affordable units will serve.

Community members Fue Xiong, Sheng Xiong and Gloria Sandoval each said the draft would need to specify the income brackets the units will fall into before the city council gives its backing to the plan.

Affordable housing advocates have also said what Merced needs most are units suitable for the lower income levels of the spectrum.

“We want you to help those who need it most. That’s what we’re talking about. We’re not trying to chase people who live here who can’t even afford housing here,” Sandoval said.

Echevarria, a frequent proponent of the podium for affordable housing, expressed agreement with residents like Sandoval. “Right now we are in a housing crisis, an emergency,” he said.

The city council member thanked the candidates for bringing their project to the city, but said there were still too many questions about the project for him to support.

“There are still a lot of things that we just don’t have an answer to,” Echevarria said. “It may be premature, this request.”

While Perez also voted against the project, she told the Sun-Star that her objection was due to the project, with no stipulations regarding local hiring.

“I think people who invest in Merced should put it in writing and show in good faith that we’re not just going to build Merced as a community, we’re going to build the community and make sure they get some jobs,” Perez said. “There are people who are hungry and trying to survive there.”

Over 1,400 jobs are expected to be created through the project. Perez said that for the city to grow more responsibly, she would like the project to include a promise that at least 20% of all hired workers are local.

Perez said she hopes the project will come back to the city council in the form of a revised version that she thinks will better suit the city and its residents.

“We’ve slowed down enough to say ‘hey let’s take a step back,'” Perez said. “Giving (the candidate) the opportunity to do that is a good thing.”

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Abbie Lauten-Scrivner is a reporter for the Merced Sun-Star. It covers the town of Atwater and the county of Merced. Abbie holds a Bachelor of Science in Journalism and Public Relations from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

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