By Mark Gutglueck
Dismayed with the more than one-year delay it is encountering in its effort to construct a 201,096-square foot warehouse for online retail sales behemoth Amazon in Upland, Bridge Development Partners is now looking at constructing a warehouse ten times that size in Rancho Cucamonga.
More questions have been raised than have been answered by Bridge Development Partners’ sudden shift of focus from the City of Gracious Living to its neighboring municipality to the east. Among those questions is whether the company will draw upon its experience in Upland, where what was officially previewed to the community in June 2019 as a three-building complex with 977,000 square feet under roof to serve as an Amazon warehouse/distribution facility/fulfillment center was reduced in size and eventually given approval in 2020 by the city council, only to run into intensive resident opposition that has so far untracked the project.
Though Bridge Development Partners coyly did not mention or acknowledge at the time that it introduced the Upland project that Amazon was intended as the eventual tenant, such was intimated and ultimately confirmed when Amazon in its internal documents announced its intention to operate a distribution center in Upland.
The proposal was dubbed the Upland Bridge Point Project.
Now, Bridge Development Partners appears to have jettisoned its intention to establish the Amazon facility in western Upland in favor of a 2.175-million square foot structure in southeastern Rancho Cucamonga.
The road in Upland proved a rocky one for Bridge Development Partners, though at one time the company appeared to have four members of the Upland City Council in its pocket.
As objections to the scope of the original 977,000-square-foot three-building complex proposal in Upland manifested in 2019, 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. Ultimately, the project proposal was reduced to a single building of 201,096 square feet on the 50-acre property located north of Foothill Boulevard and south of Cable Airport, just east of what would be the logical northward extension of Central Avenue.
Bridge Development Partners through some methodology which engendered questions about whether the process had been tainted by graft, convinced Upland officials to allow the project to be considered and its environmental certification done using what was referred to as an “initial study” of the various environmental impacts of the project in lieu of a comprehensive environmental impact report. Ultimately, to give the project its environmental certification, the city council made a cursory examination of the initial study’s documentation and findings, thereafter making a declaration that there would be no unmitigateable impacts from the project that were not offset by the conditions of approval of the project. This form of dealing with the environmental issues is referred to as a “mitigated negative declaration.”
This skimping on the environmental impact report raised serious questions in the Upland community, as Amazon’s operations were to entail a substantial number of 18-wheel trucks as well as airplanes landing at nearby Cable Airport delivering merchandise to the warehouse, along with hundreds, indeed thousands, of vans per day delivering that merchandise to end-use customers, wreaking considerable havoc on the city’s roads and main thoroughfares. Such concerns initially led the Upland Planning Commission, on February 12, 2020, to vote 3-to-2 against recommending that the project be given go-ahead, with commissioners Gary Schwary, Linden Brouse and Yvette Walker prevailing over commissioners Robin Aspinall and Carolyn Anderson.
In a reversal unprecedented in Upland history, two weeks later, on February 26, 2020, the planning commission, this time with the previously absent Commissioner Alexander Novikov present, reconsidered its February 12 vote relating to the project. Despite the fact that Novikov cast a vote against the project on February 26, Schwary and Brouse bolted from the side that had opposed the project to support it, such that the project was given a 4-to-2 endorsement, this time with Aspinall, Anderson, Schwary and Brouse prevailing over Walker and Novikov.
At a specially-convened meeting called for the specific purpose of considering approval of the project, the Upland City Council conducted what was supposed to be the final hearing on the project on April 1, 2020.
The April 1 meeting consisted of 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, together with brief telephonic input from members of the public.
In the meantime, operatives working on behalf of Bridge Development Partners provided Upland-based Victory Community Church with infusions of cash and hosted a free dinner earlier in the evening of April 1 for no fewer than 13 members of that congregation. During the course of the April 1 meeting, those 13 congregants called upon the city council to approve the project. During the hearing, twenty city residents, citing concerns relating to the environmental impact of the project including traffic, diesel and other emissions, site contamination, as well as the consideration that Amazon’s business model does not include the collection of sales tax on the online sales it engages in, expressed opposition to the project. They protested the city’s embracing of the project, which included giving the project environmental certification by means of a mitigated negative declaration rather than 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 certifying 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.
Bridge Development Partners representatives presented to the council an endorsement of the project that bore the signatures of 1,100 city residents, and they offered the city council an assurance that in return for the city’s approval of the project, their company would enter into a development agreement that would pay the city $17 million, which was to include payments in lieu of sales tax to make up for the consideration that merchandise sold by Amazon online is not subject to sales tax.
The Upland City Council as it was then composed voted 4-to-1, with Councilwoman Janice Elliott dissenting and Mayor Debbie Stone and councilmen Ricky Felix, Bill Velto and Rudy Zuniga prevailing, to make a mitigated negative declaration and approve the project.
A number of issues pertaining to the Amazon project approval coalesced at that point to give the general impression that something was amiss. Councilman Felix abruptly resigned from the city council and moved to Utah the following month, fueling speculation that he left because of his misgivings over the heavy-handed way in which city officials, including himself, had been pushed into approving the project. Mayor Debbie Stone, whose strong suit had never been intellectual intensity, came across as militating too hard on behalf of Bridge Development Partners, as if she were seeking to make good in exchange for some inducement she had been given to support the project. Tongues began wagging when shortly after the council approval of the project Mayor Stone removed both Walker and Novikov from the planning commission, punishment doled out for their opposition to the project. Stone then appointed Dr. Brinda Sarathy to one of the vacant positions on the planning commission but rescinded that appointment when it was pointed out to her that she had forgotten that Sarathy had spoken out in opposition to the Upland Bridge Point/Amazon project.
A bothersome consideration for many was that the city’s director of development services, Robert Dalquest, whose function at City Hall is to protect the city’s residents from the consequences of any development projects that take place in the city, glossed over multiple issues when he orchestrated the approval of the project subject to using the initial study/negative declaration despite his recognition that that the members of the city council did not have the sophistication or knowledge to hash out the environmental issues at play, which gave the general impression that he was abiding by the dictates of the council to ensure that they were met with no documentation that would justify their rejection of the project. Moreover, during a planning commission meeting at which the Upland Bridge Point Project was considered, both Dalquest and then-City Attorney Steven Flower were overhead during a break the commission took, seeking to attribute to one another the rationale for abiding by an interpretation that the general plan land use designation and zoning on the property where the project was proposed was in conformance with use as a warehouse, an exchange which came after residents asserted that the zoning on the property was inconsistent with such a use.
A group of residents, unwilling to accept the approval of the project without exacting upon the developer conditions of approval that would offset what they considered to be the untoward environmental impacts of the project, formed a group, 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, 2020 when the hearing relating to the project occurred via teleconference, such that “full public participation” in the approval process did not take place, which practically prevented those opposed to the project from presenting a convincing case against the project and what they propounded was its inadequate environmental certification. More pointedly, the writ of mandate presented in granular detail the contention that the documentation of the project’s impacts submitted in support for the mitigated negative declaration was lacking in multiple respects and that conditions of approval imposed on the project and its proponent did not provide adequate safeguards against those impacts. The upshot of the lawsuit was that the project approval should be rescinded and the city should be required to carry out a comprehensive environmental impact report if the project were to be reconsidered.
“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 stated. “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 city sought to have the lawsuit thrown out, asserting, essentially, that as the lead agency with ultimate land use authority in its own jurisdiction, the city, in the form of the city council, which is Upland’s ultimate decision-making body, had complete discretion in allowing the project to proceed. San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge David Cohn, however, allowed the legal challenge to proceed, which kept the project on hold.
Mayor Stone, whose efforts on behalf of Bridge Development Partners were so ham-handed that even her supporters were embarrassed by them, found herself isolated and without the crucial assistance she had counted upon in her past electoral efforts when she was due to seek reelection in the November 2020 election. Challenged by Councilman Velto, former Planning Commissioner Novikov, whom she had deposed because of his vote rejecting the Amazon project, and Lois Sicking Dieter, who was active in the Upland Community First effort against the project, Stone was blown out of office in November 2020. Velto prevailed in the race for mayor, but in short order, it became known that he was acting as a go-between seeking to settle the Upland Community First lawsuit against the city over the Bridge Development project. Velto assuming such a position was highly irregular, since he was, as a member of the city council and a representative of the city, a defendant in the lawsuit, one who was represented by legal counsel. Thus, it was both procedurally and legally improper for him to be dialoguing with Upland Community First. By using Velto in the capacity of a backchannel negotiator, Bridge Development Partners was seeking to steal a march on Upland Community First. Having Velto proffer the potential settlement terms put Upland Community First in the position of itself doing something improper if it were to engage in a direct dialog with an individual it had sued rather than through attorneys representing both sides. If Upland Community First had engaged with Velto, this would have created a weapon – indeed blackmail – Bridge Development Partners could use to force a settlement of the suit on terms favorable to it. Using Velto also allowed Bridge Development Partners to avoid 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 including emails and text messages, 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 development impact fees, infrastructure impact fees and fees-in-lieu-of-property tax that Bridge Development Partners had committed to providing at the April 1, 2020 council meeting as part of the development agreement when the project was given approval to $38 million and then, subsequently, to $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 201,096-square foot 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.
Upland Community First, however, did not take the bait. Instead, it insisted on seeing the litigation through to its ultimate conclusion, and having the court ascertain whether the residents of Upland were owed a full-scale environmental impact report with regard to the project. The matter continued to drag on.
Shortly after Velto’s backchannel efforts came to light and their propriety questioned, he discontinued his role as a go-between. In the months since that time, the Upland community has made serious examination of the consideration that Bridge Development Partners was willing to more than double the $17 million it had offered the city in the development agreement approved by the council on April 1, 2020, which was taken by many as an indication that Stone, Velto, Zuniga and Felix had sold the city short in approving the project. This fueled yet another round of speculation that the project approval process had been tainted by graft, and that bribes or kickbacks had been offered, promised or provided to Stone, Velto, Zuniga, Felix and other city officials such as then-City Manager Rosemary Hoerning or Upland Director of Development Services Robert Dalquest, who had orchestrated the consideration of the project approval using the mitigated negative declaration rather than a comprehensive environmental impact report.
This prompted Bridge Development Partners Executive Vice President Brendan Kotler to publicly state, “Any suggestion that we did anything wrong is baseless.”
Thereafter, Bridge Development’s first vice president for development, Heather Crossner, stated that “assertions imbedded in …questions” relating to why, in the aftermath of the legal action by Upland Community First, Bridge Development Partners was 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 “are entirely false. 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,” those alleged activities being Bridge Development Partners or any entity working on its behalf having made any promises to Upland’s municipal staff members, its elected officials or its appointed officials to obtain the approval given to the Upland Bridge Point Project or the company or anyone acting on its behalf having 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, former Upland City Manager Rosemary Hoerning, Upland Community Development Director Robert Dalquest, Upland Contract Planner Mike Poland or Upland Associate Planner Joshua Winter.
Since that time the project has continued to languish in legal limbo as the case brought by Upland Community First and the City of Upland has not been resolved.
On May 5, 2021, in what many now see as a signal that Bridge Development Partners is ready to pull the plug on the Upland project, it initiated an application for and filed what it is at this point calling a draft environmental impact report for the Bridge Point Rancho Cucamonga Project.
That project is to include the redevelopment of what was formerly the Big Lots warehouse site near the extreme southeast corner of Rancho Cucamonga.
According to Bridge Development Partners’ filing, the site is to be redeveloped with “with two new contemporary warehouse buildings (Buildings 1 and 2) with a combined building area, including the mezzanine space, of approximately 2,175,000 square feet consisting of 2,134,000 square feet of warehouse uses and 41,000 square feet of ancillary office space. There would be approximately 2,136,200 square feet of ground level floor space and approximately 38,800 square feet of mezzanine.”
It appears that Bridge Development Partners may have drawn a lesson from its experience in Upland, such that instead of pressuring Rancho Cucamonga officials to allow it to undertake up front an initial study to form the basis of the environmental certification of the project, the company is instead doing a draft environmental impact report, a far more comprehensive environmental analysis than was done in Upland. It is not fully clear whether Bridge Development Partners has acceded to undertaking the draft environmental impact report because of its unfortunate experience in Upland, because the construction on the structure to take place in Rancho Cucamonga is on a scale ten times that of what was proposed in Upland or because Rancho Cucamonga officials proved far more hard-nosed with regard to the environmental certification of the project than did those in Upland.
The Sentinel’s effort to reach Sean McPherson, the senior planner with the City of Rancho Cucamonga who is overseeing the city’s processing of the Bridge Point Rancho Cucamonga development proposal, by press time was unsuccessful.
For the purposes of the analysis conducted in the draft environmental impact report, it is assumed that up to 90 percent of the building square footage is to consist of a so-called high-cube warehouse, and 10 percent will consist of a high-cube cold storage warehouse.
Building 1 is described as consisting of approximately 1,422,500 square feet of floor area, which is to involve roughly 25,000 square feet of ancillary office space and 1,397,500 square feet of warehouse space. Building 1 is tentatively designed as a cross-dock building, meaning that loading docks are located on opposite sides of the building, both east and west.
Building 2, according to documents obtained by the Sentinel, is to feature approximately 752,500 sf of floor area, of which some 16,000 square feet is to be ancillary office space with 736,500 square feet of warehouse space. The building would also include 16,000 square feet of offices within either the ground level or mezzanine. Building 2’s cross-dock configuration will provide for loading docks on the north and south sides of the building.
In terms of offsite infrastructure, the project will involve the construction of a new public roadway, at present referred to as “Street A,” which would extend north-south along the eastern boundary of the project site between 4th Street and 6th Street.
The project site extends over 91.4 acres located at 12434 4th Street in the City of Rancho Cucamonga, bounded by 4th Street to the south, which is also the jurisdictional boundary between the City of Rancho Cucamonga and the City of Ontario, and 6th Street to the north, and generally located between Etiwanda Avenue to the east and Santa Anita Avenue to the west.
Some but not all of the on-site improvements associated with the project will involve surface parking areas for automobiles and truck trailers ancillary to the operation of the two buildings, vehicle drive aisles, landscaping, storm water quality/storage, utility infrastructure, and exterior lighting. The project site is within a transit priority area and would include improvements to 4th Street and 6th Street along the project site’s frontage to facilitate the use of transit and non-vehicular circulation.
Thus, Bridge Development Partners will remove and replace the existing sidewalk and install Class II bikeways adjacent to the project site. The City of Rancho Cucamonga intends to construct an at-grade crossing of the railroad spur to complete 6th Street between Santa Anita Avenue and Etiwanda Avenue. As a preliminary condition of approval, the city has indicated that the crossing is required to be implemented as part of the project; therefore, it is also addressed as a project component in the draft environmental impact report.
It is expected that construction of the project would be initiated in 2021 and be complete by 2022. The general plan land use designations and zoning for the project site are heavy industrial on the northern portion of the site and general industrial on the southern portion of the site.
For the project to be approved, the city council, acting as Rancho Cucamonga’s highest land use authority, will need to adopt general plan and zoning map amendments to change the land use designation and zoning designation for the northern portion of the project site from heavy industrial to general industrial; approve a tentative parcel map to subdivide the project site, which is currently a single legal parcel, into two parcels to accommodate the two proposed buildings; approve a site plan and architectural review for the site, architectural plans, and landscape plans; grant Bridge Development Partners a tree removal permit for the removal of heritage trees on-site; and certify the final environmental impact report for the site, which is to be based upon the draft environmental impact report and public comment on that draft document.
Bridge Development Partners’ pursuit of the Bridge Point Development Rancho Cucamonga project implies but does not conclusively establish that the Amazon warehouse project in Upland is being abandoned. A phone message left with Brian Wilson, the West Coast partner with Bridge Development Partners at his Los Angeles office inquiring if success in bringing the Bridge Point Development Rancho Cucamonga project to fruition will preempt the Upland Bridge Point Project did not garner a response by press time. bng
By Mark Gutglueck