The controlled-growth advocacy group Friends of Redlands has found itself in a footrace against Village Partners Ventures, LLC and that company’s partisans on the Redlands City Council in seeing which entity will be able to slam shut or open the door on high-rise development in the city of 73,000. .
In September 2020, Friends of Redlands initiated a petition drive to gather signatures to force the city to conduct a referendum on whether structures of more than three stories can be erected in most of the city.
On April 27, 2021, the planning commission made a recommendation that Village Partners Ventures LLC be allowed to transform the largely vacant 11.15-acre Redlands Mall, which formerly hosted the Harris’ department store, into a melange of mixed-uses including residential, retail, office professional quarters, restaurants, recreational facilities and parking structures around a pedestrian plaza and swimming pool, with multi-story buildings of three, four and five vertical levels.
At present, Friends of Redlands appears to have gathered sufficient signatures to force a vote on what the allowable height limit on Redands buildings is to be, though that election would be likely to be held no earlier than the date of the California Primary election in 2022. The group is now heading into the clubhouse turn to see if it can, before the signature-gathering deadline elapses, gather more signatures and thereby force a circumstance in which the election would be held this year.
The Friends of Redlands’ initiative calls for disallowing buildings taller than two stories next to single-story homes without the consent of the owner of the single-story home, limiting the height of buildings in the downtown area, which involves the University of Redlands Transit Villages Area, to no more than 50 feet, and the permitting of buildings to a height of no more than 62 feet – tantamount to four stories – in the New York Street/ESRI Transit Village Area. The initiative would further require that the city council unanimously approve making any density intensifications on projects, and it would layer greater parking provision requirements on developers seeking project approvals. To qualify the initiative for the ballot in 2022, the petitioners needed ten percent of Redlands’ 42,000 voters to affix their signatures to the ballot application. To force the election to be held this year, within 109 days of the requisite number of signatures being verified, Friends of Redlands needs 15 percent of the city’s voters – 6,409 – to sign the petition. Indeed, at this point Friends of Redlands have more than 6,400 signatures, but as to whether an evaluation by the city clerk or the county registrar of voters will determine that all of the signatures are valid and that there are no other irregularities disqualifying some of the signatures to leave enough of the signatures intact for Friends of Redlands to have met the 6,409-signature burden is another question. Therefore, Friends of Redlands is pushing to get as many more signatures as it can to see if the election can be held later this year.
If the election were to be held this year, it could unravel Village Partners Ventures, LLC’s proposal to convert a portion of the Redlands Mall property to five-story apartments.
Village Partners Ventures, LLP is hoping to capture Redlands city officials’ enthusiasm for rejuvenation of the mall property after it has remained unproductive for more than a decade, and use that momentum to get permission to complete its energetic plan, which calls for a transit-oriented mixed use project built in phases. Village Partners Ventures is working from the premise that the mall redevelopment project can be considered to be in conformance with the Transit Villages Specific Plan, a subcomponent of the Redlands General Plan adopted in 2017 that envisions mixed uses including relatively high density residential units in the districts around the train stations to be built in Redlands as part of the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority’s “Arrow” light rail passenger line tentatively slated to begin operating in 2022, The density of projects approved under the Transit Villages concept is far greater than densities permitted elsewhere in the city. Approval of the Village Partners Ventures project would clear the way, according to the staff report accompanying the April 27 agenda, for Village Partners Ventures, LLC to “demolish existing on-site buildings and improvements; construct multiple mixed-use buildings with up to 3-, 4-, and 5-stories; construct up to 722 multifamily dwelling units to include live/work, studio, one-bedroom, two-bedroom, and three-bedroom units ranging between 475 and 1,500 square-feet each; construct an approximately 10,000 square-foot recreational amenity multi-story building including an exterior pool and resident areas; construct up to 73,000 square-feet of commercial floor area on ground floors to include retail and restaurant uses, as well as a rooftop restaurant; construct up to 12,000 square-feet of office space on upper floors; (complete a) pedestrian plaza totaling approximately 16,500 square-feet; construct a six-level parking structure with 780 spaces and two single-level subterranean parking structures each with approximately 240 spaces; construct a 14,600 square-foot single tenant retail building for a pharmacy on the south side of Citrus Avenue at Eureka Street; construct public and private open space areas to include landscaping, shade trees, street trees, and pedestrian improvements; and construct related site improvements to include sidewalks, driveways, landscape, lighting, flood prevention, and public and private utility connections.”
The pharmacy referenced pertains to the CVS drug store, one of the last remaining commercial operations yet open on the mall site. It will be relocated across Citrus Avenue onto 1.1 acres located at the southeast corner of Citrus Avenue and Eureka Street, which currently exists as a parking lot.
West State Street, which currently terminates at Orange Street, is to be extended through the project.
Another element of the Transit Villages Specific Plan relates to one of the other main concentrations of commercial uses in the city in a district west of downtown, the area surrounding a train station that is to be constructed proximate to the New York Street/Redlands Boulevard intersection.
The Friends of Redlands’ proposed initiative offers slightly different standards with regard to building elevation, permitting four stories in proximity to the New York Street/Redlands Boulevard District, which does not involve as may historic buildings as those in the downtown area.
The city staff report to the planning commission for its April 27 meeting stated that Village Partners Ventures, LLC was attempting to maneuver around the city’s restrictions banning projects involving structures higher than two stories or more than 18 units per acre. “The applicant is requesting a city council determination that the proposed project is exempt from Measure ‘U’ (which included provisions specifically exempting certain types of development),” the report states, identifying those as “Measure ‘U’ Section 2, (Exemptions). The applicant is requesting exemption based on category D, “Development directly related to proposed Metrolink stations in the City of Redlands….”
Given the methodical nature of both governmental and developmental processes, it is realistic to expect that the Redlands Mall conversion project will not have progressed to a point at which the four- and five- story elements of the project would be in place or even significantly toward completion by later this year. Accordingly, if the referendum is held this year and development more than three stories is banned downtown, the advent of four- and five-story structures beyond what already exists in the form of the Redlands Federal Bank Building built in 1981 will not be allowed to take place. The Redlands Federal Bank Building is now occupied by Citi Bank, which stands as the lone six-story structure in Redlands.
If the vote is delayed until 2022, Village Partners Ventures, LLC may at that point have made sufficient progress toward completing the four- and five-story components of the project to render any efforts to limit the project’s height moot.
The effort to limit building height in Redlands and the current initiative drive comes within a wider context a struggle over the intensity of development in Redlands, which has featured efforts by both sides to use the initiative process to define the community’s land use values and priorities.
Redlands, the third oldest of San Bernardino County’s cities, was the first primary destination of well-heeled Easterners to California, and thus became, prior to the turn of the 19th Century to the 20th Century, the earliest upscale residential community in what is now known as the Inland Empire. A degree of pride has accompanied this history right up the present, such that a significant level of active resistance to aggressive development exists within Redlands’ populace. An outcome of this resistance a generation ago was Measure U, a controlled-growth ordinance which remains in effect. In recent years, as developmental interests have sought to undercut the provisions of Measure U, a dedicated and heavy contingent of Redlands residents and activists – watchdogs who seek to ward off any efforts to compromise the principles of Measure U – have asserted themselves.
Last year, Redlands residents were called upon to consider Measure G, which was placed by the city council on the March 3, 2020 California Primary ballot. Measure G sought to undo all of the provisions of Measure U in the city’s 782-acre central corridor and make further general sallies against Measure U’s restrictions throughout the city, as well as against Measures R and N, two other controlled-growth initiatives previously put in place by Redlands’ voters. Specifically, Measure G called for eliminating the requirement that a four-fifths vote of the city council is needed to approve residential densities exceeding 18 dwelling units per acre, eliminate the current requirement that a four-fifths vote of the city council is needed to approve residential buildings exceeding two stories or 35 feet in height, eliminate the need for developers to ensure that the level of traffic flow that exists at the intersections proximate to their projects prior to the construction of their projects be maintained after the projects are completed, eliminate the requirement that the voters of the city rather than the city council be solely authorized to establish any new land use designations in the city, eliminate the requirement that the proponents of certain new development projects prepare a socioeconomic‐cost/benefit study before approval of those projects, eliminate the requirement that certain residential subdivision projects be subject to competitive review for issuance of building permits, and eliminate the requirement that the developers of new projects pay 100 percent of the development impact fees that are imposed on those projects. Measure G also called for rescinding the earlier voter‐approved measures R, N and U, which prohibit more than 400 residential dwelling units being constructed within the city in any year.
Measure G was soundly defeated, gathering 7,798 votes of support, or 35.12 percent of the ballots cast, while being met by 14,407 votes in opposition, equal to 64.88 percent rejection.