By Mark Gutglueck
Two months after the Upland City Council gave go-ahead to Bridge Development’s controversial Amazon distribution center project on the city’s west end, the two planning commissioners who stood by their recommendations against proceeding with the project are being removed from their posts.
One of those commissioners also went on record as being opposed to the high density Plaza Serena housing project that lies within the footprint of land designated for flood control purposes on the city’s east side. The Plaza Serena project was also ultimately approved by the city council.
City officials have not acknowledged that the votes commissioners Alexander Novikov and Yvette Walker cast against the Amazon project had anything to do with their being bounced from the panel that deals with the evaluation of development proposals and determining their consistency with the land use standards in the City of Gracious Living. Nevertheless, there were unmistakable signs that Novikov and Walker had shown themselves to be out of step with City Hall’s recently-evolved imperative toward facilitating any substantive proposals that can be construed as representing economic development in the city. Novikov’s vote against Frontier Homes’ Plaza Serena development project east of Campus Avenue and north of 15th Street further put him out of sync with City Hall.
Walker, whose appointment to the planning commission was made in 2016 after her nomination by then-Mayor Ray Musser, jeopardized the support she formerly had from developmental interests intent on aggressive growth in the city when she opposed the Amazon distribution center.
In the 1970s, the demise of Upland as an agricultural wonderland began in earnest, as the first of what eventually proved to be dozens of large-scale citrus groves that had existed in the city for upwards of 50, 60 and 70 years were leveled to make way for conversion of those properties to residential subdivisions. That aggressive development continued into the 1980s under the guidance of city council members including Dina Hunter, Frank Carpenter, Frank Hoover, Robert Nolan and Al Canestro along with mayors John McCarthy, Richard Anderson and Nolan after he acceded to that position. In the 1990s as most of the developable properties in Upland had been consumed, the building frenzy abated somewhat, with the developmental focus transitioning in the later part of that decade and then in the 2000s to the more problematic previously unimproved properties on the city’s periphery that required considerable additions of infrastructure. Infill development on smaller size parcels at that point intensified within the city’s existing neighborhoods and commercial/industrial districts.
For roughly ten years beginning with the economic downturn of 2007, there was only sporadic interest in undertaking development in Upland. With the emergence from the lingering nationwide, state, regional and local recession in 2014, the freeing up of financing resulted in more and more project applications being filed at the city’s planning counter. Simultaneously, city management found itself under the gun to augment the city’s revenue stream because of the gradual drawdown in available city revenues and increasing city operational costs, including ones brought on by escalating pension commitments as more and more long term city employees retired. A casualty in all of this was the integrity of the city’s community development, planning and building and safety functions, as the development services director, city planner and associate planners no longer conceived of their assignments as calling for them to make a straightforward and thorough assessment of each project proposal filed at the planning counter so that thereafter the planning commission and then the city council could fairly assess whether the project should be allowed to proceed. Rather, they saw their jobs as ones which called for them to present a case for allowing such projects to achieve fruition. In this way, the intent of senior staff was that no exhaustive evaluation of the projects under consideration be given, but that the city’s consent for the plans was to be provided automatically, followed by a one-sided analysis that justified the approval.
That such an orientation was the new order in Upland was apparent from the manner in which the city began shying away from requiring that environmental impact reports be undertaken for the projects submitted to City Hall, allowing instead for what is referred to as a mitigated negative declaration to suffice as the environmental certification of those projects. Mitigated negative declarations are a finding by a governmental jurisdiction’s decision-making body that any negative environmental impacts of a project or proposed project are offset by the conditions of approval for that undertaking. Not only is a mitigated negative declaration significantly less expensive than carrying out a full-blown environmental impact report, it is far less exhaustive in delineating what impacts the project will have, thereby decreasing the likelihood that an objectionable element of the project will be noted and brought to the attention of the community and its citizens. This greatly reduces the potential that protest over those impacts will derail the project or prevent its approval.
In early 2018, representatives of Bridge Development Partners quietly began discussions with the City of Upland relating to the development of a distribution center for on-line retail giant Amazon on a 50-acre property owned by the Bongiovanni Family Trust north of Foothill Boulevard and south of Cable Airport eastward of the northern terminus of Central Avenue. In June 2019, the project was officially previewed to the Upland community as a three building complex with 977,000 square feet under roof. After objections to the scope of the proposal manifested, the tentative site plan was modified several times until in October 2019 a revamped conception of the project was presented, one that was reduced to a single structure of 276,250 square feet. When the environmental review documentation for the project was posted on December 16, 2019, it came in the form of a draft negative mitigated declaration as opposed to an environmental impact report. In that documentation, the project was shown as a 201,096-square-foot distribution center. While the 37-day review period for that document was yet ongoing, on Thursday, January 9, 2020 the Upland City Council, the Upland Planning Commission and the Upland Airport Land Use Committee held a joint workshop at City Hall to carry out a discussion of the draft initial study and draft mitigated negative declaration for the project. The vast majority of the public attending the meeting who addressed the city council and planning commission indicated opposition to the project.
After feedback from the public was accepted in conjunction with the processing of the mitigated negative declaration, which some residents said was marred by the failure to post all of the public input and commentary submitted to the city, the planning commission met on February 12 to consider the project. Commissioner Alexander Novikov, who because of prior business commitments was out of town, was therefore absent from that evening’s irregularly-scheduled meeting. Thus, five of the commission’s then-current six members – Chairwoman Robin Aspinall, Carolyn Anderson, Vice Chairman Gary Schwary, Linden Brouse and Yvette Walker – were present. On a key issue relating to the project, its environmental certification, the panel voted 4-to-1, with Walker dissenting, to ratify the mitigated negative declaration for the project, making what was essentially a finding that any untoward environmental impacts would be offset by the conditions of approval imposed on the project. On a second primary issue relating to the project, consideration of its site plan, a motion to reject it was made, garnering the support of commissioners Schwary, Walker and Brouse. Aspinall and Anderson dissented in that vote.
The commission’s vote was a non-binding one, but which served as the primary recommendation to the city council with regard to the project. Over the next two weeks, the commission’s members were subjected to a withering round of intense lobbying by project proponents. The Sentinel is informed that city staff members also expressed disappointment and criticism of the planning commission’s February 12 vote against the project.
On February 26, the commission made an unprecedented reconsideration of the project, and then took a do-over vote to rescind the February 12 decision that had rejected the site plan. With Novikov present, the commission reconsidered the matter, at which point Novikov joined with Walker in registering opposition to the site plan, while Schwary and Brouse reversed themselves from their February 12 votes, resulting in a 4-to-2 recommendation that the city council approve the project’s site plan.
On April 1, the city council, during a meeting from which the public was excluded because of concerns about the COVID-19 contagion, took up consideration of the project, giving it approval on the crucial issues of its environmental certification through a mitigated negative declaration and passage of its site plan, both on 4-to-1 votes, with Councilwoman Janice Elliott dissenting. The full council then voted unanimously to approve a development agreement relating to the project, by which Bridge Development agreed to make up for the consideration that Amazon, as an on-line retailer, would not generate sales tax revenue to the city. That agreement called for a series of payments totaling $16 million over the first 20 years of the distribution center’s operations.
The fashion in which the planning commission was cozened and browbeaten into changing its recommendation and to thereby depart from acting as an independent evaluating body foretold a dynamic shift in the integrity of the city’s planning process. As a result, the political will and reach of the city council, which appeared to be intent on approving the project well prior to the public hearing process and its scheduled consideration of the project proposal, was exposed as the driving factor in the values embodied at City Hall.
Late last year, Upland’s community development and planning divisions had taken up another proposal, this one pertaining to a residential subdivision development on the city’s east side within the Foothill Knolls neighborhood. City officials placed before the planning commission a plan by Frontier Homes, owned by James Previti, Jr., to construct the Villa Serena project, 65 single family detached residential units on 9.2-acres that lie within the footprint of the 15th Street Flood Water Detention Basin. The project was represented to the commission by city staff as fitting within what remains as some of the last open space at the north end of Upland’s long-existing Foothill Knolls neighborhood. From shortly after Frontier Home’s initial filing with regard to the project in July 2018 there were objections to it, primarily relating to the density it entails being inconsistent with its surroundings, that the two-story nature of the homes would interfere with both the privacy and mountain vistas of the existing homes to the south and the intensification of traffic circulation problems it will create. In short, the area’s residents considered the densely-packed multistory homes to be an architectural misfit with the knolls.
An overarching issue was that the project is to be located on land intended for flood alleviation. That 20.3-acre property had been obtained some two decades ago by the Colonies Partners, headed by Dan Richards and Jeff Burum, to serve as an intrinsic element of an elaborate flood control network to serve as a repository for water that would be channeled away from the Colonies at San Antonio subdivision to the north. In 2002, the city had entered into a development agreement with the Colonies Partners allowing the development of the Colonies at San Antonio Project, which included an agreement that entailed the city paying the Colonies Partners $5 million as the city’s fair share cost for increasing the capacity of various streets and the capacity of the city’s storm drains and sewer facilities, including having the city use the 20.3 acres near 15th Street as a flood water basin. In 2003, the city, at that point strapped for cash, voted to modify the agreement with the Colonies Partners by paying Richards’ and Burum’s company $1.5 million and making up the remaining $3.5 million it had agreed to pay by granting the Colonies Partners a 10-year term for their first right of refusal to explore and identify a potential project in the area before the 15th Street Basin property was dedicated to public use. The city council extended the Colonies Partners’ first right of refusal after the ten year period had passed. Rather than develop the property itself, the Colonies Partners offered Previti the opportunity to develop the property. He came up with the Villa Serena project, for which the Upland Planning Commission thrice held hearings, continuing its initial hearing on December 11, 2019, when the majority of the Foothill Knolls residents addressing the proposal opposed it, to its next meeting on January 22, 2020, at which point the commission voted 3-to-2, based upon a motion worded by Commissioner Gary Schwary, to recommend to the city council that it deny approval of the project. Schwary and commissioners Linden Brouse and Alexander Novikov went on record as being against the project and commissioners Robin Aspinall and Yvette Walker voted in favor of it. The commission then took up the project as an issue once more, at its February 25, 2020 meeting. On this occasion, all six of the commission’s members were present, including the previously absent Carolyn Anderson. The resultant vote to recommend to the city council that it deny the applicant permission to proceed registered at 4-to-2. Of note was that Commissioner Aspinall, who had previously voted in favor of the development plan, reversed herself, this time joining with her colleagues Anderson, Brouse and Novikov in opposing the project. However, Schwary, who the previous month had made the motion to advise the city council against allowing the project to proceed, reversed himself, joining with Walker in endorsing Frontier Homes’ proposal for the development of the property.
City staff continued to militate heavily in favor of the project.
For many in the community, Schwary’s reversal of his votes that were initially against two highly controversial projects to ones in favor of them intensified questions about the independence of the planning commission and the influence being brought to bear on it.
On Monday, April 13, after Development Services Director Robert Dalquest and Joshua Winter, the city’s planner on the project, gave an overview of the project proposal and Andrew Winterstrom of Frontier Homes also fielded questions from the council relating to the project, 22 Upland residents, most of whom live in the immediate environs of the project, addressed the council by teleconference, as the meeting was not open to the public. All 22 expressed opposition to the project. Thereafter, the council voted 4-to-1 to approve a motion by Councilman Ricky Felix seconded by Councilman Bill Velto to approve the residential specific plan, accede to a general plan amendment and parallel zone change, and then certify the mitigated negative declaration, tentative tract map and design review for the project. Councilwoman Elliott dissented from the majority in the vote.
Jeff Burum was a political sponsor of Felix’s successful 2018 campaign for city council as well as Walker’s unsuccessful council campaign that same year. Burum has publicly stated he is committed to advancing Velto’s electioneering effort later this year, whether Velto seeks to remain as a councilman or instead seek the mayoralty.
Walker and Novikov’s dissenting votes on the Amazon project apparently caught the attention of the city council
Yvette Walker was appointed to the planning commission in 2016, taking up her position thereon in July of that year. Under the city’s tradition, members of the panel are routinely reappointed to a second term, provided they are amenable to remaining and their service has been demonstrated as satisfactory. Generally, members remain for no more than two terms, though there have been some exceptions to this pattern. A member’s reappointment past two terms requires no fewer than four votes of the council.
Novikov was among 14 applicants for the position considered in early 2019 when then-Commissioner Bill Velto was obliged to resign after he was elevated to the city council to fill the gap that had been created when Janice Elliott, who had been elected to an at-large council position in 2016 was elected in 2018 to the city’s newly created Second District council position.
Novikov, a Russian who had worked for the government in his native country before emigrating to the United States and becoming a naturalized citizen, now runs a dance academy locally. On the commission, he developed a reputation for exacting analysis of the projects being considered, and for his ability and willingness to network with those with specific areas of expertise relating to issues pertinent to the various proposals, such as economists, land use specialists, scientists and environmental experts including those he had contact with at the UCLA Anderson School of Management where he is currently working on a postgraduate degree, to help inform his decisions and those of his commission colleagues.
Walker, it turns out, had assumed that she would automatically be considered for reappointment when her term expires at the end of this month. Novikov in January had applied to be considered for reappointment when the term to which Velto was reappointed in 2016 and which he was completing expires at the end of this month. On Wednesday, however, both Novikov and Walker were contacted by Planning Commission Chairwoman Robin Aspinall, who provided each with the courtesy of knowing, before they read it in the city council agenda for June 8 that was posted late Wednesday, that the council would be appointing Thomas Grahn and Lorraine Kindred to replace them on the commission.
In Upland, there is no precedence for terminating a commissioner’s tenure after serving a fraction of a term, as is the case with Novikov.
To Novikov, the heads-up provided to him by Aspinall was unexpected. Following his reapplication in January, he had heard nothing. He indicates now that because he had not been contacted for a re-interview by the appointment committee, he had been lulled into a certain degree of complacency, essentially an expectation that he was going to be reappointed.
“I asked the city clerk and [Planning Commission] Vice Chairman [Gary] Schwary about exactly what I have to do to reapply,” Novikov told the Sentinel on Thursday. “I did what they instructed me to do. All of this time, they never came back to me. I assumed my name would come up in the application process and they would talk to me about my plans, interview me, and they would bring my name up in the council meeting when the appointments or reappointments for the next term are made. Yesterday [Wednesday, June 3], I got a call from Chairwoman Aspinall. She told me, ‘I want you to know that what you are going to see on the agenda is your term is up and they decided not to reappoint anyone.’ She said that it might be as a result of the political situation. She didn’t say whether that meant in the country or in the city, because of the COVID-19 matter or the protests [relating to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week].”
Aspinall did not mention the Bridge Development Partners project vote, but Novikov said he had an “understanding” that his decision on that matter had played a part in his departure.
His conclusion that his opposition to the Bridge project was the deciding factor in his not getting the reappointment follows logically from a multitude of indicators, Novikov said. “I believe that is what happened,” he said. “Of course, no one will directly tell me that. I did talk to some of the people with the city, and they would not use those words, but I can read people well. For me, it was pretty clear in this process there were many people who had differing views. There were good things about the project. I would not say I was absolutely against it. It had some positive things, ones that I felt were good, but I saw more negative things that made me make the decision I did. I heard from people who felt the same way I did. There were people in the city who did not approve of the project absolutely. There were other people supporting the project, and there was, of course, strong support of it from the project’s proponents. All that the planning commission does is make a recommendation. We did not make the final decision. But I took seriously looking at the project, and I did my best from all the information I had.”
Novikov said he went so far as touching base with his professors at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management to get their perspectives. One of those, an Upland resident, had enumerated a number of points against the project, he said. He said he and others had come to a consensus that an environmental impact report for the project was called for, and that certifying the project with a mitigated negative declaration was insufficient. He said an economist at UCLA had guided him in evaluating the development agreement with Bridge Development Partners for the project, one which called for delivering $16 million in fees to the city over the course of the first 20 years of Amazon’s operations at the facility, including $460,000 per year in so-called in-lieu of sales tax fees to make up for the consideration that Amazon as an on-line retailer will not collect sales tax on its sales, thus depriving the city of any sales tax revenue. While the $460,000 per year to be initially collected would prove roughly equivalent to the sales tax revenue the city might make off of a comparatively-sized retail operation, Novikov said the economist told him, as the years go by the development agreement would become less and less advantageous to the city. “The city never provided a full financial model for this,” Novikov said. “When I figured in the eight percent cost of capital, the net present value of the revenue from this project is worth significantly less than half of what is projected, meaning the total amount of the payments over the 20 years will actually be worth $4.5 million in today’s money, given inflationary and other factors. That is just one of the things that I believe made this a project the city should not have approved.”
Novikov said, “I feel I was punished for the way I voted, but they will never admit that.”
Novikov said he did not know, exactly, how to interpret that his application for reappointment was never considered. On one hand, he said, his being bypassed may have been deliberate. Nevertheless, he said, it might have been a mix-up.
“The chairwoman [Aspinall] said she had never seen my application,” Novikov said. “They will probably say the application got lost.” He said, he wanted to hear directly from Mayor Debbie Stone what had occurred. “If I could talk to Debbie, I would like to ask her to explain what really happened and why they didn’t invite me for the interview process.”
Under the city’s protocol, the mayor makes the nomination of the commission’s members, based upon an evaluation of the applications and the interviews, which are done by the mayor, the mayor pro tem and the community development director. As of the beginning of this month, former Mayor Pro Tem Ricky Felix is no longer on the council, having resigned to move to Utah. The community development director is Robert Dahlquest, who was strongly in favor of both the Amazon and Plaza Serena projects. Likewise, Stone and Felix had voted to approve those plans. The remainder of the city council will vote on Monday night on whether to ratify the mayor’s selections for the commission.
Novikov said he was “disappointed” that the city waited until after its selection of Grahn and Kindred to contact him, which he said prevented him from knowing that he wasn’t being considered. If he had been informed earlier, he said, he could have told them that he had in fact applied for reappointment.
“They decided to give me a call two or three hours before the agenda came out,” he said. “All that time, there was nothing said to me.”
He said it was hard for him to believe that city officials did not know he was enthusiastic about serving on the commission and was looking forward to remaining as one of its members for a full term beyond the year he has now served.
“When they approved me to serve on the planning commission in this country where I was not born, I was very proud, very proud to live in this country where they value you for your skills and do not judge you for what you think,” he said, emphasizing that he made an effort to show how much he appreciated the honor of the appointment. “I missed only one meeting, which happened because it was a specially-scheduled one and I had a prior business commitment I could not break,” he said. “I attended all the workshops.”
He was reluctant to make any criticism of the city, its elected officials, personnel or its operations, but permitted himself to say that he felt there was some degree of shortcoming in terms of the city’s “organization.” He also remarked that he thought the city could have been more up front in the way it moved him off the commission.
“I haven’t heard anything from Debbie, herself,” he said. “I’m left not knowing. The way this happened, I’m left thinking that maybe I hadn’t done enough. It would at least make me feel at peace if I knew what I had not done right or if the city had some other criticism, which I could learn from. Yesterday, my wings got cut. The whole night I couldn’t sleep. Before I had dreams about what I was going to do. Those dreams are over. It is unfortunate what I experienced. In Russia, I worked for the government and that was the same in a lot of ways to what I experienced here. It feels it wasn’t quite frank or straightforward. It should be open and transparent, in my opinion. The chairwoman in the phone call was saying what she did, and she was was trying to comfort me.”
It was at that point, when Aspinall indicated that he had not been considered for reappointment and that she had not seen an application from him that Novikov informed her he had applied. Aspinall then told him she would, he said, “let them know you want to be considered.”
This temporarily revived in him hope that he might remain on the commission, Novikov said, but that giddy confidence passed when he considered that if that were to occur he would be in the position of interrupting the others who have been chosen.
“I think they have already let other people know they are to be appointed,” he said. “So, where am I really, right now? They probably will appoint those people on Monday. I’m not sure what my situation is, right now. They will take my place, most probably.”
One year on the commission was way too short of a time, he said, from multiple perspectives, including that he was beginning to show his value to the city after getting acclimated. “I was learning how things are done,” he said. “I started serving in June, so I have really been here only about a year. They and I invested time and money in me and it was only when I was getting more comfortable and understanding everything that they are just discharging me.”
Novikov said, “I wish they would have considered me so I could serve more time, so I could have served another four years, but I don’t want to create any drama. Maybe there will be drama anyway.” Despite his desire for more and his disappointment, Novikov said, “I will be forever thankful for the opportunity I was given. I am thankful for the chance to have been a member of the planning commission and to have been a part of the city and an important part of the community.”
Walker was not available for comment.
Anticipated commission appointee Thomas Grahn currently works in the planning department with the City of Ontario and formerly was employed in the Rancho Cucamonga and Redlands planning departments.
The other commission replacement to be considered Monday night, Lorraine Kindred, is the vice president for public affairs with National CORE, a development company specializing in low-income to moderate-income housing, of which Jeff Burum is president of the board and James Previti is a board member. She has 25 years experience in the real estate industry, and was formerly the chairwoman of the Upland Chamber of Commerce. She was also president of the Pomona Valley Chapter of Executive Women International and is on the board of the Upland YMCA and the Baldy View Chapter of the Building Industry Association.
The City of Upland is facing legal challenges from its residents with regard to both Bridge Development’s Amazon and the Plaza Serena projects.
Upland Community First has filed a writ of mandamus with regard to the Bridge project. It includes a petition for an injunction against the project proceeding.
The Friends of Upland Wetlands is pursuing a lawsuit against the city relating to its approval of the Plaza Serena project, including the filing of a writ of mandamus and a petition for an injunction to halt the project.
By Mark Gutglueck