By Mark Gutglueck
Discontent over the City of San Bernardino’s approval of the placement of a county welfare office in a residential neighborhood hit a crescendo this week. With both the processing of the project application and the project description marred by incomplete or misleading language, a significant number residents of San Bernardino’s Muscupiabe District already upset at the prospect of being saddled with what they consider to be an incompatible use in their neighborhood expressed suspicion that city officials may have deliberately misled them about the nature of the project to minimize opposition at a critical earlier point when the project’s approval could have possibly been prevented.
It now appears that the politically well-connected developer, who has already laid out millions of dollars to move the project along to its initial construction phase and who has secured financing to proceed with millions of dollars more in bringing the project to fruition, will, if the approval of the project is rescinded, embroil the city in litigation that would result in the city potentially being on the hook for at least $14 million, the value of the county’s lease on the building.
At the board of supervisors’ last meeting in 2017, held on December 19 of that year, the board was presented with a recommendation from the county’s director of real estate services, Terry Thompson, and the director of the county’s transitional services department, Gilbert Ramos, that the county enter into a $14,036,184 lease agreement with 27th Street TAD, LLC, for approximately 38,150 square feet of office space to be located at the northwest corner of 27th Street and Little Mountain Drive in San Bernardino, also described as Assessor Parcel No. (APN) 0148-021-66-0000, for occupancy by the transitional assistance department for the ten-year period beginning August 1, 2019 and running through July 31, 2029.
The transitional assistance department, which is sometimes referred to by its acronym TAD, provides a wide array of federal and state-mandated social services and income assistance programs to the residents of San Bernardino County, particularly those whose loss of jobs or income has put them at risk of becoming, or has rendered them, homeless.
A principal in 27th Street TAD, LLC is Scott Beard. For a generation, Beard has been a major player in development and property ownership circles active in the Central and Eastern Valleys of San Bernardino County, particularly the cities of Rialto and San Bernardino. As a consequence, he has been a major donor to the political campaigns of elected officials at the municipal and county level.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, the approval of the 38,150-square foot building at the northwest corner of 27th Street and Little Mountain Drive was considered and given go-ahead not by the city’s planning commission or the city council, but by the city’s development and environmental review committee, consisting of various members of city staff, primarily department heads and those from the community and economic development department.
At the county level the project was clearly defined as what it was – a building to house an office of the transitional assistance department, a division of the San Bernardino County Department of Human Services, referred to by some as the welfare department. At the internal city level, the project was also defined as being intended for use as a transitional assistance department office, but at one stage the city utilized an architect’s description line on a rendering for the building which substituted “resources” for services in the heading human services. This changed the implication to suggest that the building was intended to house the county’s human resources or personnel department.
A second misnomer unrelated to the blurring of services/resources nuances occurred when in the disclosure notifications to the residents living in proximity to the project, the building was referred to in the planning profession jargon as “office professional,” which in common parlance was taken to mean the structure would be a professional office building, which rubric, technically, a transitional services office falls within. Ultimately, however, a significant segment of the populace, including many people living within the Muscupiabe District were unaware of the actual intended occupant of the building.
There had been nevertheless, numerous public indications that the transitional services department would occupy the building. The January 5, 2018 edition of the Sentinel, for example, featured a front page article in which the county approval of the lease for the yet-to-be-completed building was referenced, together with the description of the project location at the northwest corner of 27th Street and Little Mountain Drive, along with the assessor’s parcel number.
While the intent of both the county and 27th Street TAD, LLC was for the building to be completed by late June or early July of this year so that it would be certified for occupancy by the first of this month, there were delays. It was only relatively recently that local residents took stock of the situation as construction got underway, and word spread throughout the surrounding neighborhoods that a “welfare office” was being erected at West 27th Street and Little Mountain Drive.
When City Hall was inundated with complaints, city officials posited the hurried and not fully thought-through defense that they were under the impression the building was to host a county human resources center, which was something of a prevarication.
Meanwhile, the anger and dissatisfaction of the residents of the Muscupiabe District were festering. The Muscupiabe neighborhood is nestled between the triangular intersection of the 210 freeway and 215 freeway in northwestern San Bernardino. A historic neighborhood, Muscupiabe’s entryway features large pepper trees and medium size homes, some of impressive architectural character.
The project, which actually lies within he city’s Second Ward, is very close to the confluence of wards Two, Five and Six, represented by council members Sandra Ibarra, Henry Nickel and Bessine Richard, respectively. Ibarra was not elected to the council until November 2018 and did not take office until December, by which time the project was approved by the city.
In recent weeks, Councilman Henry Nickel has emerged as the member of the council most animated about the pending project, and the one militating most heavily on behalf of the residents who have recently been galvanized against allowing the project, as it was approved, to proceed. Indeed, statements Nickel has made have been construed to imply that the county should be forced to utilize the building as a human resources center.
Nickel’s stance with regard to the project has, on multiple levels, provoked consternation within the county, which has $14 million riding on the project’s completion. First and foremost, the city in November gave final go-ahead to the project. Second, Nickel is a county employee. Third, Nickel is employed specifically as an analyst with the County of San Bernardino Workforce Development Board, a position that would very likely have clued him in to any project that would have involved the creation of a county human resources center, had there actually been plans for such a project. Moreover, Bessine Richard, the councilwoman in the Sixth District, which is a stone’s throw from the project site, has for three years been the manager of the County of San Bernardino Workforce Development Board and was for two years and eight months before that a supervisor on the County of San Bernardino Workforce Development Board’s staff. She, too, would have undoubtedly been aware of any county human resources center being built in San Bernardino.
At the August 7 Wednesday night San Bernardino City Council meeting, the first held at the newly established meeting chambers at the Norman Feldheym Library, Nickel asserted that on August 4 he had been provided with documents a constituent had obtained through a California Public Records request relating to the approval of the project which described it as a “human resources facility.” Pointing out that the applicant on the project was not the county but rather a private developer, 27th Street TAD, LLC, Nickel made a motion to “direct our city manager to issue immediately a stop work order on this project and take appropriate corrective action.” That motion was seconded by Ibarra, but before a vote was taken a discussion ensued in which Councilman Fred Shorett said, “I empathize and understand the concerns of the community.” Nevertheless, he said, “I think we’re setting ourselves up for some real trouble if we stop this,” indicating that he believed a stop work order would trigger litigation from Beard. Shorett said the situation presented the council with a “real conundrum.” City Manager Teri Ledoux said she had directed staff to “gather documentation and go over it with the city’s legal department,” indicating that issuing a stop work order might be premature at this point. “We’re certainly not ready to talk about it this evening,” she said.
Former City Attorney James Penman, speaking earlier as a member of the public, said, “The city needs to preserve the status quo and freeze the situation. You protect the city from liability by issuing a stop work order. You also protect the developer, because he doesn’t continue to build and spend money.”
Penman said Beard would continue with the project based on the permits that were issued, whether they were lawfully issued or not. “You have to preserve the city’s position,” Penman told the council. “You have to stop and freeze everything in order that you can do a proper investigation to determine what happened. If you don’t issue the stop work order, the developer continues to build and acquires vested rights. Later [when] the residents get a writ of mandate and make him stop, he is going to sue the city for allowing him to continue to build and spend money. It’s a Catch-22 situation.”
Ibarra attempted to usher the council toward action before Beard proceeds with actual building activity beyond the grading he has done so far. Ibarra asserted that the nearby property owners “were misled by the notices they received in October. I think it is fair that we ask that property owner to apply for a conditional use permit and allow for a public hearing allowing the residents who are going to be greatly affected by what’s going to happen with that project being put up in their neighborhood.”
She said Beard had opposed a social services office being built across the street from his office in Rialto because of how it would negatively impact property values in that area. “But then he’s doing this to our city, right across from the only and last good neighborhood I have in the Second Ward,” she said. “We were highly misled. I don’t know how it goes from a human services building to a human resources admin building. The traffic is going to change drastically in that neighborhood. There is a preschool across the street and maybe two or three blocks over is Davidson Elementary, so a traffic study is needed. If he can apply for a conditional use permit the right way as it should have been, I have no objection, but it has to be done the proper way, noticing the residents in that area properly as well, not changing one word or a typographical error. That is unacceptable. We’re talking about litigation.”
Short of the council having the city manager slap Beard with a stop work order, Councilman Jim Mulvihill suggested that Beard be prevailed upon to voluntarily impose on himself a “good faith stop work order.”
City Attorney Sonia Carvalho cautioned the council against imposing a stop work order on Beard after the city had given him approval to proceed with the construction of the building. She advised the council that it could yet seek to impose on his tenant – the county – the need to obtain a conditional use permit to operate a social services office at that location. Putting Beard and his tenant on notice that the transitional services facility may not meet the city’s codes and standards could potentially give the city the leverage to head off the eventuality of the operation setting up at that location.
Sensing that there was not will on the council to move ahead with the stop work order, Nickel made a motion that the city council direct Ledoux and city staff to proceed with the ongoing investigation and in one week, on August 14 at 5 p.m. report its findings back to the city council.
The following day, the Muscupiabe and Blair Park Neihborhood associations held a joint meeting in a large classroom at Davidson Elementary School in which an overcapacity crowd of 179 attendees in addition to 14 city and county officials as well as Beard and one of his associates participated.
The joint meeting was coordinated by Muscupiabe Neighborhood Association Chairwoman Lynn Wear and another local activist, Kathy Mallon. Emilia Lopez officiated the proceedings, using written speaker cards from the attendees to apportion them time to speak. The speakers were given two minutes to pose questions to the public officials present or to Beard or otherwise make comments. On occasion, Lopez articulated questions of her own. Among the public officials present were County Supervisor Josie Gonzles and two members of her staff; County Spokesman David Wert; San Bernardino County Redevelopment Director Terry Thompson and his assistant, Jim Miller; San Bernardino County Transitional Services Director Gilbert Ramos; San Bernardino City Manager Teri Ledoux and Community & Economic Development Director Michael Huntley.
The residents expressed anger and frustration at being saddled with the nearby presence of the welfare office, asking why the county had chosen to locate it in a residential neighborhood. Thomsposn and Miller sought to explain that the county had solicited proposals from potential landlords and that of the three responses, the bid for the Little Mountain location best met the county’s needs, and the city’s zoning at the site allowed the transitional assistance office to be built there. They and Ramos met the crowd’s questions about the decision to close the county’s exisiting San Bernardino Transitional Services Office on Massachusetts Avenue by explaining that the existing building is aging and of insufficient size to handle the growing caseload. Thomas said “This site was selected because it was best in comparison” to the alternatives. Ramos insisted that the facility was not intended to house homeless but serve as a venue for providing services to those in need between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.
Various residents of the neighborhood expressed their views, complaining that representing the project as a professional office building was both calculated and misleading, and that they were being treated like “peons” by a wealthy developer and well-heeled city and county officials who would never consider locating a welfare office in their own residential neighborhoods. Thomas angered the crowd when he avoided answering pointed questions about why the the county had not considered other locations away from residences such as existing vacant commercial buildings. When he did answer the question after considerable prompting, he focused on an empty Lowes hardware store, which he said could not be utilized because the owner was unwilling to entertain the county’s offers. Miller said the Carousel Mall was tied up with an ongoing proposal for its conversion to a mixed use residential and commercial project.
More than one resident said having the welfare office in the district would serve as a magnet for criminal activity. Officials said there would be security at the facility, around which there would be fencing, and that the clients would be cleared out after closing and the campus gate would be locked. Residents responded that the officials were more concerned about security for the building than they were for the safety of the community into which it was being inserted. Ramos said there will be no clients at the facility at night. “We will have security there,” he said. “The plan for this building is it will be fenced all around. The locked gate will not allow traffic in or out [after hours].”
“That will stop them from being in your building,” one resident shouted. “It’s not going to stop them from walking down our streets.”
Ramos insisted that the goal of the transitional assistance department was to reduce the social problems that lead to unsafe neighborhoods. “The services we offer are to serve families and get people back to work,” he said. “We supply the services they need to get to being self-sufficient.”
One woman complained that putting significant numbers of people at a transitional phase of their lives into the neighborhood was “saying to people that they will just have to stay in their homes” to avoid the danger the transitional assistance facility’s clients will represent.
When asked what the city’s response to the controversy was, San Bernardino City Manager Teri Ledoux said her office was conducting a seven-day investigation into the approval of the project, and that she was not prepared to provide answers until the probe was finished.
Other residents brought up the proximity of the office to a school, voicing concerns that there would be individuals at the social service office transitioning into the local community from institutions. They said the presence of such people was incompatible with a school setting.
Several expressed the view that the Muscupiabe District was a nice neighborhood that was going to be invaded by an undesirable element. One resident said the Muscupiabe District should be valued by the city as one of the “very few pockets left of what was a great community.” Another called it a “hidden gem.”
Officials’ assurances that the City of San Bernardino would provide police services to combat any uptick in criminal activity perpetrated by the clientele of the welfare office as well as Ramos’s and Supervisor Josie Gonzzles’s statements to the effect that the communites in Ontario, Chino and Chino Hills coexist satisfactorily with the transitional assistance facilities there provoked from the crowd unfavorable comparisons between San Bernardino’s police department and its lengthy response times to the police departments and sheriff’s department contingent in the other cities.
One man, asserting that the neighborhood had already been plagued by a homeless encampment near the top of the hill beyond Mountain Drive, asked, “Who will be there after four o’clock if people are still camping and hanging out at midnight?”
He then demanded to know the identities of the city’s development and environmental review committee. “Who are the seven who reviewed this, the ones who decided what is going to happen in our neighborhood?” he asked. “Who are they?”
One resident accused the county and city officials of speaking in platitudes. “Give us real solutions,” she shouted. “Don’t give us vague words.”
Residents expressed anger at Mayor John Valdivia not being at the meeting, and they jeered Gonzales when she stated that the project was one that was legitimately approved, and that the residents were represented by their mayor and ward councilwoman.
Residents shouted that Valdivia was on the take. “San Bernardino does not have the best reputation,” One said. “The mayor’s shady.”
“You’ve totally abandoned us,” a resident shouted. “You should not be spending bankrupt money on building a new facility. Look at the abandoned buildings around here. Put it in one of them.”
One woman warned the officials, “This is a good neighborhood. I don’t want to be forced to move because I have homeless sitting on my curb. What plans do you have to guarantee safety for us? Our police department is overloaded with calls. We might have to take things into our own hands.”
When Gonzales said that what was being done was the best that the city and county could do, and “if you don’t like it, help us bring about something better,” a woman responded, “This isn’t problem solving. This is malarkey.”
Ibarra said that the project was already approved when she came into office. She called upon the city and county officials to take a close look at the existing transitional assistance facility in the city. “Visit the Massachusetts location,” she said. “You will see what they are talking about. That is what they are afraid of.”
Thompson was asked why the Massachusetts facility could not be expanded to accommodate the greater demand now being put upon it. He gave a less than clear response to that question. He was then asked what was to become of the building after the county left it, and would it become another empty eyesore.
“That is a question for the landlord of that building,” Thomas said.
One resident, picking up on Councilman Mulvihill’s suggestion from the previous evening, asked Beard if he had been asked by the city to impose on himself “a good faith stop work order.” Beard responded that he had not.
The moderator, Emilia Lopez, expressed her view that the approval process for the project was “flawed.”
By Mark Gutglueck