Lewis Addresses View That His Company Has Driven Upland Land Use Policy

Randall Lewis, the executive vice president of the Lewis Group of Companies, this week addressed the widely held perception among many Upland residents that he and his company are a prime mover in the city of Upland’s willingness to embrace far greater density in its future development.
Lewis, now 64, is a scion, along with his brothers Richard, Robert and Roger, of the residential and commercial development dynasty founded by his father, Ralph Lewis, and his mother, Goldie Lewis. In 1955, Ralph Lewis, a tax attorney and accountant by profession, undertook construction on his first residential subdivision in Claremont. The synergy of Ralph Lewis’ business acumen and Goldie Lewis’ understanding of the need to build into each house living space and amenities to enhance the home’s domestic ambience set the Lewis Homes’ product apart from many of the cookie cutter structures built by competitors in the same market. Over time, Lewis Homes became a premier locally-based company, evolving into one of the largest homebuilders in the world. Lewis Homes and its corporate successors have developed in excess of 25,000 acres and more than 100,000 residential units within the context of subdivisions or planned communities in California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah.
By the 1980s, the Lewis family had progressed from building single family homes exclusively to a full line of residential units, including large and small homes, condominiums, townhomes, apartment complexes and commercial subdivisions. In 1999, the company sold a part of its operation to Kaufman and Broad, and since that time, the company no longer specializes in actual building, but rather completing the entitlement process for large projects which are then completed by other homebuilders.
Lewis Homes established its corporate headquarters in Upland and now the Lewis Group of Companies is headquartered in the City of Gracious Living as well. On balance, Lewis Homes is responsible for more of the single family residences now existing in Upland than any other company. Most recently it was involved in getting approval for the Enclave at Upland development, which will entail the construction of 350 single-family residential units on a 19-acre site between Foothill Boulevard and 11th Street west of Central Avenue near the city’s border with Claremont, a density of roughly 18.4 units per acre.
The timing of the approval of the Enclave coincided with the city’s effort at updating its general plan. The general plan is a blueprint for the future development of the city. In the case of Upland, the general plan was last updated in 1992. The proposed new general plan envisions a considerable increase in density in the city’s residentially zoned areas. Whereas many of the city’s existing residential neighborhoods consist of lots anywhere from a full acre or more on properties at the northern end to half acre lots, quarter acre lots, down to houses and town homes on eighth of an acre to tenth-of-an acre lots, the proposed general plan will allow builders in some areas of the city to construct as many as 52 dwelling units to an acre.
While the city council, the planning commission and city staff are in favor of the proposed new general plan as drafted, a sizeable and growing contingent of city residents – more than 500 – has gone on record as being opposed to the proposed new development standards, in particular the upticking in density. Many see the move to put ever more homes on ever less land as a serious threat to the quality of life in “The City of Gracious Living.” City officials are perceived by many Upland residents as being far too accommodating of developers, whose potential profits will increase with the land use intensifications laid out in the new planning document, including density increases.
In particular, the elected leadership has become for many concerned residents suspect in the rush toward approval of the new general plan as the development community in general, and the Lewis Group of Companies, have emerged as significant donors to the electioneering campaigns of the city council’s members.
In this way, the Lewis Group of Companies is seen as having a heavy – or perhaps even the heaviest – influence on a city council poised to compromise the standards of development and future growth in the city of Upland.
In an exclusive exchange with the Sentinel, Randall Lewis, as the most visible spokesman for the Lewis Group of Companies, propounded his view of why higher density residential development is in vogue and why he thinks critics of that density in Upland are mistakenly crediting him and his company with influence and responsibility for shifts in land use policy they do not merit.
“Throughout the United States and especially in California there has been a density movement that has been market driven,” Lewis said. His company is merely reacting to what its customer base wants, he said. “It has been interesting, the forces at play,” he observed. “We are hearing a greater demand from our customers, from a lot of jurisdictions, suggestions from a lot of business people, the development community. The demand for higher density is real. It is wrong, of course, to say all people want density. There are still people who want a big home on a big lot. People don’t want density for density’s sake. No one wants to own a townhouse on a thirteenth of an acre just to have a small home. But there is a trend toward smaller units and smaller lots. You buy a home for a series of reasons and uses – sales price, lifestyle features, perhaps a gated community, commute time, and for the amenities of a homeowners association. People make trade-offs. They are willing to live in an area that is close-in to Los Angeles, such as Upland, because to live out in Yucaipa you have to commute quite a bit more every day, 30 minutes or an hour more on the freeway. People are willing to take more density to get a lower sales price, to get a lifestyle where they can limit commute time.”
Lewis continued, “Part of this has to do with demographic changes. There are still large families buying homes but there are far more singles, couples, families with just one or two kids, retirees, people who are divorced. That doesn’t mean there aren’t families with three or four or five kids, but the trend is more toward diversity in households and smaller households in smaller houses. Many people don’t necessarily want a bigger lawn. For lifestyle reasons, some people still want a big backyard but far more people say they are too busy and do not want to maintain a big backyard. Your kids can play in a backyard but some say ‘If I have kids, they are going to be spending time playing soccer or in dance class or in after school activities.’ For a lot of commuters, it is too much of a demand to maintain a big backyard. Big backyards are not as popular as they were some time ago. We are lucky that in this valley we have tens of thousands of existing homes that are built on large lots. There has been a demographic shift toward a lifestyle where people prefer to not maintain a bigger backyard. The drought just emphasizes that more. Density allows us to be resource efficient. How much street do you need in front of your house? How much block wall do you want to build? Density can help you distribute resources better. For environmental reasons, density makes sense. There are environmental forces, market forces, economic forces, causing the development community to reconsider the traditional standards. Consumers themselves – the customers – want us to look for alternatives. Density is part of that.”
Home ownership has always been and will continue to be a reality, Lewis said, but living arrangements nowadays do not necessarily equate with having a mortgage.
“Real estate sales and rentals are normally not one market,” Lewis said. “Home purchasing is different from the rental variety.”
Lewis said he understands and respects the concerns many Upland residents have over the uprating of density envisioned in the new general plan.
“The people that come to the meetings and raise their concerns are worth listening to,” he said. “I salute them for being concerned. What they are doing is a good thing. Many of the questions they ask are valid questions – about traffic, about water, about adjacent uses. Those are all very valid questions to ask. I think these are local issues but also regional issues. They are concerned about the density movement. I can only speak for our company and other builders who might be in the same position. We are not part of a movement or anything like a movement that might take choices away. The movement comes from the market. It isn’t just Upland that is doing this. Other cities are doing this kind of planning. City officials are not saying you have to do a certain level of density. They are creating zones where you are given the ability to build higher density. That doesn’t mean the homebuilder has to do so. It makes it possible if they want to invest capital and the marketplace is there.”
Lewis said criticism of the development community and its involvement in formulating the tempo of ongoing and future development is not limited to Upland. He referenced the harsh reception some residents of Fontana gave to city officials who put two developers on a 25-member general plan advisory board there. He took issue with those who suggested having the development community represented on a panel dealing with development is a conflict of interest. “If you had a medical advisory panel, wouldn’t you want some doctors to be on it?” he asked. “I don’t know how to respond to someone who says that having two developers on a 25-member board to advise on the general plan is a conflict of interest except to say that, if anything, there should have been four developers on that committee. Having developers who are active in a city offer their input doesn’t hurt the city. It helps it.”
He said that from his perspective it was difficult to understand why so many people were skeptical or critical of the new urban planning principles that are being brought forth and are increasingly in vogue.
“What you want for the city of Upland is not very different from what you want in other cities in the valley,” Lewis said. “If you start at the county line, and look at what is being built in Upland, Montclair, Chino, Rancho Cucamonga and all of the western part of the county, you can see all of the cities have been moving toward density. The planners call it smart growth. A lot of people attack smart growth, but the planners like it because they see it as a better method of development. If you want big lots, you can go further and further out. The thing is: Can’t we do more with less? Why is density proper? Why are cities looking at this? Where do we want our children to live? Our firemen? Nurses? Teachers? Where do we want the people who work in our businesses to live? Do we want them traveling miles and miles to get to work and spend two hours every morning on the freeways? Or do we want them to be fresh when they arrive at work? A lot of cities have said they want an adequate supply of housing so workers and those who grew up there can come back, so those who work there do not have to commute a long way on our freeways.”
Lewis continued, “Upland is characterized by some as a place that has some excellent shopping centers as well as some shopping centers and strip centers not doing so well. We [the Lewis Group of Companies] do well in creating and marketing retail space. What we hear from the business people is ‘We have to be where there are a lot of people, a lot of rooftops, to keep our existing retail successful or to attract new retail. We need people living locally who are going to shop.’ In the development community, we want to respond to the market, to make it so businesses – retail stores, service providers, doctors, barbers – can succeed and employ more people. The more jobs, the more business, more sales, more sales tax and more property tax.”
Lewis addressed the perception that he and his brothers and his company have an inordinate degree of influence on officials, politicians, the government, and the community.
First, he acknowledged that he is an advocate of higher density and what he labeled smart growth. But, he emphasized, it is not he or his company that is leading the charge.
“We have been advocates, along with the major development groups – Southern California Associated Governments, the Urban Land Institute, a lot of the planning schools at major universities,” he said “I am not authorized to speak for them but most of them most of the time are advocating for newer types of develop instead of the old big homes on big lots.”
He recognizes that some in the community respect what he has to say, even if others do not, Lewis said. He said he believes he has a perspective that can be valuable and that he chooses his words carefully.
“For the last seven or eight years, the West End Real Estate Professionals – which is a collection of real estate agents, brokers and title companies – have asked me to give the yearly economic forecast in January,” Lewis said. “They ask me back every year and each year the event has gotten bigger and bigger to the point that there were about 300 people attending this year, the biggest audience they ever had. Some have said that the people there come to bow at the feet of royalty. I think that is an unfair thing to say. I do a lot of preparation for that presentation, probably 20 hours worth. For me it is a big thing. I really prepare because I want to give the people who do show up good content. I think I am asked to do that because I am pretty knowledgeable and have something that people can take away from that event that might be useful to them in their business and their approach. I don’t think they are there because of my last name. What I have to say is based on the role my company plays in the valley. Why is it that we have so many projects in the area? Why do a lot of cities let us do work within their borders? I think it is because we are taking a certain direction. We are following economic and development trends. We have been successful and we keep reinvesting in those communities. Don’t you want to listen to the ones who want to reinvest in the community? When you look at what our company has done, we have made a few mistakes but overall, we have as good of a batting average or better than most others. I don’t see that as a badge of shame. We have been successful because we don’t shy away from investing capital in the marketplace. If people listen to us, it is because they understand we have a lot of experience and we try to ask for things that are going to be good for the community and we try to not ask for things that don’t make sense. Our family, our company has been invested in this community for over fifty years. We hope to be in this valley for decades more. When the community grows stronger, it becomes a better place to live and to invest in.”

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