By Mark Gutglueck
Dynamic developments relating to a grassroots group’s opposition to the Upland City Council’s approval last April of Bridge Development Partners’ plan to construct a 201,096-square foot distribution center for online retail sales giant Amazon have ripped the curtain back on a multitude of highly-questionable actions by both Upland’s elected officials and senior staff members.
The city council’s 4-to-1 acceptance of staff’s recommendation to approve the controversial project without requiring a comprehensive environmental report for the undertaking, which has now been followed by Bridge Development Partners’ reported willingness to more than double the sum of money it agreed to put up at the time of project approval to offset the impacts of the project over the next 50 years is an indication, some city residents believe, that the approval process was tainted by some form of graft involving the city’s politicians and other decision-makers.
Bridge Development Partners corporate officers have disavowed reports of any improper activity on their part.
Simultaneously, Bridge Development Partners’ reported offer of up to $40 million to the city to cover the infrastructure demands and damage of the project and as payments in lieu of sales tax from Amazon’s operations over the 50-year lease life of the building has divided the grassroots coalition into two factions. One of those splinter groups has deemed the offer to increase by $23 million the $17 million in mitigation fees that Bridge Development Partners offered and which the city council approved in April to be a significant concession on the part of the developer that should be accepted immediately. Other members of the coalition believe the lawsuit they filed to prevent the Amazon warehouse from proceeding involves principles beyond the simple provision of money, even as much as $40 million, and that the litigation should not be settled until an environmental impact report on the project is completed and a more exacting audit of the city’s actual costs and losses relating to the city hosting a massive merchandise sales and distribution operation which will be transportation intensive and pay no sales tax for five decades is carried out. They are resisting pressure by the city’s current mayor, who last year voted as a councilman to approve the project, to simply accept Bridge Development Partners’ offer and allow the project to proceed. Moreover, at least some of those activists are convinced the manner in which City Hall and the project’s advocates previously sought and are continuing to seek to steamroll the project to completion is an indicator that monetary inducements, i.e., bribes to key city officials and influential community figures, played a role in the project’s approval in the first place.
When the Amazon warehouse was first being whispered about in 2018, there was little in the way of concrete information about the proposal. Virtually all of the discussion took place covertly within the confines of City Hall or between Bridge Development Partners’ representatives and selected city staff members, all outside the earshot of the city’s residents. When news of the undertaking reached the public, little more was mentioned other than a brief statement that a large-scale project was to fill undeveloped property north of Foothill Boulevard not too far east of the gateway into Upland and San Bernardino County from Claremont and Los Angeles County.
When the project was officially previewed to the Upland community in June 2019, Bridge Development Partners indicated it would be a three-building complex with 977,000 square feet under roof to serve as a distribution center. Amazon was not mentioned. Over the next several months, word spread, nonetheless, that Amazon was the intended tenant. A vocal segment of the community made clear objections to the nature, size and location of the proposed project, maintaining a distribution center would be both inconsistent with and prohibited by the city’s zoning and land use regulations for the site; that there is inadequate street capacity around the project site to accommodate the vehicular traffic that would result from the project, creating gridlock; that there would be significant regional air pollution resulting from increased vehicle use; that there would be no sales tax revenue to the city based on Amazon’s internet sales model; that there would be a 100-year impact upon the city’s infrastructure surrounding the distribution facility based on Bridge Development’s 50-year lease and a 50-year extension clause with the property owner, the Bongiovanni Family Trust; that there would be an inadequacy of municipal infrastructure-maintenance revenue in the face of burdens on the city’s infrastructure which would hasten its deterioration; that the city was not being empowered to control or restrict the future intensification of the use at the site; that the project would mar the span along the Route 66 Corridor, at that point known as Foothill Boulevard; and the project would monopolize property, which lies so close to the Foothill Boulevard thoroughfare, more properly suited for traditional commercial use.
As 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 a full-blown environmental impact report.
A mitigated negative declaration is an environmental review determination made by an elected or appointed board of a governmental agency in which administrative and land use authority has been entrusted which certifies that the environmental impacts from a project will be mitigated by the conditions of approval for that project. This contrasts with an environmental impact report, which delineates not only the impacts in detail but spells out explicitly what the mitigation measures for those impacts will entail.
In that documentation, the project was shown as being further reduced in size to a 201,096-square-foot distribution center to be located north of Foothill and south of Cable Airport near the north terminus of Central Avenue. 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 addressing the city council and planning commission indicated opposition to the project.
A common theme iterated by the project’s opponents was that the use of the mitigated negative declaration process to provide certification for the project was inadequate, and an undertaking of the project’s scope was more properly evaluated in an environmental impact report. The mitigated negative declaration, those naysayers maintained, was replete with incomplete or erroneous information.
After feedback from the public was accepted in conjunction with the processing of the negative mitigated declaration, which some residents said was marred by the city’s failure to post all of the public input and commentary submitted to it, the planning commission met on February 12, 2020 to consider the project. Commissioner Alexander Novikov was absent that evening. Four votes on determinations and/or findings with regard to the project were slated for that night. Voting in conjunction with Airport Land Use Committee members Ronald Campbell and Howard Bunte, the planning commissioners present that evening – Chairwoman Robin Aspinall, Carolyn Anderson, Gary Schwary, Linden Brouse and Yvette Walker – voted unanimously to enter a finding that the project as proposed constituted a use compatible with the city’s zoning codes and general plan as well as Upland’s airport land use compatibility plan. The planning commission then took up the critical issue of the project’s environmental certification. With Commissioner Walker dissenting, the panel voted 4-to-1 to ratify the mitigated negative declaration for the project, making what was essentially a finding that any undesirable environmental impacts would be offset by the conditions of approval imposed on the project. The panel voted 3-to-2, with Schwary and Walker in opposition, to recommend approval of the development agreement, by which Bridge Development agreed to provide the city with a combination of developer fees, infrastructure impact fees and fees-in-lieu-of-property tax totaling $16 million to make up for the project not involving the collection of sales tax and to offset the city’s infrastructure costs to accommodate the development, including repair to streets worn down by the trucks and vans that will operate out of the facility.
When the project’s site plan was considered, a motion to reject it was made, garnering the support of commissioners Schwary, Walker and Brouse. Commissioners Aspinall and Anderson dissented in that vote. The 3-to-2 vote against the site plan was tantamount to a denial of project approval.
Over the next two weeks, the members of the commission were subjected to pressure from project proponents inside and outside City Hall, as well as from lobbyists for Bridge Development Partners. On February 26, the commission reconsidered the project, and then took a follow-on vote, unprecedented in Upland history, to undo 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. The vote was non-binding but stood as a recommendation to the city council that it should approve the project.
At a specially-convened meeting called for the specific purpose of considering approval of the project, the city council conducted what was supposed to be the final hearing on the project on April 1.
The April 1 meeting consisted of what was a forum held in a non-public venue at which the city council was to consider the project, using a format that conformed with California Governor Gavin Newsom’s mandated precautions against the spread of the coronavirus, involving video/audio link-ups for the council and city officials to interact and brief telephonic input from members of the public.
The Bridge project’s opponents, many of whom had openly expressed the concern that city staff was militating toward the approval of the project rather than making an unbiased evaluation of its merits upon which the city’s ultimate decision-makers, the city council, would be able to base a fair decision as to whether Bridge should be given an entitlement to proceed, protested that the virtual meeting would prevent the public from effectively weighing in on the matter and would simultaneously allow the council to disregard the input of its constituents without having to deal directly with them. Some of the more vocal members of the project opposition called upon the city council to postpone any decision on the project until such time as the city could resume holding public hearings at which the entirety of those within the Upland community who wanted to attend the meeting at which the council would make that decision could be present to effectively articulate their perspective.
That session was not held physically in Upland’s city council chamber, but rather virtually from the respective council members’ homes or professional offices, with Mayor Debbie Stone being the only member of the panel at City Hall, where, from her office by means of a video hook-up with the others, she conducted the meeting cybernetically. A video of the council members and the audio of the proceedings, with a 30 to 40 second delay, was broadcast or displayed on the city’s local cable network as well as on the city’s website.
Mike Poland, Upland’s contract planner, briefed the council on the project, and Community Development Director Robert Dalquest provided the council with an encapsulation of the development agreement.
Poland stated, “On the basis of the mitigated negative declaration, comments received and the whole record, there is no substantial evidence that the project will have a significant adverse impact individually or cumulatively on the environment.”
According to Dalquest, Bridge Development Partners had upped its previous offer of endowing the city with $16 million in development fees and infrastructure impact/damage offset fees and payments in lieu of sales tax to $17 million in return for approval of the project. He said Bridge had committed, as part of the development agreement, to provide the city with $14.5 million in what he termed a “sales tax in-lieu fee” to make up for the city’s loss of sales tax from untaxed sales at the facility. On top of that, Dalquest said, Bridge was purposed to provide some $2.5 million of in-kind assistance to the city consisting of road improvements and/or signalization on Foothill Boulevard, Central Avenue, Benson Avenue, 13th Street, 15th and 16th Street. Dalquest’s emphasis on the $17 million Bridge Development Partners had by that point agreed to provide the city if the project garnered approval, came across as a pitch for the project’s acceptance.
Critics of the project proposal considered the $340,000 in average annual offsets that Bridge Development Partners was putting up over the life of the project to be unequal to the actual liability the project represented to the city, most notably in the form of damage to the city’s roads from the trucks and delivery vehicles that would be an intrinsic element of the distribution facility’s operations. Of concern to some as well was that there were no provisions for infrastructure offsets being paid to the city if Amazon opted to renew the lease for another 50 years after the expiration of the initial lease.
Dalquest said the development agreement contained a provision that would prevent the tenant’s operations from exceeding 50 three-axle truck trips per day or 187 van trips in the morning rush hour or 171 trips in the evening rush hour, leveling a fine of $45,000 on Bridge Development Partners for any such violations.
Heather Crossner, Bridge Development’s first vice president for development, and Brendan Kotler, Bridge’s executive vice president, touted the project to the city council.
Crossner said the project had the support of city staff, the planning commission and the explicit endorsement of 1,100 city residents. She said the project as was being considered by the city council had been changed from Bridge’s original proposal and had been shaped by public input, based on nearly one year of public discussion and five community meetings and hundreds of pages of written responses to the proposal during the mitigated negative declaration process. She said that the project’s value to Upland and its citizens had been “made better… every step of the way” by the “critical” input of the public.
Crossner indicated that Bridge would be more generous to the city than Dalquest had represented. She said the city was to receive $14.5 million in “voluntary community benefits” that were donated in keeping with the development agreement along with not $2.5 million in street improvements to the city but rather $3.5 million.
At a crucial point in the April 1 meeting, when Councilwoman Janice Elliott asked whether Amazon could designate Upland as its point of sale for all of the business it does in California, thereby making Upland the recipient of all sales tax revenue the company would generate in California, Kotler deflected the request, saying “At this time, we don’t have a tenant signed up, and I think the tenant that everyone presumes [Amazon] is going to be on the site, I don’t believe they’ve designated any site like this, any city like this, as a designated point of sale. My understanding is Amazon and a lot of these retailers like Amazon have statewide agreements that prevent them from doing individual agreements with any sort of municipality or city. Let’s not forget that this facility is just a portion of a longer logistics chain. So, if every city that had a portion of the logistics chain claimed that they wanted sales tax, then the entire system would break down. It would not be doable in this place at this point to make Upland the point of sale.”
The public was heard from by means of a telephonic exchange. Twenty people expressed opposition to the project, and 28, roughly half of whom were members of Victory Community Church who had been hosted to a free dinner by Bridge Development Partners prior to the hearing and whose church was provided with a generous donation by Bridge Development Partners’ representatives, spoke in support of it.
Thereafter, the city council’s discussion ensued and its members voted to approve the mitigated negative declaration 4-to-1 with Councilwoman Janice Elliott dissenting. The council then accepted a lot line adjustment for the project site on a 5-to-0 vote. The council, voted 4-to-1 with Mayor Stone and councilmen Rudy Zuniga, Bill Velto and Ricky Felix prevailing and Councilwoman Elliott dissenting to approve the project and its site plan. The council further voted unanimously to approve the development agreement specifying the $17 million commitment in revenue Bridge Development Partners said it would guarantee the city. The votes provided Bridge Development Partners with an entitlement to proceed.
Shortly after the council’s vote to approve the project, Mayor Stone took action to remove from the planning commission Novikov and Walker, the two members of the panel who had consistently voted against approving the project. Subsequently, the unabashedly pro-development Stone moved to appoint Dr. Brinda Sarathy to one of the vacant positions on the planning commission but rescinded that appointment upon learning that Sarathy had spoken out in opposition to the Bridge Point/Amazon project.
In the weeks after the council’s approval of the project, a group of citizens, convinced that Dalquest had fallen short of protecting the city’s residents from the onerous elements and consequences of the Bridge Point/Amazon project, formed a public action committee dubbed Upland Community First.
On July 15, 2020, Upland Community First, represented by attorney Cory Briggs, filed a petition for a writ of mandate, naming the City of Upland. The filing contended that the members of Upland Community First as well as other residents of Upland opposed to the project had their fair hearing and due process rights violated on April 1 when the hearing relating to the project occurred via teleconference despite Councilwoman Janice Elliott’s motion to delay the meeting.
A writ of mandate is an order issued to a public agency or governmental body by a judge to perform an act required by law when it has neglected or refused to do so.
Elliott’s motion to delay the public hearing was rejected by the other councilmembers, such that “full public participation” in the approval process did not take place, according to Briggs. “The decision to conduct the meeting by teleconference, along with respondent’s actions leading up to the meeting, deprived the public of a full and fair opportunity to be heard on the project,” the petition for a writ of mandate states. “The decision to hold the meeting in the midst of a pandemic ensured significantly decreased public participation, which is at odds with the well-established public policy of full government transparency and citizen participation in government decision-making. Petitioner’s fair hearing and due process rights were violated as a result of respondent’s failure to provide a fair hearing on the project.”
The petition for a writ of mandate asserts that the defects plaguing the project approval went beyond the manner in which the public was unable to fully weigh in with regard to its perspective on the Bridge Point Project to the actual impacts of the project and what the petition for a writ of mandate characterizes as the incomplete documentation of those impacts and the inadequate safeguards against them, based on the use of a mitigated negative declaration for the project as opposed to a full-blown environmental impact report.
“Whenever a project proposed to be carried out or approved by a lead agency has the potential to cause an adverse environmental impact, the California Environmental Quality Act prohibits the agency from relying on a negative declaration,” the petition for a writ of mandate states. “Instead, the California Environmental Quality Act requires the preparation of an environmental impact report to identify and analyze the significant adverse environmental impacts of a proposed project, giving due consideration to both short-term and long-term impacts, providing decision-makers with enough information to enable them to make an informed decision with full knowledge of the likely consequences of their actions, and providing members of the public with enough information to participate meaningfully in the project’s approval and environmental-review process. The California Environmental Quality Act also requires every environmental impact report to identify and analyze a reasonable range of alternatives to a proposed project. The California Environmental Quality Act further requires every environmental impact report to identify and analyze all reasonable mitigation measures for a proposed project’s significant adverse environmental impacts. An environmental impact report must be prepared for a proposed project if there is a fair argument, supported by substantial evidence in the administrative record, that the project may have an adverse environmental impact; stated another way, a negative declaration may not be used unless the lead agency determines with certainty that there is no potential for the project to have an adverse environmental impact.”
The petition for a writ of mandate continues, “There is a fair argument that the project will have significant environmental impacts. By way of example and without limitation, the administrative record is replete with evidence that the project will result in significant traffic, air quality, and noise impacts, among other environmental impacts. The project will also result in cumulative impacts unaccounted for in the mitigated negative declaration. The project’s significant direct, indirect, or cumulative adverse impacts on the environment give rise to respondent’s legal obligation to prepare an environmental impact report. Respondent’s failure to prepare an environmental impact report is a violation of the California Environmental Quality Act.”
In seeking to convince the city council to deny the project approval, several city residents at the April 1 meeting dwelt upon the consideration that the zoning at the project site, located north of Foothill Boulevard slightly to the east of Central Avenue, is for mixed commercial industrial use, which they asserted is incompatible with a distribution facility. The only property in the city zoned for such use, they said, was south of Foothill Boulevard.
The petition for a writ of mandate states, “The California Planning and Zoning Law prohibits the approval of any project that is not consistent with the applicable general and specific plans and their components. The project authorizes land uses and activities that are in some ways inconsistent with the general and specific plans and their components. As a result of respondent’s violation of the California Planning and Zoning Law, petitioner, its members, and the general public have been harmed insofar as respondent has approved a project that is inconsistent with the land-use rules designed to protect the public from harmful development.”
Also, according to the petition for a writ of mandate, “The project violates the Upland Municipal Code. The Upland Municipal Code permits the approval of a development agreement only if it will provide clear and substantial benefits to the city and its residents. The project’s development agreement authorizes land uses and activities that are in some ways inconsistent with the requirements of the Upland Municipal Code. Respondent failed to make the findings required to support approval of the project’s development agreement. Respondent has approved a project that is inconsistent with the land-use rules designed to protect the public from harmful development.”
The filing of the petition for a writ of mandate, which included a request for an injunction against the project proceeding, resulted in the project being put on hold. The suit sought the voiding of the project’s approval, and that the city and applicant be required to complete a comprehensive environmental impact report first if the project is to again be considered. That legal action prevented Bridge Development Partners from moving forward on the project, and as pretrial legal skirmishing between the two parties has been waged, Bridge Development Partners and Amazon failed to achieve the goal of completing a sufficient portion of the distribution center by mid-fall 2020, which thwarted Amazon’s hope that the project would be completed to a sufficient degree so that by Thanksgiving the facility could be in use to facilitate delivery of packages to local residents by the Christmas 2020 shopping season.
Of considerable note is that in the aftermath of the filing of the petition for a writ of mandate, Bridge Development Partners, using the Upland City Councilman Bill Velto, who has since become mayor, as a go-between, took the lead by seeking to engage Upland Community First in settlement negotiations. The nature of Bridge Development Partners’ approach to those negotiations has been illustrative of considerations that cut right to the heart of the controversy over the issue, and illustrate a fundamental clash in values between the project’s advocates and the project’s opponents.
Specifically, the project’s proponents and supporters, including Bridge Development Partners, its employees, others affiliated indirectly with the company, city officials and advocates of development in Upland in general, put a premium on proceeding with the project, and have formulated arguments in favor of Bridge Point that emphasize what they assert will be the ostensible initial and middle-term financial advantage of having the warehouse/distribution center in place. Their emphasis was and has remained on the money-making prospect of the project, primarily for Bridge Development Partners and Amazon, but also for the construction industry and those it employs, as well as for the employees who will find jobs at the distribution center in the future. The project’s opponents, conversely, dwell on the manner in which the project will present a substantial interruptive impact on the tenor of activity and life in the area surrounding the project, including the adjoining cities of Montclair and Claremont. Their emphasis is on the degree to which existing and future Upland residents’ quality of life will be impacted by the project. Moreover, they have questioned whether the financial advantage of the project touted by the project’s proponents is actual or a figment in that Amazon’s business model as a retailer is not subject to sales tax, and it will deprive the city of the normal advantage of hosting a commercial enterprise, compounded by the consideration that the vehicular traffic generated by the operation will over time lead to the deterioration of the city’s streets and roads, representing maintenance and repair costs over 50 years that will substantially exceed the $17 million Bridge Development Partners was consigned to put up as an element of the development agreement for the project.
Beginning in June 2019 and over the next ten months prior to the project being given go-ahead in April 2020, Bridge Development Partners in seeking project approval made several overtures with regard to providing the city development fees, beginning with an offer of $6 million. From the June 2019 public unveiling of the project concept as a distribution warehouse until February 2020 when the Upland Planning Commission officially considered the proposal, during which time citizen opposition to the project became apparent and grew, and the infrastructure damage the project would entail and the lack of sales tax involved in Amazon’s operations became topics of discussion with regard to the undertaking, the $6 million offer steadily crept up until by the time of the February 12, 2020 planning commission meeting at which the project was the primary topic of discussion, the development agreement specified a total of $16 million in payments by Bridge Development Partners to the city. When the city council took up the project on April 1, 2020, that total had grown to $17 million, and during the course of that hearing, Crossner seemed to indicate Bridge was amenable to increasing that to $18 million. The documentation associated with the city council’s approval of the project, nevertheless, quantified the total development fees Bridge Development had committed to as being $17 million.
During the backroom negotiations that were taking place between the representatives of Bridge Development Partners and Upland Community First after the filing of the petition for a writ of mandate, the amount of money Bridge Development Partners reportedly indicated it would be willing to come across with similarly escalated over time. Information contained in notes and emails obtained by the Sentinel show that in September 2020, Bridge was willing to sustain the cost of performing a second environmental assessment of the project, but only with the proviso that the evaluation in no way interfere with the project as previously approved being allowed to proceed. In addition, at that point, Bridge was willing to defray up to $2 million worth of mitigation of any concerns brought to light by the secondary examination of environmental issues which were not highlighted in the mitigated negative declaration ratified by the city council on April 1, 2020.
Also contained in the offer, which was made not in writing but conveyed to Upland Community First through then-City Councilman and now-Mayor Bill Velto, was an offer to provide Upland Community First with a $3 million endowment, which the group would be free, in Velto’s words, to “spend directly as you see fit in the community.” Velto added that he had sought to piggyback on Upland Community First’s efforts by seeking to have Bridge Development Partners provide “$5 million more for the city,” consisting, he said, of “$2 million for the police budget, $1 million for the Police Foundation and $2 million towards [the] unfunded California Public Employees Retirement System” pension debt. Conditional upon these terms was that Upland Community First dismiss the suit in its entirety and allow the project to move ahead immediately.
Virtually all of the members of Upland Community First were taken aback by the offer made by Bridge Development Partners through Velto, in that they had collectively undertaken the petition for a writ of mandate to force the city to subject the project to a comprehensive and independent environmental review, consisting of an unbiased, forthright and professionally credible environmental impact report. Bridge Development Partners’ offer through Velto was made conditional upon the project being approved no matter what the findings of the environmental assessment turned out to be, and that the mitigation measures were to cost no more than $2 million. That conveyed to the members of Upland Community First that Bridge Development Partners had missed the entire implication of Upland Community First’s action and misunderstood the group’s motivation. Moreover, many considered the $3 million offer to the group itself to border on a bribe offer, or to otherwise be an insult to their integrity. Taken together with the manner in which Bridge Development Partners had provided donations to Victory Community Church in an apparent exchange for endorsements of the project by that church’s members, the consideration that the city’s senior land use professionals such as Dalquest and Poland had steamrolled over the requests of city residents that a full-blown environmental impact report be completed for the project, Felix’s departure from the council less than two months after he cast his vote in support of the Bridge Point project, Stone’s sacking of Novokov and Walker after they voted as planning commissioners against allowing the project to proceed and her rescission of her appointment of Sarathy to the planning commission upon learning of Sarathy’s outspokenness against the project, and Velto’s advocacy of the project in the face of the growing opposition to it, Bridge Development Partners’ overture with regard to the $3 million payment to Upland Community First led a handful of well-informed Uplanders to conclude that some level of graft took place to facilitate the passage of the project. A virtual who’s who of those at City Hall fell under a cloud of suspicion in this way. Then-Mayor Debbie Stone, former Councilman Ricky Felix, Velto, Councilman Rudy Zuniga, Planning Commissioner Robin Aspinall, Planning Commissioner Carolyn Anderson, Planning Commissioner Gary Schwary and former Planning Commissioner Lindon Brouse, all of whom had cast votes either giving the project approval or recommending that it be looked at favorably, were suspected to have been improperly influenced in one fashion or another by Bridge Development Partners. Upland City Manager Rosemary Hoerning, Upland Community Development Director Robert Dalquest and Upland Contract Planner Mike Poland, all of whom were instrumental in ushering the Bridge Point project toward approval and had militated to some degree on behalf of Bridge Development Partners to prevent a full-blown environmental impact report on the project from being carried out, were similarly regarded as suspect by a cross section of Upland residents who were skeptical as to whether the project’s positive attributes outweighed the burden it would place upon the city, its infrastructure and its residents.
As Upland Community First resisted the efforts by Bridge Development Partners to pressure them into settling with the city with regard to the petition for a writ of mandate short of a trial, Bridge Development Partners and Velto, who defeated Stone in Upland’s mayoral race on November 3, intensified their efforts to dissuade Upland Community First from pressing the litigation against the city relating to the Amazon distribution center to trial. On December 7, 2020, Velto, just prior to being installed as mayor and at that point having apparently been entrusted by Bridge Development Partners with serving as that company’s representative in the quiet but intense negotiations with Upland Community First in an effort to convince the nonprofit to drop its legal action against the city that was preventing the project from proceeding, tendered an offer that would boost the $17 million in development fees contained in the documents accepted by the city council in April 2020 to $30 million, that figure consisting of development fees and infrastructure impact/damage offset fees along with payments in lieu of sales tax.
“I am certain,” Velto told Upland Community First, “the City of Upland could benefit by a possible additional 10 million dollars from the Bridges (sic) Development for their project, and a total of approximately 30 million dollars to the city.”
Along with the additional money, according to Velto, Bridge Development Partners would be willing to revisit the environmental issues pertaining to the project, though he shied away from providing a guarantee that Bridge Development Partners would commit to the comprehensive environmental impact report Upland Community First had made the centerpoint of its litigation against Bridge Development Partners. In various exchanges, emails and texts, some of which have been obtained by the Sentinel, Velto spoke of an “EIR” [environmental impact report], but looking at the context of his offers on behalf of Bridge Development Partners, his references are not to an independent environmental impact report undertaken anew, but rather working with the data generated previously to form the basis of the mitigated negative declaration approved by the city council on April 1, 2020. At one point, nonetheless, Velto did indicate that the environmental evaluation in question could be carried out by a firm of Upland Community First’s choosing.
“It was suggested and tentatively offered by Bridges [sic] Development that they pay the cost for Upland Community First to take the MND [mitigated negative declaration] to an EIR [environmental impact report] company of your choice for review,” Velto texted members of Upland Community First on December 7, 2020. “If that company finds items that need to be mitigated, Bridges [sic] Development will make considerations to mitigate those items found by that EIR company.”
In his negotiations with Upland Community First, Velto listed out other options, which in some fashion appeared to be an effort to provide himself and Bridge Development Partners with negotiating leverage. One of those included “Bridges [sic] abandons the project in its entirety,” in which case, he said, “the city gets NOTHING [Velto’s capitalization].”
One other option Velto outlined, which included the concession of undertaking a comprehensive environmental impact report, came at the price of allowing Bridge Development Partners and, by extension, Amazon as the eventual tenant, to expand the single warehouse facility to the originally proposed 977,000 square feet. That option Velto indicated, would involve the project enlarging to a distribution center involving three buildings, almost five times the size of what was given approval by the city council on April 1, 2020, and reducing the $17 million in developer fees, infrastructure impact fees and fees-in-lieu-of-property tax to $3 million. In that scenario, Velto said “Bridges [sic] Development does an EIR, mitigates all items identified by the EIR. Bridges [sic] Development now has the EIR that will allow for the ‘original 3 warehouses’ that was presented to the planning commission that were approximately 1 million square feet in size. Bridges [sic] Development only pays the city the ‘impact fees’ of approximately 3 million dollars, does not contribute the additional 17 million, plus additional 10 million suggested.”
Velto cautioned Upland Community First that it should not walk away from the deal that Bridge Development Partners was offering. “If Upland Community First loses in court, Bridges [sic] Development builds the project, and Upland loses 10 million in additional benefits from Bridges [sic] Development. This additional 10 million would be used to meet the needs for services and projects made as suggestions to Bridges [sic] Development, that have been previously presented. These suggestions included the salaries for 2 additional police officers for 10 years, another 1 million to the police officers foundation, the additional completion for the south side of Foothill Boulevard from Benson Avenue to Central Avenue, and other improvements throughout the city for over 5 million dollars.”
To nearly all of Upland Community First’s members, Velto’s apparent willingness to have the city accept funding from Bridge Development Partners without securing the full environmental impact report for the project that the group is requesting raised concerns that he and the rest of City Hall would surrender to the company and its corporate officials decision-making authority with regard to a number of civic issues that were normally the purview of the city council. At least one member of Upland Community First, however, was willing to accept the concessions Bridge Development Partners was offering through Velto, the Sentinel has learned. His was the minority position within the group.
Despite his effort to act as what was essentially a go-between in Bridge Development Partners’ effort to persuade Upland Community First to drop its lawsuit, Velto insisted that “for the record, I am not negotiating. I am making suggestions to remedy this so that the city benefits from a project at that location.”
That Velto had involved himself in the negotiations pertaining to Bridge Development Partners was noteworthy in that the city as the respondent and defendant in the lawsuit brought by Upland Community First was represented by Interim City Attorney Steven Flower and two of his colleagues with the law firm of Richards Watson and Gershon, Ginetta Giovinco and Marvin Bonilla. Bridge Development Partners, which was named as a respondent and real party in interest in the legal action, was represented by Amanda Monchamp of the law firm Monchamp Meldrum.
The use of Velto as a cutout in this fashion is of note, in that he, as a city councilman and now mayor, is technically a defendant in the action brought by Upland Community First and is represented by legal council – in this case Flower, Giovinco and Bonilla as well as the law firm of Richards, Watson & Gershon. By having Velto proffer the potential settlement terms, Bridge Development Partners avoided putting anything in writing and preserved a degree of deniability which would allow the company to ascertain what the rough parameters of a settlement between Upland Community First and the city would look like, positioning it in a stronger position to engage in final stage negotiations with Upland Community First prior to any settlement short of the matter being hashed out in court.
Ultimately, according to information available to the Sentinel, after Velto was sworn in as mayor, a settlement was placed on the table that called for Bridge Development Partners upping the $17 million in developer fees, infrastructure impact fees and fees-in-lieu-of-property tax that Bridge Development Partners had committed to providing at the April 1 meeting in which the project was given approval to $38 million and then $40 million to cover infrastructure and service demands, refurbish the city’s roads damaged by Amazon vehicles and provide payments in lieu of sales tax from Amazon’s operations over the 50-year lease life of the building. In exchange, the expectation was that the demand for the insisted-upon environmental impact report would be set aside in return for a far less rigid “environmental analysis” and an understanding that the warehouse operation would be allowed to expand, at the discretion of the occupant, presumably Amazon, to the original three-structure, 977,000 square-foot complex previewed to the city in June 2019.
While it appears that Bridge Development Partners is still interested in pursuing that proposal, Upland Community First is not inclined toward accepting anything other than a requirement that a full-blown environmental impact report be carried out before the project is given clearance to proceed. The apparent belief of most of the members of Upland Community First is that a competently carried-out environmental impact report will delineate issues that were glossed over during the remotely-held April 1, 2020 city council meeting, and will force out into the open that there are unmitigatable elements of the project, which would then require a special finding of overriding considerations by the city council in order for the project to proceed. This would give the city council, if it has the will to avail itself of it, the leverage to demand and/or negotiate offsets from Bridge Development Partners in order for the project to proceed, Upland Community First members calculate. Moreover, erasure of the April 1, 2020 approval of the project and reconsideration of the project would extend the opportunity for there to be an explicit identification of Amazon as the intended occupant of the warehouse. This would, potentially, at least some of the members of Upland Community First believe, provide an opportunity for the city during a renewed consideration of the project, to extract from Amazon/Bridge Development Partners far more substantial payments-in-lieu-of-sales-tax than was ratified by the city council on April 1, 2020.
Inherent in the controversy over the Bridge Point Project are two potentially explosive issues.
One of those consists of the inclusion in the plan approved on April 1, 2020 a total of 1,486 parking spaces for delivery vans and cars, which does not include the space earmarked for semi-trucks. By multiple analyses, the 1,486 parking spaces is substantially excessive for a 201,096-square foot warehouse building that is to serve as a distribution center, even allowing for employee parking as well as all order of delivery vehicles that would typically be involved in a building of that size.
Two possible rationales for having that number of parking spaces at the distribution facility have been speculated upon. One is that Bridge Development Partners/Amazon has every intention of enlarging the 201,096-square foot facility to three buildings totaling 977,000 square feet.
Another widely-repeated report, which the Sentinel was unable to verify, was that Bridge Development wanted to pave the property because the site is contaminated by aviation fuel that has accumulated beneath ground level on the property, which is proximate to Cable Airport. Imposing a layer of asphalt or concrete over the lion’s share of the 50-acre site would render it difficult to ascertain the level of contamination on the property. It has been suggested that Bridge Development Partners and Amazon want to head off the possibility that one or both will be hit with a mandate to do an extensive contamination cleanup of the property and the aquifer beneath it.
Even more disconcerting are recurrent reports or circumstances suggesting that something untoward occurred in the set of events leading up to and including the approval of the project last April. Many residents found it troubling that the Upland Planning Commission originally recommended against allowing the project to proceed, and then abruptly reversed course, voting to change its crucial findings to call for the project to be approved by the city council. Thereafter, with a bevy of Upland residents calling for a comprehensive environmental impact report to be completed before the project was considered let alone approved, and equally intense citizen advocacy for holding off on the public hearing process until a forum in which the public could actively appear and participate in person before the city council, city officials’ resolve to carry out the public forum for the project’s preview and consideration in a virtual format in which the public had no opportunity to present visual, informational or media materials or documentation, coupled with Bridge Development Partners’ provision of inducements to the Victory Community Church and Upland Chamber of Commerce to encourage their members to endorse the project, engendered suspicion that the company bribed Upland city officials to obtain project approval.
Now, in the face of Upland Community First’s challenge of the project approval without a full environmental impact report, word that Bridge Development Partners is willing to more than double the development and infrastructure impact/damage offset fees and payments in lieu of sales tax over what the company previously committed to, there is a burgeoning belief within the community that Upland city officials were improperly influenced to give the project approval. Given that city officials were earlier willing to limit the development fees and impact offsets that Bridge Development Partners was to pay to $17 million and the company is now amenable to providing the city with $38 million to $40 million, the impression is that city officials sold the city and its residents short by some $21 million to $23 million.
The Sentinel asked Bridge Development Partners Executive Vice President Brendan Kotler if his company offered or provided any inducements to Upland’s municipal staff members, its elected officials or its appointed officials to obtain the approval given to the Bridge Point Project or if his company utilized a cutout or surrogate to offer or provide any inducements to Upland’s municipal staff members, its elected officials or its appointed officials to achieve that goal.
The Sentinel further inquired as to whether Kotler’s company or any entity working on its behalf had made any promises to Upland’s municipal staff members, its elected officials or its appointed officials to obtain the approval given to the Bridge Point Project.
The Sentinel asked Kotler if his company or anyone acting on its behalf arranged payments to former Mayor Debbie Stone, former Councilman Ricky Felix, former Councilman/current Mayor Bill Velto, Councilman Rudy Zuniga, Planning Commissioner Robin Aspinall, Planning Commissioner Carolyn Anderson, Planning Commissioner Gary Schwary, former Planning Commissioner Lindon Brouse, Upland City Manager Rosemary Hoerning, Upland Community Development Director Robert Dalquest, Upland Contract Planner Mike Poland or Upland Associate Planner Joshua Winter. The Sentinel also inquired of Kotler as to whether Bridge Development Partners had made any offer of future employment to Dalquest, Poland or Winter and whether he would be willing to rule out any possibility that Bridge Development Partners will come to employ Dalquest, Poland and/or Winter in the future.
The Sentinel asked Kotler as well to explain how and why it is that at this point, in the aftermath of the legal action by Upland Community First, he and his company are willing to more than double the development fees, infrastructure damage/impact offset fees and fees in lieu of sales tax that were offered to the city at the time the project was approved in April 2020.
On January 1, Kotler told the Sentinel, “Any suggestion that we did anything wrong is baseless.”
Thereafter, Bridge Development’s First Vice President for Development, Heather Crossner, provided a more in-depth response to the Sentinel’s inquiry.
“The assertions imbedded in the questions you are asking are entirely false,” Crossner said. “They have no merit or basis in fact. Bridge and the City of Upland followed the public process in accordance with all laws. At no time has Bridge, or any representative of Bridge or anyone affiliated in any way with Bridge, engaged in any of the activities referenced in your questions. Nor have you presented any evidence to substantiate any claims to the contrary.”
Crossner said, “We are extremely proud of the Bridge Point Upland project. It will be a new state-of-the-art warehouse project on an abandoned 50-acre site that has been an eyesore at an important gateway to the City of Upland for nearly a century. The project will beautify the site with 11 acres of landscaping and 1,000 new trees, create new jobs, and construct one of the most sustainable warehouse facilities in Southern California.”
A full environmental impact report for the project was not necessary, Crossner maintained, since the environmental assessment of the project undertaken for the purpose of providing the city council with the basis for its mitigated negative declaration was adequate both technically and legally.
“After careful consideration, the City of Upland, city attorney’s office, and multiple independent peer reviewers determined that the mitigated negative declaration was thorough and fully analyzed the project consistent with the California Environmental Quality Act,” Crossner said. “Mitigated negative declarations are the most prevalent type of California Environmental Quality Act document used throughout the state.”
The project is not onerous, despite the claims of its critics, Crossner said, and it was dealt with responsibly by Upland officials, she asserted. “The city council’s approval of the project was far from a rubber stamp; rather, Bridge’s dialogue with the community and city officials resulted in major project changes over two years,” she said. “For instance, the project was reduced in size by 75 percent, from three buildings totaling 1 million square feet to one building of 201,096 square feet. The number of truck trips was also capped and reduced by 90 percent from the original proposal, among many other project changes. Bridge has no intention to change the project approved by the city, and any modifications would require an entirely new public approval process. Importantly, as part of the project approvals, the city council requested and voted to adopt a development agreement. The development agreement is required by law to provide community benefits, and all public benefits included in the agreement were driven by requests from the city based on public comment. The city council and city staff worked diligently and zealously on behalf of Upland community members at every step of the project’s lengthy and transparent public approval process. As a result of those efforts, the city obtained a community benefits package totaling $17 million. This will provide critical funding for the Upland Police Department, street improvements, youth initiatives and improvements to the Upland Public Library. The funding will also support the Upland Veterans Monument Project, honoring those who have served or are currently serving in the United States Military.”
Bridge Development Partners remains evasive with regard to certain specifics about the project, including most notably clarifying if Amazon is indeed the intended eventual tenant or leaseholder of the warehouse/distribution center Bridge Development Partners is seeking to build. The 50-acre site in question is reportedly subject to a ground lease from the Bongiovani Family Trust, such that Bridge Development Partners, or perhaps Amazon, is to carry an option to extend the ground lease another 50 years.
Crossner did not address the concerns of Upland Community First and other citizens that the cost of redressing the wear and tear on the city’s streets from the transit of vehicles coming into and leaving the distribution center alone will far exceed, over the 50-year lease life of the project even before an option for a second 50-year lease is actuated, the $17 million Bridge Development Partners has committed to paying the city.
Indeed, Crossner seemed to indicate there was no accuracy to the report that her company was amenable to upping the combination of development fees, infrastructure damage/impact offset fees and fees in lieu of sales tax from the $17 million referenced in the documentation considered by the city council when it ratified the development agreement and gave go-ahead to the project on April 1 last year to the $38 million or $40 million Velto reportedly assured Upland Community First the city would receive from Bridge Development Partners if the citizens group agreed to dispense with its litigation and settle the matter so the project could proceed.
“We cannot comment on any confidential settlement discussions that may or may not be happening, because any such discussions would be confidential under the California Civil Code,” Crossner said. “We can comment that dollar figures referenced in your questions [$38 million to $40 million] are wholly inaccurate.”
Instead, Crossner in her statement indicated that the best the city could hope to get out of the project was the $17 million the documentation presented to the city council at the April 1 meeting appeared to promise.
“The project guarantees annual revenues for the City of Upland of nearly $500,000 for the next 20 years,” Crossner said. “That’s critically important revenue at a time when the city is facing a substantial budget shortfall. Beyond the development agreement, we anticipate that the project itself will create more than 300 new jobs in Upland. This level of employment is significant, especially at a time when so many residents have been laid off due to the economic downturn from COVID-19-related closures.”
Working from the premise that the warehouse/distribution center will be a positive addition to Upland, Crossner painted Upland Community First as a less-than-significant number of wrongheaded residents working at cross-purposes to the best interests of both themselves and the rest of Upland’s residents and the city itself.
“Dissatisfied with the city’s approval of the project, a few individuals are now litigating the project and, if successful, they will deprive Upland’s residents of $17 million in community contributions and hundreds of new jobs,” she said. “Money for Upland’s police, roads, parks and libraries will be lost.”
Bridge Development Partners has been unfairly depicted as an entity that has corrupted city leaders and is attempting to exploit Upland for corporate gain, Crossner said. The opposite is true, she said.
“Bridge has consistently been upfront and transparent about its desire to give back to the City of Upland and its residents as part of this project, and we are disappointed that the desire to help improve Upland’s parks, roads, libraries and schools is being twisted into a false narrative.”
Despite the opposition of Upland Community First to the project and the obloquy Bridge Development Partners has been unjustifiably subjected to, Crossner said the company is not giving up on the distribution center undertaking.
“We look forward to resolving the litigation and creating a project that will bring important benefits to the residents of Upland,” she said.
The Sentinel contacted Velto, inquiring if at this point he believed it was a mistake for the city to not have insisted upon a full-blown environmental impact report for the Bridge Point Project. He was asked whether he or anyone at City Hall had quantified or projected the damage the trucks and vans emanating from and traveling to the Amazon warehouse will have on the city’s roads, and whether he considered the $17 million Bridge Development Partners had consented to pay the city in April to be equal to the costs the city will accrue in terms of infrastructure damage and the provision of services related to the project over the 50-year life of the lease on the facility. The Sentinel also asked Velto if he could confirm that Bridge Development Partners agreed, since the filling of the suit, to pay more money to the city than the $17 million agreed to in April and whether the company had put that in writing. Velto was asked if he knew what he now knows, would he have supported the project approval in April. The Sentinel asked the mayor if he thought the 50-acre site upon which the Bridge Point project is to be constructed would more properly be utilized for a sales tax-producing retail use. The Sentinel further inquired as to whether he thought Amazon should come to an agreement with the city to consign a half percent or full percent of the value of the merchandise that moves through its Upland distribution center to the City of Upland to make up for Amazon’s no sales tax business model. Velto was also asked if he was at this point concerned about the propriety of his serving as a backchannel between Bridge Development Partners and Upland Community First, given that the matter involved ongoing litigation and the city was already represented by City Attorney Steven Flower and his colleagues with the Richards Watson & Gershon law firm, Ginetta Giovinco and Marvin Bonilla.
“I will not discuss the Bridges [sic] Development any further until it is decided by the courts,” Velto responded.
By Mark Gutglueck