29 Palms Tweaks Development Code To Accommodate Phoenix Plan

TWENTYNINE PALMS—The city of Twentynine Palms has initiated a change in its development code, amending it to allow previously prohibited housing and governmental offices in the downtown commercial area.
Over the last two years, city officials have conceptualized and refined what is referred to as Project Phoenix, which calls for a makeover of the city’s central district with an eye toward  returning 21 currently vacant properties  to viability.
Project Phoenix was originally conceived of as an energetic effort to utilize funding that was anticipated to be available through the city’s redevelopment agency to rejuvenate the city’s core, including building a community center and performing center/theater, workforce housing, a wastewater treatment plant, underground utilities and improved alleyways, curbs and sidewalks.
The state’s discontinuation of municipal redevelopment authority has complicated but not eradicated the concept and city officials believe that the project can be seen to fruition through the use of creative financing means that will substitute for if not exactly replicate redevelopment authority, which provided for the eradication of blight through the issuance of bonds and use the proceeds from the sale of those bonds to build infrastructure or public works projects to spur economic development. Redevelopment law allowed the increase in property values prompted by those improvements to create a revenue stream devoted to debt service those bonds.
City Attorney Patrick Muñoz alluded to a private residential developer who would put up a large portion of the money needed to carry out Project  Phoenix.
Moreover, a lawmaker from another portion of San Bernardino County has suggested that cities may soon be able to form and utilize another type of municipal government adjunct to finance improvement projects if all of the governmental agencies sharing in the property tax in that particular area agree to the formation of such a district.
Assemblywoman Norma J. Torres, D-Chino, who chairs the Assembly committee on Housing and Community Development and represents the 61st Assembly District, said  “Our cities need a local source of funds to pay for economic development and affordable housing projects. We  need to find a new way to help cities and counties create jobs. One way is through the use of infrastructure financing districts. That is why I have drafted a bill, Assembly Bill 910, to allow affordable housing and economic development to be financed using infrastructure financing districts. Infrastructure financing districts can be used by cities and counties now to pay for public works improvements like sewer projects, highways and transit projects. Also, an infrastructure financing district allows a city or county to issue bonds and use tax increment to pay for projects. Projects are more limited because every local agency that will contribute property tax must agree to the plan.”
Whatever financing mechanism the city will use to proceed with Project Phoenix, the plan was hampered at the municipal planning level because of inconsistencies in the city’s development code.
The Twentynine Palms Downtown Specific Plan, which previously set development standards in the central business district, prohibits the construction of ground level housing or a civic center complex there.
On January 24, the city council unanimously approved a code amendment changing the land use standards in commercial districts, to allow the civic center containing a theater and workforce housing project to be built in the downtown area.
The changes have not yet been officially activated. They will need another city council confirmation, known as a second reading of the ordinance, followed by a 30 day period before they go into effect. The second reading is anticipated this month.
Some residents and property owners objected to the city council’s action. A few suggested that the council was far too ready to deviate from its own standards when it was convenient for its own ends and far less accommodating of property owners or developers who wanted to proceed with their own plans.
“I think the city should play by the same rules,” said Jamie Avels.
Of concern to some was the city’s readiness to raze several historic buildings to make way for the project. Jay St. Gaudens said his building was built in 1936 and is still sound and functional. He said that under the law, the city will need to relocate any existing businesses that are displaced by the project.  St. Gaudens said he valued his property at $1.2 million.
The council also provided what is known as a mitigated negative declaration for Project Phoenix, that is, it made a finding that there were no unmitigatable environmental impacts from the project. This eliminated the need for the city to do an environmental impact report on the project. The council took that action despite the city having received a notice from the California Department of Fish and Game that a biological survey of the burrowing owl needs to be conducted before the project gets underway.
Some residents indicated their belief that without the redevelopment agency to finance the project, the city will not be able to complete it.
Councilman Jay Corbin said he would reluctantly vote to approved the code amendment and negative declaration, but that the city should “acknowledge we don’t know with certainty whether Project Phoenix will go forward.” He said the city should use caution because the development code change would impact “what people can and cannot build.”
Previously, residents have questioned whether the income from a rejuvenated downtown will be sufficient to pay for and maintain the sewer system and the downtown community center complex.
City manager Richard Warne said it would cost roughly $115,000 annually to maintain the wastewater treatment plant. He said leases of space within the community center complex could defray its maintenance costs. There are a total of 39 properties in the Project Phoenix redevelopment area, 18 of which host active businesses.
There is concern among some property owners that the city will use eminent domain to seize properties, vacant or not, to undertake the project.

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