LAFAYETTE -- Small businesses operating out of apartment buildings could lose their spaces if officials approve a plan requiring property owners to convert commercial units back to residences if found in violation of housing guidelines.

Planning officials made the recommendation this week that the City Council approve a five-year sunset period during which property owners must work with tenants to switch units without land use permits, allowing such conversions back to residences. City staff found two such parcels during a recent planning department study of housing units downtown. One parcel has two units that have been converted to nonresidential units; the other has 30 such units, according to city data.

The study is part of the city's housing element, a state plan requiring officials to allow for the construction of a variety of housing units, including those for low- or moderate-income households. Those units are not required to actually be built. "The single most important goal of the Lafayette housing chapter is to achieve an adequate supply of safe, decent housing for the residents of Lafayette," said planning technician Megan Canales.

In order to preserve the city's housing stock downtown, officials established guidelines in 1986 that ban the conversion of residential units to nonresidential use without a land use permit in certain downtown zoning districts.


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Units that were found to have been converted before 1986 were removed from a list of suspect properties. The city has since been contacted by the managers of Golden Gate Plaza, which was found to have a number of residential units that have been converted to commercial use.

Apartment complex managers told the city that any conversions from residential to commercial use occurred sometime in the 1970s under the previous owner. They also said they have converted two commercial units back into residential units since taking over the property in 2006.

"The city is well aware of the mixed-use nature of the building, and that a considerable portion of what used to be a fully residential building is now occupied by small businesses making a positive impact on the community of Lafayette," wrote John Protopappas, president of the Oakland-based corporation that oversees the plaza.

City staff said they have notified owners of the other affected properties and will meet with them this year to establish a program for conversions. They will also be allowed to apply for a land use permit, should the city council approve the recommendation.

Despite their recommendation of a streamlined fix, planning commissioners stopped short of formally suggesting that city leaders consider flexible zoning that would allow for both residential and commercial uses of property. Commissioner J. Allen Sayles suggested that a percentage of property with both residential and commercial use could benefit the city by eliminating vacancy and blight.

But Commissioner Jeanne Ateljevich recommended her colleagues implement "what's on the books" and reserve discussions of changing the rules for another time.

"I think we have an obligation to fulfill ... to preserve residential units in the downtown area," she said. "Changing single-family residential to multifamily or doing anything of that sort has always been an extremely contested idea, so we really don't have much option if we want to improve our housing or maintain the really fairly good stock of residential housing in the downtown."