Magic lovers would have gotten a kick out of Monday night's Lafayette City Council meeting. City Manager Steve Falk turned a 315-unit apartment complex into 45 single-family homes.

In full view of a disbelieving crowd, he unveiled the newest proposal for a 22-acre parcel near the intersection of Pleasant Hill and Deer Hill roads in a presentation with a mouthful of a title: "Option to Settle Potential Litigation Regarding the Proposed Terraces of Lafayette Development."

It was a mutually hammered-out compromise, between the city and The O'Brien Land Company, to refashion a project originally calling for 14 hulking multifamily residences and 569 parking spaces that began gathering detractors the instant it was introduced 33 months ago.

The longer Lafayette residents looked at the project, the more they found to dislike. Construction would foul the air and disrupt lifestyles. Tall buildings would blemish ridgelines. A huge influx of residents with more cars would congest traffic. The project was devoid of Lafayette's semirural charm.

Mayor Don Tatzin, a council member for 28 years, said no other project in his memory elicited as much public concern. He added that he welcomed the input.

"I've been on the council for a long time," he said, "and we've never had a project like this. It was very large by Lafayette standards. It was complex."


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The complexities extended to environmental impacts that couldn't be mitigated, which is why the city's design review commission recommended rejecting the Terraces project. Residents were overjoyed; the developer was not. Then "potential litigation" reared its head.

"The developers said if they received a denial, they would sue the city," Falk said.

That's why the city manager set out in search of middle ground. Over the course of at least a dozen meetings, the two sides forged a plan calling for houses instead of apartments, with fewer residents on a smaller portion of the plot, surrounded by land purchased by the city and featuring a dog park, soccer field, playground and bicycle path.

It's difficult to be certain why the developer acceded to such dramatic revisions -- project manager David Baker didn't return my call -- but the persistent outcry of Lafayette residents surely had an impact. A smart developer doesn't cram an unwelcome project onto a community so vocal in its disapproval.

Those detractors were surprisingly less vocal after Falk's presentation. Councilman Mark Mitchell aptly described the reaction as "stunned silence."

"It's the rare Lafayette audience that's silent," Falk said. "They are deeply opinionated and care about their town. It was heartening after a few minutes to see them back in the saddle again."

Sure enough, audience members soon regained their equilibrium. Enough so, in fact, to spin the notion that this may be what the developer had in mind all along -- a project so outrageous as to make the next one palatable. (Conspiracy theories are fun.)

One speaker downplayed the 85 percent reduction in units as only "marginally better" than before. A woman wondered if a developer willing to trim from 315 units to 45 might be willing to trim more. Someone else insisted the city not be "bullied" into agreement.

Yes, the watchdogs were back on full alert.

So now the process begins anew. Rest assured it will get scrutiny.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidgte@bayareanewsgroup.com.