After almost 12 years, a proposed Bay Area housing project can move forward. But has the long fight killed the project?


More than a decade after its application was first approved, a California appellate court ruled that developers can finally build a long-challenged, 315-unit apartment building in Lafayette.

The ruling comes after years of conflict, including two lawsuits, a ballot referendum and years of heated City Hall hearings, that thrust the East Bay project into the spotlight as a symbol of Bay Area housing wars.

“We are pleased that the Appellate Court has affirmed that the City complied with the California Environmental Quality Act in its environmental review of the development project,” said Lafayette mayor Teresa Gerringer in a press release.

It’s also a win for the Housing Accountability Act, the state law that bars local governments from denying or repeatedly delaying housing development projects for very low, low-, or moderate-income households, which advocates say helped get the project approved by the city.

Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom established an enforcement arm that would investigate governments that violate the law and illegally block housing, including a review of San Francisco’s notoriously cumbersome housing approval process.

Real estate developer O’Brian Homes first submitted an application for the Terraces of Lafayette — a 315-unit apartment complex over 22 acres on a grassy slope at Deer Hill and Pleasant Hill roads a mile from the Lafayette BART station — in 2011.

In the following years, the city faced lawsuits from both sides of the housing debate, with pro-housing groups suing to get the full project built and a group of residents called Save Lafayette pushing for the development to be scrapped.

In 2018, after the two lawsuits and a ballot referendum in which voters rejected a smaller version of the project, the original, 315-unit proposal was put back to the city, who approved it in 2020.

But Save Lafayette once again challenged the project, arguing that its review under the California Environmental Quality Act was inadequate. In January, a Superior Court judge upheld the city’s decision to approve the development. Save Lafayette appealed.

On Wednesday, an appellate court panel upheld the Superior Court’s ruling, allowing the project to finally move forward. Representatives for Save Lafayette did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“In sum, Save Lafayette’s challenges under CEQA all fail,” the ruling said, having detailed and dismantled each of the group’s arguments that the project had failed to account for a variety of perceived environmental impacts.

Now, the project is in a very different political and financial environment than it was at its inception. While the state pushes cities across California to build their share of housing amid a worsening housing crisis, rising construction costs— much higher than those when the project was designed 11 years ago — are making those units more difficult to build
, potentially putting its feasibility in doubt.

O’Brien Homes did not immediately respond to questions about their plans for the project.

Still, housing advocates in the East Bay worry that Wednesday’s ruling is still not the end of the story.

“Don’t think this is over,” local pro-housing group Inclusive Lafayette, which formed in order to demonstrate support for the project, wrote on Twitter. “Save Lafayette will likely appeal in court, and the Terraces will likely remain unbuilt for the near term.”

Save Lafayette has 30 days to appeal again before the decision becomes final.

Danielle Echeverria is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @DanielleEchev

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