Allow Projects Of 46 And 100 To The Acre In Redlands’ Downtown Core, Commissioners Recommend To The City Council

The already apparent discrepancy between the attitude of a substantial portion of Redlands residents and the city’s municipal and political establishment with regard to the accelerated development of the city in the near term was given a crystal clear demonstration at the planning commission meeting on September 28.
Measure U, the controlled-growth initiative passed by Redlands voters overwhelmingly in 1997, was a companion piece to Proposition R passed in n 1978 and Measure N passed in 1987, all of which were intended to reduce growth to manageable levels. Measure R put a limit on the annual growth rate, followed by further refinements and restrictions put in place under the auspices of Measures N and U, such that no more than 400 residential dwelling units can be approved or constructed within the city annually, and the city council is not empowered to suspend, waive or rescind those provisions.
Last year, in a ploy to water down the restrictions in Measure U, Measure R and Measure N, the pro-development city council place Measure G on the ballot. Measure G called for eliminating the collective Measure R, N and U requirements that:
* A four-fifths vote of the city council is needed to approve residential densities exceeding 18 dwelling units per acre;
* A four-fifths vote of the city council is needed to approve residential buildings exceeding two stories or 35 feet in height;
* 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;
* 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;
* The proponents of certain new development projects prepare a socioeconomic‐cost/benefit study before approval of those projects;
* Certain residential subdivision projects be subject to competitive review for issuance of building permits
* The developers of new projects pay 100 percent of the development impact fees that are imposed on those projects; and
* No more than 400 residential dwelling units be constructed within the city in any year.
In the March 3, 2020 election, Measure G was soundly defeated, with 14,407 residents or 64.88 percent opposing it and 7,798 voters or 35.12 percent supporting it.
Despite that, the Redlands Planning Commission, acting at the behest of the politicians who appointed them, voted unanimously twice within 12 minutes on September 28 to recommend to the city council that it grant dual exemptions to Measure U, and allow an out-of-town developer to erect buildings of density and height that exceed the more modest intensity standards city residents have repeatedly expressed as being their preference in the construction that is allowed to take place in the city of 71,707.
The planning commission’s September 28 votes with regard to one three-acre so-called mixed-use project and another 1.49-acre residential project are not binding, but they represent a recommendation that the city council grant Measure U exemptions on both of the projects which lie within the city’s downtown area. Those votes were the second and third such recommendations made by the planning commission with regard to aggressive development proposals in the downtown area in the last six months. 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. The following month, the Redlands City Council approved Village Partners Ventures’ request for the Measure U exemption for its proposed project, citing the planning commission’s recommendation.
On September 28, the planning commission took up Vantage One Real Estate Investment’s proposal to construct 138 apartments and three restaurant buildings on about three acres at 212 and 216 Brookside Avenue, the former sites of the long-shuttered San Bernardino County Superior Court Redlands Courthouse Annex and the city’s former police station, safety hall and city council chamber, as well as two homes. The property lies across Brookside Avenue from the U.S. Post Office. Vantage One acquired the properties from the city in 2017, after which the city granted the company’s request for a zone change to allow it to be developed commercially. In the three years since, Vantage One has revamped its original plan to transform the acreage into a dual purpose property that will cover both commercial and residential use. Of note is that in addition to the commercial component, consisting of three restaurants, the developer is seeking to place more than 45 units of housing per acre onto the land, an intensity of use far beyond anything that currently exists in the city.
Vantage One also sought permission to undertake an even more intensive use of just under an-acre-and-a-half of property some 750 feet north of the mixed use proposal, one that would place 100 units per acre at the northeast corner of Redlands Boulevard and Eureka Street, on property located at 200 West Redlands Boulevard. That project, consisting of 149 apartment units on 1.49 acres of ground, is to supplant a 40,000 square foot furniture store. The commission also approved Vantage One’s Measure U exemption request for the apartment complex. According to Vantage One, it will squeeze onto less than an acre-and-a-half the 149 multifamily units described, variously, as studio models and one-bedroom units ranging from 516 to 829 square feet, as well as a parking structure which will feature 220 parking spaces. Despite the placement of living quarters for some 250 people as well as an area adequate for them to park their cars on an expanse of land that in other areas of the city would accommodate no more than six to eight single family residences, the project will include, Vantage One maintains, an outdoor lounge, shade structures, a dog park and a private bar area, a center plaza with an outdoor pool, two spas, a game room and a fitness room as well as public and private open space.
In both cases, the developer is requesting that the city council ultimately make a finding that the proposed projects are exempt from Measure U. The basis for those exemptions relates to the projects falling within the city’s controversial Transit Villages Specific Plan Area.
The Transit Villages Specific Plan calls for encouraging future development within the core areas of the city, in particular downtown, the area between Tennessee Street and New York Street and near the University of Redlands, where stops on the Redlands Passenger Rail Project are to be located. The Redlands Passenger Rail Project, slated for completion as early as next year, is to link Redlands to San Bernardino and the Metrolink rail system running from San Bernardino to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles and back. The Transit Villages concept calls for constructing high density, multi-story housing within walking distance of the three railway stops in Redlands to discourage the residents who live there from using their personal vehicles such that they instead utilize the train system that is being developed in Southern California to allow those living in the inland areas to commute westward toward or into Los Angeles in the morning to work and return home by rail in the late afternoon or evening.
The element of the Transit Villages Specific Plan that calls for creating a dense living environment in Redlands’ downtown area and allowing for high-rise apartments as well as parking structures clashes with many preservationists’ idea of keeping the city’s historic downtown intact. Moreover, the concerted efforts of a group of Redlands residents, who are determined to prevent any further development of structures of more than three stories, are out of sync with the Transit Villages Specific Plan.
Though the documentation presented to the planning commission did not specify the height of the structures on either of the projects, in the case of the Brookside Avenue development, the structures are likely to be three, four and five stories. To accomplish the erection of 149 units, a parking structure and promised amenities on the 1.49 acres on Redlands Boulevard, it is doubtful the buildings would be anything less than seven or eight stories.
The height of buildings in Redlands is a hotly contested issue. Those in favor of keeping buildings close to the ground appear to have the upper hand numerically. Nevertheless, the establishment at City Hall has other ideas.
In September, the grassroots group Friends of Redlands, working in conjunction with another collection of residents, 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 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 area around New York Street. 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 needed 15 percent of the city’s voters – 6,409 – to sign the petition.
On June 7, 2021 Friends of Redlands and Redlands for Responsible Growth Management provided City Clerk Jeanne Donaldson with three huge boxes containing petitions calling for a special election to stop tall and dense development to which 7,715 signatures were affixed. It is not clear what Donaldson’s count determined, though there has been no indication the vote is to be held this year. Rather, it appears the referendum on high rises is to be decided with a vote held next year that will coincide with the regularly scheduled municipal election and the gubernatorial general election.
It appears that city officials are militating to get multiple projects pertaining to development downtown – including Vantage One’s three-acre three-, four- and five-story project on Brookside, its 1.49-acre seven- or eight-story project on Redlands Boulevard and Village Partners Ventures LLC’s 11.15-acre three-, four-, five- and six-level project on the Redlands Mall site approved before the height restrictions can be voted upon by the city’s residents.
Of note is that citizen activists advocating low growth and controlled growth in Redlands have become suspicious about the role the planning commission plays in providing support and a rationale for the city council’s more aggressive development stance. When confronted about their actions encouraging more intensive building activity in the city than a vocal contingent of citizens want, council members on occasion have said that their votes merely reflect the desire and direction of the community as embodied in the planning commission’s votes and recommendations. Nevertheless, what has loomed into view is that the planning commission very often modulates its action in conformance with the city council’s expectations, including ones that are expressed privately between members of the council and the commission, outside the scrutiny and earshot of the public. This circular rationale has led some to conclude that graft is a component of the city’s land use decision-making process.
During the planning commission’s discussion before the votes taken on the Vantage One projects, Planning Commission Chairman Conrad Guzkowski, perhaps purposefully or perhaps inadvertently, put on display the level to which he and his colleagues are intent on facilitating high rise and intensely dense development downtown.
Acknowledging that Vantage One has not yet fleshed out what the projects are to entail, Guzkowski indicated, even before the commission took its votes, that he and his colleagues were set on clearing the way for the multi-story projects intended to house upwards of 100 to 150 people per acre to take place.
“It is very clear to me,” said Guzkowski, “and I hope it is to all of you, that we’re not acting upon a specific project, but we’re really considering how the idea of the redevelopment of that mall – as at least was being depicted to us – how that fits into the property, its location and its relevance and proximity relationship to the downtown transit infrastructure that is being developed.”
Guzkowski suggested that what Vantage One is doing is merely to layer in more intensive development on top of what has already been set forth by Village Partners Ventures LLC.
“We worked our way through all of that and then it went on to council and that record is well established,” Guzkowski said. “So now we come to these two items. Here it comes, and now we have something of a generalized description of how this property might move forward. The advantage on this one is we have some history to it. We’ve had a rezoning request on it, for example, so it’s not as if it’s a stranger to this commission, but again the question that was coming up was ‘What is it we’re struggling with and what is it we’re being asked to do with respect to Measure U, to not only be faithful to Measure U, be encouraging of development to take place in the city, particularly on properties that we are desperate or at least feel strongly, some or hopefully most of us, feel need to be developed in a new fashion to move forward?’ How do we make all that happen without jumping out in front of ourselves on a specific project approval? So, that’s where I was struggling with it. In working with staff, what I actually did was draft a suggestion on how to make sure that we were communicating to all sides who had strong opinions on this, whichever side that might be, as to how Measure U applies to future development in the Transit Village and downtown specifically here, how does it relate, and so we are communicating what we are really trying to tackle here. This is my interpretation on this. I am not saying it should be yours. So I drafted it, and staff has helped to refine it. The issue here is to say we’re adopting the resolution, which is finding and recommending to the council that the subject property – we are dealing with the property and its future development – but it’s the property that’s meeting the threshold criteria that’s identified for exemption, in the staff report for exemption from Measure U, and specifically category D. It’s by virtue of its location within a quarter mile of the downtown transit station and that it provides for that threshold, at least that threshold density of 20 units to the acre.”
The category D exemption Guzkowski cited pertains to allowing greater density and greater height on buildings than would otherwise apply to meet the goal of large numbers of people living near the railway stations as envisioned in the Transit Villages areas.
“So we’re not here – This is me speaking again – We’re not here to say ‘Whatever is being proposed there in this illustration is now suddenly what we’re going to be by implication sanctioning or suggesting is what we want to see in the future,” Guzkowski said. “What we’re saying is the developer in this particular application is demonstrating that the property that they’re proposing to develop in the future and to submit applications for meets those thresholds, and that is the extent of the action we are taking today. No bias as to future action, no bias as to not allowing but rather say, ‘Yes, that property meets that threshold.’”
Guzkowski at that point broke into a suggestion of how his colleagues should vote.
“I hope you’re reading in a similar kind of fashion,” he said.
Guzkowski was barely able to contain his enthusiasm for packing as many residents into the downtown area as possible.
“That’s the magic behind what you are seeing here,” he said. “It appears to me that we’ll have at least a 20-to-the-acre density on the residential. That is a threshold test that is all I believe we are being asked to do. And I think that’s faithful to the job at hand, pursuant to Measure U.”
Ultimately, Guzkowski and his colleagues voted unanimously to recommend that the city council allow 26 studio apartments, four studio apartments with a den, 71 apartment units with one bed and one bathroom, 25 units with one bedroom, one bathroom and one den and nine units with two bedrooms and two bathrooms and three units with two bedrooms, two bathrooms and one den, along with three restaurants proposed as ranging from 3,450 to 3,505 square feet into what was called the Redlands City Center located on Brookside Avenue. They thereafter voted unanimously to approve the building of 149 multifamily units to include studio and one-bedroom units ranging between 516 square feet and 829 square feet and an accompanying parking structure at the site on Redlands Boulevard.
The hearing for the Brookside project began 57 minutes and 41 seconds into what was overall a two hour two minute and 21 second meeting. The hearing for the Brookside project concluded and the vote was taken at one hour 29 minutes and 43 seconds into the meeting. The commission immediately afterward took up the Redlands Boulevard project, and the voting on it was completed at one hour 41 minutes and 37 seconds into the meeting.
-Mark Gutglueck

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