Foot Race Between Redlands’ High Rise Proponents & Limited Growth Advocates

Those on opposite sides in the debate over what the permissible height of buildings in Redlands should be appear to be headed for a battle royal for the hearts and minds of that element of the population who are on the fence over the matter.
At the heart of the matter is whether the city’s current political leadership, which has embraced what is essentially a pro-development stance, is philosophically in tune with the city’s residents, who historically, at least over the last three decades, have demonstrated themselves more interested in maintaining a relaxed tenor of life in keeping with the city’s traditional serene university town character.
The city council, militating on behalf of developmental interests intent on making a very intensive transformation of a decade-long dormant piece of property at the city’s core into something more typical of an urban setting than that to which Redlands is accustomed, finds itself in a footrace against activists seeking to preserve Redland’s small town ambiance through the use of the initiative process.
In 1977, Redlands, which was then the premier residential community in San Bernardino County, welcomed the advent of the Redlands Mall, which was created by Ernest W. Hahn, a major American shopping center developer who was at the top of his game. Hahn located the mall on about 11 acres on Orange Street between Redlands Boulevard and Brookside Avenue, in doing so clearing the property of some existing, but relatively insignificant, retail units as well as the historic La Posada Hotel.
In addition to a 12,586-square-foot freestanding retail building, the mall provided 173,000 square feet of enclosed leasable space. Hahn succeeded in tenantizing the mall with Harris’ Department Store and Sav-on Drugs, along with a slew of smaller but generally upsclale shops and stores.
What Hahn had created was considered to be a well-planned revitalization of the city’s historic downtown area. There was confidence that in time other major retailers would locate into the mall, leading to its augmentation with modern structures.
For a time, Harris’ thrived, but the promise of more major retailers never manifested. In 1998, the Harris’ Company reached the end of its nearly-century long existence, closing its Redlands location, which was very shortly thereafter reacquired by the Harris’ Company’s corporate successor Gottschalks. Gottschalks failed to achieve the success it had hoped for in Redlands, and the mall, already struggling in the early 2000s, suffered an unsustainable hit with the advent of the Great Recession in 2008. Gottschalks closed and on September 30, 2010, all leases at the mall were terminated. The only survivor was CVS Pharmacy, the successor to Sav-On, in the stand-alone building.
While efforts to prevent the mall from falling fall into a state of blight have kept it from becoming an outright eyesore, its empty and forlorn state in what was once the most resplendent central core among the Inland Empire’s cities has been an embarrassment to the Redlands community as a whole and in particular to Redlands’ elected city leadership. As the members of that panel, which has had a degree of changeover in the last decade, have grown more and more desperate to see the mall property redeveloped, they have shown a willingness to compromise the city’s traditional development and aesthetic standards in the city’s discussion with potential developers.
In 2014, San Diego-based Brixton Capital LP, the private equity investment arm of BruttenGlobal, purchased the mall. After a series of fits and starts, a plan emerged to convert the mall from one entirely dedicated to retail uses to a mixed-use undertaking blending residential and commercial structures. Ultimately, Village Partners Ventures LLC has obtained control of the property, either through an option to purchase it or outright ownership, and it began preparations toward the eventual development – or redevelopment, as it were – of the property.
An implication of the push to redevelop the mall property was that the new construction there would very likely include structures of multiple stories, well above the two-floor height of the existing mall.
Redlands residents, alarmed at the fashion in which city officials are seemingly prepared to depart from the traditional standards that have attended development of the city, have banded together in multiple permutations in an effort to keep outside development interests from dominating the city’s planning process.
Paralleling the impetus for the city accepting the terms upon which an entity, any entity, is willing to redevelop the Redlands Mall is the city’s move toward accepting two intensive developmental mandates.
One is the Transit Villages concept which has yet to be fleshed out in the Transit Villages Specific Plan and associated Environmental Impact Report documents scheduled to be processed and circulated for public review under the California Environmental Quality Act and ultimately to be approved by the Redlands City Council sometime later this year. The Transit Villages Specific Plan mixed use zoning and high density residential development was originally contemplated but then removed from the 2017 general plan update final documents by former City Manager Nabar Martinez. The Redlands Passenger Rail Project/Arrow Line currently under construction by the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority is scheduled to begin operations by Metrolink/OmniTrans in 2022. Those train stations are to be located proximate to the New York Street/Redlands Boulevard intersection, the Downtown Redlands station at the historic Santa Fe Depot at the convergence of Orange Street and Shoppers Lane and the rail line terminus at University Station at University Street and Park Place.
The second intensive development impetus in Redlands consists of a state mandate based upon what is referred to as the Regional Housing Needs Assessment, known by its acronym RHNA, which at present calls for the cities in San Bernardino County constructing 162,154 new dwelling units over the eight-year planning cycle beginning this year. According to the Southern California Association of Governments, a regional joint powers agency consisting of Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, Riverside, Imperial and San Bernardino counties, Redlands must construct 4,487 dwelling units between now and the end of 2028, of which 1,248 are to be priced to be affordable to those with very low income, 789 for those with low income, 830 for those with moderate income, and 1,620 for those with above moderate income. Both inside and outside of Redlands, there are Californians intent on resisting those mandates being dictated from Sacramento.
In September, the grassroots group Friends of Redlands, working in conjunction with Redlands for Responsible Growth Management, began gathering signatures to force a vote on what the allowable height limit on Redlands buildings is to be. The proposed 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 downtown, 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.
In April, the Redlands Planning Commission made a recommendation that Village Partners Ventures LLC be allowed to transform the largely vacant 11.15-acre Redlands Mall, into a melange of mixed-uses including residential, retail, office professional quarters, restaurants, recreational facilities and a six-story parking structure around a pedestrian plaza and swimming pool, with multi-story residential buildings of three, four and five vertical levels.
On Monday, June 7, 2021, representatives with Friends of Redlands and Redlands for Responsible Growth Management, including 95-year-old former Redlands Mayor Bill Cunningham, wheeled into Redlands City Hall three huge boxes containing petitions calling for a special election to stop tall and dense development to which 7,715 signatures were affixed. Those petitions were turned over to City Clerk Jeanne Donaldson.
Donaldson is to count and verify the signatures to determine if the referendum on high rises will take place this year or next year.
City officials, who are in favor of Village Partners Ventures’ proposal, have been working behind the scenes to facilitate that plan. They are hoping against hope that Donaldson will find grounds to discard as invalid at least 1,307 of the signatures, which would mean that the high rise limitation referendum will not be held until next year – November of 2022 – which will be long enough for the council to fully process Village Partners Ventures’ project application, have the council approve it, and allow ground to be broken on the project, rendering the outcome of the vote on the high rise limitation initiative inapplicable to the Redlands Mall replacement project.
Running parallel to all of this is the consideration that for years, the City of Redlands has been seeking an economical way to deal with the overcrowded quarters in its police and fire departments. In 2008, structural and seismic stability problems with the city’s safety hall building, which was built in 1961 and had served for more than 45 years as the police department headquarters, led to a decision to have the police administration function out of a building in the city’s downtown and have the rest of the department function out of makeshift quarters elsewhere, including for a time a fire station. At present police personnel work out of a temporary structure at the city’s corporate yard.
This week, the city council secured an option to buy the 40-year-old Redlands Federal Bank Building.
The City Council on Tuesday, June 15, approved a tentative purchase and sale agreement for the Citrus Center, formerly known as the Redlands Federal Bank Building, at 300 East State Street. Built in 1981 to house Redlands Federal Bank, a major Redlands institution, it stands at six stories, the highest structure in the city. It is owned by one of Redlands’ leading citizens, Jack Dangermond, the owner/founder of the digital mapping corporation ESRI, and his wife Laura, through one of their corporate entities, Redlands Community Investment Corporation.
The city purchased for $500,000 the option to purchase the building, using capital available from the account the city has created for a future City Hall/Civic Center/Safety Hall. The option locks in the city’s opportunity to purchase the edifice for $16 million. The half million dollars paid to secure the option will go toward the purchase if the acquisition is made before the option’s expiration. The building is large enough to house both the fire department administration and all of the police department, as well as parts or all of some other city departments, city officials maintain. City staff is to now undertake a two-month exploration of whether the building can be easily adapted, through various tenant improvements, to essentially serve as City Hall, which is to include the police headquarters and offices for the fire department administration.
The city council’s action taken Tuesday on a 4-to-0 vote with Councilman Paul Foster absent, came two weeks after the full council, meeting in a closed session on June 1, voted to send a signal to the Redlands Community Investment Corporation that it was willing to make the purchase if the price could be kept no higher than $16 million.
Unstated by the city council was that the purchase of the Citrus Center clears the way for the development of Village Partners Ventures’ project, since it would seem to draw to a close any possibility that the city might locate a future civic center onto all or a significant portion of the 11-acre mall property.
Fred Dill, a city resident and local attorney who maintains a law office on Brookside Avenue, sought to dissuade the city from committing to the purchase of the Citrus Center.
Dill rather suggested that the city could make a more economic use of the mall property, if it could acquire it, by converting it to civic use.
“For many years, the big problem for the historic downtown has been the almost empty mall,” Dill wrote to the city council in a letter dated June 14, one day before the council met. “For a decade, at least three different ‘would-be developers’ have ‘owned the mall.’ They have sought to tear it down and replace it with a combination of one-story commercial and high rise residential. The second ‘would-be developer’ wanted to build on the 907 associated parking spaces. The then-council obligingly sold it the spaces. The council realized there were zoning problems with the would-be developer’s plans and placed Measure G on the ballot to solve those troubles. The voters overwhelmingly defeated Measure G.”
Measure G sought to liberalized building standards in Redlands.
Dill’s letter further noted, “The majority of the council chose to ignore the vote and recently gave a tentative approval to a development that would use all the mall and all the parking spaces and include a six-story parking garage and multistory residential units. Tearing down the mall building would be very expensive and take up a great deal of space in a landfill. A group of Redlands voters has a referendum petition pending which would limit the height of buildings which could be built on the mall land. The proponents believe there are enough signatures to require a special election to vote on the referendum. If the referendum passes, the pending developer’s proposal would not be possible.”
The city is going in the wrong direction, Dill said, and should examine more fully the options it has before it.
“With very little notice, the council now appears poised to purchase the 40-year-old six story building at 300 E. State Street for needed ‘space for city facilities.’ The city would pay $16 million with the initial deposit from funds ‘designated for the provisions of a future City/Safety Hall.’ The money received from the sale of the safety hall was pledged to be used for a new safety hall not a City Hall.”
Dill continued, “A great part of the space in the 300 E State Street building is rented to various tenants and the agreement with the owner says the city ‘will assume all leases and rents from the property.’ Little space would be available for the ‘city facilities.’ The building is in no way suitable to replace the safety hall, although the Redlands Police Department is in temporary facilities at the city yard along with the garbage trucks and the like. The city offices are spread around in the old bank building and offices formerly used by the telephone company. While the city no longer owns the mall and the 907 parking spaces, the unoccupied portions of the mall could be quickly, easily and inexpensively converted to a police station and adjoining City Hall and office space.”
The city needs to carefully assess what it is buying into with the purchase of the Citrus Center, Dill said.
“The building at 300 E. State Street can have all sorts of problems, particularly with the large number of tenants with leases,” Dill wrote. “The city needs to do an exhaustive investigation of all aspects of the property and parking before seriously considering its purchase.”
Before the opportunity eludes the city and citizen opposition to the high rise aspect of Village Partners Venture’s proposal dooms it, Dill said, the city should seriously consider the advantages of acquiring the mall property for use as a comprehensive civic center.
“The city doesn’t own the mall and parking places,” Dill acknowledged, but asserted that the property will likely be available at a relatively affordable price, given that those who now control it are unlikely to get clearance to proceed with the intensive uses they have hopes to achieve there.
“The ‘would-be developer’ who owns them may be waiting another ten years with no income or development from most of its investment,” Dill said. “Before racing forward to buy 300 E. State Street, the council should explore acquiring the mall and parking for a real police station and a real City Hall.”

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