Discontent With City/Lewis Land Swap Escalates Among Upland Residents

By Mark Gutglueck
Upland city officials and Lewis Group of Companies executives are hunkering down in the face of growing resident discontent over the city’s purposed trade of a 32-acre portion of the 52 acres south of the 210 Freeway it owns in the Sycamore Hills district to Lewis in exchange for that corporate entity purchasing 45 acres in a rock quarry north of the 210 Freeway and providing that to the city for development as a sports complex.
A somewhat different proposal floated earlier this year would have entailed the swapping of the soccer fields at Cabrillo Park on 11th Street, consisting of roughly 16 acres, combined with the aforementioned 32 acres in Sycamore Hills to Lewis in exchange for the 45-acre site. That trade failed to materialize after local residents and youth soccer league officials protested.
In that original proposal, Lewis was to be provided with an entitlement to build 675 units on the 48 acres it was to acquire from the city, entailing an average density of 14.06 units per acre. According to now-retired Upland Community Development Director Jeff Zwack, the city would close out the athletic field component of Cabrillo Park, hand those 16 acres over to Lewis along with 32 of the 52 acres the city owns in Sycamore Heights south of the 210 Freeway and allow Lewis to obtain an entitlement to blanket both properties with attached and detached homes, what in some cases could be considered to be single family residences, in other cases would be described as duplexes or triplexes, in still others condominiums or townhomes and perhaps even some apartments. Lewis would then purchase, according to Zwack, 45 acres currently owned by Holliday Rock located in the city’s historic flood zone within the northwestern portion of the city and cooperate with the city in constructing ten soccer fields, two baseball diamonds, concession stands, maintenance structures and an office building on that property to create what was to be a major recreational amenity for Upland and its residents, referred to as the Upland Sports Complex.
The proponents of that exchange, primarily Lewis executives and a coterie of the company’s supporters inside and outside of City Hall, were initially confident that a sizable cross section of Upland residents, primarily the parents with children involved in youth sports, would embrace the idea. That enthusiasm for the sports complex concept would allow the exchange to glide to approval, they believed.
The pending loss of the soccer fields at Cabrillo Park on 11th Street between Benson and Mountain avenues, which is within reasonable walking and driving distance for residents in the southwest quadrant of Upland, and the misgivings of American Youth Soccer Organization officials that the surrendering of the fields might hamper its function in Upland, resulted in both a questioning of the intent and wisdom of the trade, accompanied by protests. Concurrently, city residents were given indication that use of the yet-to-be-constructed sports complex would involve user fees which would potentially disenfranchise certain leagues or members of the public.
And in a coincidence of bad timing, the city had in March approved the sale of 12 percent of what is considered to be the city’s recreational centerpiece, Memorial Park, to adjoining San Antonio Regional Hospital for use as the site of a multistory parking structure to accommodate two recent expansions of the medical facility. The parkland sacrificed in that sale included a Little League field that had been in use for more than 45 years. There was lingering uncertainty as to what the terms of Lewis’s contribution toward the creation of the sports complex was to be, including how much the company and how much the city were to contribute toward that project’s completion. City officials recently stated that the city did not have sufficient money on hand earmarked to undertake routine maintenance and upgrading of the parks the city already has. Thus, the closure of the Cabrillo Park soccer fields represented a potential phasing out of some of the youth sports venues in the city for some time to come.
With city officials’ true intent under question, and the suggestion that the Lewis Group of Companies was seeking to profit by manipulating city officials into a commitment that would further erode the city’s public recreational venues, a public relations maelstrom was brewing and Lewis withdrew the request to obtain the 16 acres at Cabrillo Park. Instead, at a public forum in Upland on July 12, a Lewis spokesman announced his company would forgo the land trade for the Cabrillo Park property. The revamped intent was for the city to simply trade 32 acres in Sycamore Hills to Lewis, which would then obtain sufficient acreage from Holliday Rock consisting of property containing a defunct set of quarries north of the I-210 Freeway to construct a scaled-down sports complex, which would entail three soccer fields and a single baseball diamond. Concomitant with the trade was an understanding that Lewis would also be granted an entitlement to build 475 units on the 32 acres it received in trade from the city, a density of 14.84 units per acre, prior to Lewis becoming involved in any of the normal project planning processes.
It was announced that the city would take up the ratification of the trade before the end of September. It is now known that at its September 24 meeting, the city council is to hold a public hearing and vote on making the land swap.
City officials are committed to carrying it out. The Lewis Group of Companies is banking on the land trade going through. Inquiries to the city with regard to the precise terms of the deal have been rebuffed with the assurance that by 6 pm on Thursday September 20, the agenda for the September 24 meeting will be publicly posted and that it will contain a full range of back-up material for all items to be considered by the city council, including the staff report previewing the land swap and recommending it to the council, along with attendant documents, resolutions, maps and contracts. Thursday at 6 pm will be 97 hours prior to the public portion of the Monday night meeting’s 7 pm commencement, which is 25 hours more than the 72 hour agenda pre-posting requirement required by California law. The window for the public to weigh in on the land exchange will come during the Monday night hearing, the only opportunity for residents to make their feelings known prior to the council’s final decision.
A fair cross section of Upland residents already believe city officials are not giving them and their fellow and sister citizens adequate time and opportunity to fully examine the proposed land swap in all of its detail and implication before its scheduled approval. Several of them have expressed the belief that at the very least multiple public hearings pertaining not just to the trade itself but the plans for the residential development and its intensity of land use including the density of the massive subdivision along with the precise nature of the sports complex should be held before any vote is contemplated.
While some of those residents are not necessarily opposed to the trade eventually being made, they want the city to provide the city council and the Upland electorate adequate opportunity to vet the proposal in all of its intricacy and ramification before the matter is voted upon. Other residents have already reached the conclusion that proceeding with the land swap is contrary to the city’s interests.
Dede Ramella, an Upland resident, said that from a dollars and cents standpoint it appeared the city was getting ripped off in the deal.
“I cannot overstate my disappointment with the City of Upland and the way in which they are handling this land trade,” said Ramella. “As I understand it, the build-out value of the 32 acres of property that our city wants to give away to a local developer at no cost will be  $213,750,000 if all 475 future homes sell at $450,000, which is the lowest priced new home available anywhere within the Sycamore Hills Development. So, knowing that someone is going to make at least $213 million dollars off a tract currently owned by Upland’s taxpayers, which our city will give away for free, creates questions. Why are the taxpayers getting the short-end of the stick again and why is this acceptable to our elected officials? In return for the developer getting the opportunity to make over $213,000,000, our city is only getting three soccer fields in exchange, plus a single baseball field, which will be constructed on land that has been mined, that is highly undesirable, on the side of the freeway and attached to a major mining operation. It will have one bottleneck entrance off Benson, no turning lane, without a stop light and 455 parking spaces.”
Ramella asked, “How are these two things equal and why would anyone in Upland, ever think so?”
Barbara Papa, a resident of Upland’s District 3, said, “I was horrified to learn that a public park in my district was being contemplated for reduction by our city and a local developer, who were ready to allow 220 multifamily townhomes to be constructed inside Cabrillo Park. And while I am very happy the general public was able to stop that, I am very concerned the residents of neighboring District 1, who have no representation on the Upland City Council, will be unable to stop another 475 residential units from being built upon 32 acres in that district currently zoned as public parkland and owned by the Upland taxpayers. And I am shocked our city is charging ahead with this, right before the general election and despite so much public outcry.”
A recurrent objection raised to the proposed land swap is that the property to be transformed into a sports complex is not suited for that use from the standpoint that it is proximate to a ten-lane freeway as well as the old Vulcan processing plant, which will expose the participants in youth sports at that venue to having to breathe vehicle exhaust and particulate matter. Accompanying objections are that the property, which involved a mining operation, has potential contamination issues, and that already fill dirt has been layered on top of those contaminants without a proper environmental impact report having been undertaken.
Brinda Sarathy, an Upland resident and a professor of environmental analysis at Pitzer College, noted that the site proposed for the sports complex “which is currently undeveloped, is wedged between the 210 Freeway directly to the south and a rock quarry used for mining by the Holliday family immediately to the north. The Lewis Group proposes to build a state-of-the-art sports complex on this land parcel. One of the potential benefits espoused by proponents of the sports complex project is that the greater number of playing fields will allow more people to access opportunities to engage in outdoor sports. It is important to weigh this project with the utmost care and consideration with regard to public health. Based on the scientific evidence, it would be inappropriate to evaluate the merits of this project by means of simple quantification (such as more sports fields are better than fewer sports fields) or an assumption that all physical exercise and activity are beneficial (that being more kids getting exercise is a good thing). In this case, context matters. The public, developers, and city officials need to weigh the risks of exposing players – especially children and other vulnerable populations – to concerning amounts of air pollution from traffic, against the benefits of physical activity, exercise, and access to sports fields. If outdoor playing fields are to be considered in the proposed location north of the 210 Freeway, research in the scientific and public health community recommends that such facilities be sited a minimum of 700-to-1,000 feet away from freeways, and that such projects incorporate mitigation designs such as vegetative buffers and berms. Such measures will help ensure that children and other vulnerable populations are protected from undue exposure to harmful air pollution from traffic when playing outdoors, and serve to preserve public health in the long run.”
Sarathy said, “What is important to note in relation to the outdoor sports complex proposal in Upland is that two things can be in contradiction. In this case, the benefits to the City of Upland from infill development along a major freeway conflict with the externalized costs to public health from outdoor exposure to air pollution from traffic.”
Mark Walters, another Upland resident, echoed Sarathy’s concern.
“No environmental assessments have been done for a future children’s sports park on the side of the freeway, next to an active rock quarry,” Walters said. “This is extremely concerning because Upland’s children and their health matter.”
Walters added, “I am very concerned about the failure to conduct recent traffic studies for multiple new development sites throughout the City of Upland.”
Upland resident Debbie Valera said city officials and the Lewis Group of Companies were giving inadequate consideration to, and providing insufficient mitigation of, the impacts of the land swap and its consequent developments in the area immediately surrounding the land in question.
“I used to routinely travel across the length of 16th Street to access the 210 Freeway from my Upland home, which is on the completely opposite side of the city,” Valera said. “However, I now avoid 16th Street and Baseline [into which 16th transitions near the Claremont border] like the plague because the traffic is so horrendous on those streets. Last Friday, during rush hour the traffic trying to access the Baseline exit ramp from the 210 East was so intense those vehicles were backed up on that very long exit ramp all the way onto the freeway. This did not involve the vehicles bound for Claremont, but only the traffic trying to turn right at the Baseline stoplight to drive into Upland. The residents of Claremont, who were on that same exit ramp but turning left at the stop light to drive into Claremont, had very smooth sailing and only five cars ahead of them in that line. I feel Upland City Manager Bill Manis and local developer Randall Lewis are both very lucky to live in Claremont. They would not accept this type of urban sprawl in Claremont, and for very good reasons. I am shocked to hear they think adding another 475 compact homes inside 32 acres of North Upland parkland, which is located right off of Baseline and a stone’s throw away from those 210 Freeway exits, is a good idea.”
Valera asked, “Why has no traffic impact study been done to date, to see if industry professionals agree with them?”
Another Upland resident, April McCormick, has taken issue with virtually all aspects of the land swap. She characterized as “shady” that the “council will be voting on a resolution allowing the City of Upland to trade its 32 acres of public parkland to the Lewis Group of Companies, which will be allowed to build 475 housing units there, and they will accept in trade 45 acres of wasteland on the side of the freeway which has been mined for aggregate. Why is our city council allowing this?”
McCormick continued, “No environmental assessment is being conducted on the future sports park and no traffic study is being conducted for the major subdivision on land our city is literally giving away to this local developer.”
McCormick noted that the city is transitioning to a ward electoral system in which the city has been divided into four districts that are easiest described as quadrants, such that the 1st District covers the city’s northwest, the 2nd District comprises the city’s northeast corner, the 3rd District corresponds to the city’s southwest niche and the 4th District the city’s southeast confines. In November the first election under the district representation system will take place, in which races will be held in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th districts. An election for the 1st District will not take place until 2020, during which election the mayor’s post will be contested as well. All residents of the city registered to vote are eligible to vote for mayor. In the ward races, only those living within each district are eligible to run in that particular district and only those living within each respective district can vote in that district’s election. At present, there is one council member, Carol Timm, living in District 4 and one council member, Gino Filippi, living in District 3. District 2 is home to the other current council members, Sid Robinson and Janice Elliott, as well as Mayor Debbie Stone. Thus, District 1 does not have any representation on the council and will not have any representation on the council until after the 2020 election. Both the sports complex and the 475 unit subdivision that the Lewis Group of Companies intends to pursue if the land swap is approved are in District 1.
“The future explosive growth that will take place here is in District 1, which has no current representative on the city council and will not have a representative for nearly two-and-a-half more years,” McCormick said. “No one is looking after the interests of District 1’s residents. There is no one on the council to balance out what members of the council from these other districts want and will impose on the residents of District 1. This is in their backyard, but they have no say about it, whatsoever. How much more unfair can this be?”
Furthermore, McCormick said that both the city and the Lewis Group of Companies had engaged in a “bait and switch” maneuver by selling the concept of the sports complex in one form and now undertaking it as a scaled-down version that will entail even less of a contribution from the Lewis Group of Companies. McCormick said the city council took action that created a pressing need for the city to find and/or create further recreational amenities and sports fields and facilities. Those officials are now offering the sports complex as a means of redressing the void they have created, she said. “I hope the community can recognize there is a pattern here,” McCormick said. “On March 25, the city council voted 4-to-1 to sell 12 percent of Memorial Park to San Antonio Regional Hospital without a vote of the people. They then followed that with the announcement that they were going to hand over the 16 acres of soccer fields at Cabrillo Park to the Lewis Group of Companies, accompanied by the announcement that a new sports park or sports complex was on the horizon in north Upland and that to get it we only needed to go along with this land trade.”
At that time, before he resigned, Upland’s community development director was Jeff Zwack. “The city’s top planner, Jeff Zwack, said the new sports complex in north Upland was going to have 10 soccer fields, two baseball fields, concession stands, plus maintenance structures and office buildings to manage the park,” McCormick said. “If you look at what the Lewis Group of Companies is now proposing and which the city council is ready to approve, it is a far cry from that. What a Lewis representative said on July 12 is that the north Upland sports park will have three high school-size soccer fields, not 10, and there will be one baseball field, not two. This is way different from what was originally promised.”
At any rate, McCormick said, the sports complex is an illusory gift, one which is being offered to the city as a way for the Lewis Group of Companies to meet its corporate goals rather than serve the interests and well-being of Upland’s residents. She reiterated the objection to having an outdoor sports venue so close to a freeway. “I wonder how may Upland parents want their children playing ball on the side of a busy Southern California 10-lane freeway and sandwiched in between that and a massive mining operation?” McCormick asked, somewhat rhetorically. “It sounds like enough exhaust and dust would be inhaled in between those two things to easily aggravate childhood asthmatic conditions and atopic allergy sufferers alike. This would happen with no environmental assessment having been performed to determine if this mined property at this location is safe for Upland children to play ball on. Yet our city council is charging ahead like someone has a gun to their heads.”
McCormick noted that Upland Councilman Sid Robinson had credited one-time Upland Police Chief Martin Thouvenell, who served as interim Upland City Manager from July 2016 until last December and is currently serving as a management consultant to the city, with having brought the city and the Lewis Group of Companies together to initiate the discussion of the land swap. She said she found troubling Thouvenell’s willingness to represent the trade as one that was worth pursuing, and that as a consultant to the city he should have been far more exacting in his analysis of the terms of the swap and what it would entail before taking it to the level of having senior city staff or the city council consider it. “So, the question has to be asked: Is Marty also consulting for Lewis Properties?” McCormick said. “Is Lewis ever going to reward Marty in any way, shape or form for his using his Upland city connections in ways that have been invaluable to the Lewis Group of Companies in setting up this opportunity for them to create at current prices a project estimated to be worth in excess of well over $200 million?”
In response to the Sentinel’s inquiry as to whether Thouvenell was simultaneously consulting to the city and to the Lewis Group of Companies, Thouvenell on September 13 responded, “I am not working for the Lewis company and I never have. This is the most ridiculous accusation I’ve heard in months.”
Prior to Thouvenell’s response, Upland Assistant City Manager Jeanette Vagnozzi had told the Sentinel, “He [Thouvenell] is not working for the Lewis Group of Companies or Lewis Operating Company or Lewis anything. We would not allow him to work both sides of the street, to work for us and work for Lewis. That would be a conflict of interest.” That Thouvenell was not in the employ of the Lewis Group of Companies in any capacity, Vagnozzi said, was something she knew with “absolute certainty.”
City officials and Lewis corporate officers were unprepared at this point to offer a justification of the proposed trade in the face of the criticism being leveled at it.
The Sentinel made multiple efforts to engage both Randall Lewis, the vice president of marketing for the Lewis Group of Companies, and Upland City Manager Bill Manis in a discussion of the prospective land swap, the benefits it represents to the City of Upland and its residents, and to allow them to mount a defense of proceeding with the property trade, the entitlement of the 475 residential units in Sycamore Hills and the development of the sports complex. The Sentinel’s letter to Lewis can be viewed here: http://sbcsentinel.com/2018/09/randall-lewis-september-12-email/
Neither Lewis nor Manis responded to the Sentinel’s efforts to reach them by press time.
The Sentinel in the alternative sought to have Vagnozzi field questions about the proposal. She said on September 13, “Bill Manis is out of the office at a conference. He took the lead on the project. I have knowledge with regard to some particulars, but I do not want to comment, since what I know is incomplete.”
Meanwhile, as the September 24 city council meeting at which the land swap is to be considered and a vote for its approval is scheduled approaches, some Upland residents believe the city is moving ahead too quickly, and that more time should be given for all parties to size up the proposal than the four days between the public release of city staff’s report on and recommendation with regard to the swap on September 20 and the September 24 council meeting. A striking issue, they say, is that the entitlement, either actual or implied, to be given to Lewis to construct the 475 units should not be provided with the approval of the land exchange and prior to extensive public hearings. The city appears to be on the brink of granting the Lewis Group of Companies special treatment in the form of granting such an entitlement prematurely, they say, before the company owns the property.
For these reasons, several residents want the city council to hold off on making a decision with regard to the land trade.
Natasha Walton, a city resident and wildlife biologist by profession, pointed out that the city had invested in the property that is to be traded to Lewis beyond just purchasing it. Noting she has “many concerns about this abandonment of roughly 32 acres of Sycamore Hills parkland,” she said topping them is “my main concern, the legality of this abandonment plan. Because city soil work documents do show that the city paid for improving this Sycamore Hills parkland, I believe that the city should comply with California Code sections 38440-38462 and carry out a citywide election.”
Walton said, “I think that carrying out an election to determine whether or not to abandon this Sycamore Hills parkland would be the most fair way to approach this issue for the community. An election would not only allow current Upland residents to have a voice on this issue, but an election may also allow time for the new residents of Sycamore Hills to move in and also be able to weigh in on this vote. Any delays in this abandonment decision would also allow for the effects of all of the current developments to be better understood before the city makes such an important decision to abandon this parkland and, thus, embrace more development in this Sycamore Hills area.”
Irmalinda Osuna, a 15-year city resident who was instrumental in the successful opposition to the transfer of the 16 acres of soccer fields at Cabrillo Park to Lewis and is now challenging Filippi in this year’s District 3 council race, said, “My recommendation is to postpone the city council vote for the park abandonment scheduled for Sept 24th so that voters have an opportunity to engage with the process and be involved as full stakeholders in any discussion of abandonment of public resources. Excluding citizens’ right to a vote goes against the values of a democratic and transparent political process.”

 

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