Reservations On Architectural Quality Delays Redlands Mall Replacement Approval

VPV State Street Village, LLC’s hope that it could redevelop 11.5 acres of the now mostly dormant Redlands Mall on the cheap by utilizing off-the-shelf “modern interpretive” architectural schemes ran into a snag this week when a significant element of the city’s old guard questioned why the developer was skimping on the project’s outward presentation.
The Redlands Mall, located in the heart of downtown Redlands, was constructed in the mid-1970s. It shuttered as a full-scale commercial concern thirteen years ago, when its anchor tenant, Gottschalks, filed for bankruptcy. The only remaining tenant is CVS Pharmacy. In the aftermath of the mall’s demise, in some measure because of the economic downturn of 2007, there was little interest in the investment and development sectors in reinvigorating the site as a commercial center. This created a degree of anxiety among Redlands officials. Following the end of the recession in 2014, Brixton Capital proposed the redevelopment of the mall property. Brixton, however never performed.
In the aftermath of the Brixton debacle, VPV State Street Village made overtures about reclaiming the property. In doing so, VPV pushed Redlands city officials toward the intensification of density in the downtown core. The prospect of densely packing the city’s commercial district with people has put a large cross section of Redlands residents on edge.
Redlands, which was incorporated in 1888, has long been considered San Bernardino County’s most refined city, what many considered an idyllic blending of upscale homes and orange groves. With the gradual and eventual wholesale destruction of the citrus industry that began regionally in the 1950s and accelerated in the decades thereafter, Redlands residents more than those of other local cities pushed back against the urbanization trend, passing controlled-growth initiatives Proposition R in 1978, Measure N in 1987 and Measure U in 1997, all of which were intended to reduce growth to manageable levels.
Despite that sentiment among a sizable contingent of the populace and the force of law the measures provided in limiting development, members of the city council have over the last generation proven determined to clear the way for landowners and the builders they work with to construct projects that will more than double, triple and quadruple the density of residential and commercial land use, while compacting these improvements in smaller and smaller spaces near the city’s downtown core.
City officials in recent years have promoted what is called the Transit Villages concept. That approach calls for the city to encourage the development of three heavily populated districts within the city, all of which are located within walking distance of the commuter stations along the yet-to-be-fully-realized-and-actuated regional rail system urban planners are seeking to create on the existing train line running from Los Angeles and to Palm Springs. Three such transit villages are envisioned for Redlands, one downtown surrounding the city’s historic train depot, one on New York Street and one near Redlands University. The transit districts will entail a series of high-rise apartments to house individuals who travel most often not by car, but use public transportation. There is some debate as to whether these residents will be families or mostly unmarried individuals or couples without children. Though urban planners say these downtown denizens will not often use their own personal vehicles, the city yet plans to make places for their cars, which will generally be parked in structures as high as six and seven stories.
There has been substantial citizen resistance to this plan, but so far those proposing projects in keeping with this vision in Redlands have been warmly received by the city council, the planning commission, city administration and the city’s planning division. Indeed, the Redlands City Council made a determination that VPV State Street Village’s proposed project is exempt from the controlled growth Measure U initiative.
This week, on Tuesday April 12, the planning commission considered VPV State Street Village’s proposal which calls for 11.5 acres at the mall site to be converted into a mixed-use project that includes residential and commercial uses within five new multi-tenant buildings. The project calls for demolishing existing on-site buildings and improvements; erecting five mixed-use buildings up to four stories high; building up to 700 multifamily dwelling units, i.e., apartments and condominiums, to include studio, one-bedroom, two-bedroom, and three-bedroom, and live/work units; constructing an approximately 6,000 square-foot recreational amenity building including a pool and other private courtyards for residents; creating up to 71,778 square feet of commercial floor area on ground floors to include retail and restaurant uses, as well as a rooftop restaurant; constructing up to 12,328 square feet of office space on upper floors; establishing a pedestrian plaza totaling approximately 22,742 square feet on Third Street; constructing a five-level above-ground parking structure with 686 spaces; and excavating to build two subterranean parking garages with 269 and 225 spaces. Included in the plans are public and private open space areas to involve landscaping, shade trees, street trees, and pedestrian improvements; and related site improvements to include sidewalks, driveways, landscape, lighting and street lights, storm drains, flood prevention features, and public and private utility connections.
A substantial number of Redlands residents have not been pleased with the proposal, and have suggested that city officials, including members of the city council, the planning commission and city staff have conflicts of interest growing out of the intensification of density in the downtown area. Moreover, there is a perception that based upon both city staff’s and the city council’s frustration with, first, the extended period during which the mall property stood dormant and, second, Brixton’s failure to perform, that the city is being overly indulgent of VPV State Street Village, which has taken advantage of the situation and is proposing a project that involves not only excessive density but aesthetic and architectural standards that are not in keeping with the city’s traditions and elevated status above its counterparts in the county. Despite multiple protests to that effect by city residents, the widespread expectation going into Tuesday’s meeting was that the planning commission, which was not given ultimate land use authority on the VPV State Street Village project but was being called upon to evaluate it and provide a recommendation to the city council which will ultimately determine whether VPV State Street Village should be able to proceed with the project and under what terms, would put its imprimatur on the proposal. Prior to the meeting, the city’s planning staff, led by City Planner Brian Foote prepared a report recommending that the planning commission adopt a resolution that it recommend the city council certify an environmental assessment of the project to the effect that it is in compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act, approve a general plan amendment to allow the project to proceed, approve a conditional use permit for the project, approve a development agreement for the project and endorse the project in general.
Despite those expectations, two former mayors, two city residents with solid urban planning credentials and the host of a national television show that focuses on the preservation of historical buildings expressed reservations with regard to the architectural standards VPV State Street Village is adhering to in the project proposal.
Brett Waterman, a building preservationist based in Redlands, said, “There is so much about this project that I like.” Nevertheless, Waterman said, there was a problem with the “modern interpretation” of classic architecture that was to go into the project.
“We in the city of Redlands are really rooted in historic architecture,” Waterman said. “You can see it everywhere in our city. I think there’s been attempts to bring modern elements in the city, but it doesn’t really feel like Redlands. So, I would challenge them [i.e., VPV State Street Village] to look at modern interpretations of historic architecture and go back to something more historic, something that feels more familiar and supporting the fabric of what makes our city unique. If we want our city to stand out from other cities in California, I think we need to embrace what has made us successful in the past and its historic classic architecture, be it mission revival, Victorian, arts and crafts. We have it all here. The architecture I’m seeing – very modern – waters down all of it, so it becomes a little more bland. I think that’s a challenge.”
Waterman, while advocating that the city not rush into approving what VPV State Street Village is selling, was still, like many of those speaking Tuesday off-kilter with many in the community opposed to the project in that he indicated he was not bothered by the project’s land-use intensity and density nor by its multi-story nature.
Karl “Kasey” Hawes, who was a member of the Redlands City Council from 1999 to 2003 and mayor from 2001 to 2003, told the commission, “Redlands has special attributes and architecture that is unique. That is the reason we all love living here.” Saying that many buildings in Redlands are “magnificent structures,” Hawes said, “All of those things and the touch and feel of Redlands is extremely important.”
Redlands residents, he said, “love historical redevelopment.” Of the city’s character, Hawes said, “They want it to be preserved. That brings us to this project. What’s good about it? The mall needs to be redeveloped. And it needs to be done soon and this is a fantastic layout and it’s a fantastic idea and a fantastic concept. The problem is when you start labeling our architecture as eclectic, exuberant, antiquated, devoid of containment, it opens yourself up for the opportunity to do anything you want and claim it falls within the guidelines. We have architectural guidelines, and I don’t think many of these elevations on the outside reflect those guidelines.”
Hawes said, “The solution is to convene a special meeting of the planning commission and city council to approve this project and do it after we’ve had a chance for additional input on the exterior architecture.”
Deborah Barmack, a Redlands resident who was formerly the executive director of the county’s transportation agency, said she supported the transit villages concept and what she termed “meeting housing mobility goals.” She said she was “eager to see the mall demolished and make way for a project we can all be proud of but I would like to see development that fits the character of the City of Redlands This is why the City of Redlands architectural guidelines were developed.”
Those guidelines, Barmack said, call for “nonresidential development of the highest quality that will further enhance the existing character of the community. This development as presented is not yet the highest quality and certainly does not enhance the existing character of the community. I urge you to ensure that the architectural guidelines that are incorporated in this project’s design reflect the values and the input from this community.”
Garry Cohoe, the former city engineer for the City of Chino Hills and a resident of Redlands, said he did “not think the proposed architecture complies with the architectural guidelines” the city has in place.
He said VPV State Street Village’s plans for the building to be constructed at Redlands Boulevard and Eureka Street are “supposed to resemble in some way the [historic Redlands] train station. I don’t see it. I don’t see it representing Redlands in any way. In fact, it looks institutional to me.”
Elsewhere in the project, Cahoe said, there was “no variation in the rooflines. There is one steady roofline.”
All the way around, he said, what VPV State Street Village is proposing does “not meet the intent of the architectural guidelines.”
Additionally, Cahoe said that the development agreement the city was contemplating with VPV State Street Village was not stringent enough. He said the city needed to “tighten” the agreement to ensure that VPV State Street Village has to perform to prevent the property from languishing for another 15 years.
Carole Beswick, who was on the city council for eight years, including an extended stint as mayor from 1983 until 1989, said the project “is going to have a major influence on the character of this city for decades to come. We’re all eager to see the renovation of the mall. I think this project has tremendous potential but we don’t want to replace it with something of which we can’t truly be proud. We’ve worked hard to preserve the character of Redlands while supporting all kinds of development, but let’s not deviate on this one, on such an important project.”
What is being proposed, Beswick said, was “massive rather than charming. I think it’s really important that what we have here as an end result celebrates the city and does it in compliance with our objective architectural guidelines to get close to something that respects who we are.”
Ultimately, the planning commission, while hailing the project as one that would do away with the blight of an empty and dormant mall, concurred that the project’s character needed to be improved.
Steven Frasher, the planning commission’s chairman, indicated the panel was not ready to recommend the project as it is currently proposed to the city council. He said, “I agree with the former mayors in their presentation that having a bit more conversation about some of these elements, I think, can get us over the hump.”
If VPV State Street Village is willing to adjust certain elements of the proposal, approval of the project should be coming in relatively short order, he said.
“I don’t think there is an appetite for needless delay or throwing a big wrench into what we heard broadly as a very attractive proposal well presented and thoughtfully put together,” Frasher said. “As several of us have heard from several voices, we heard the same thing: We have one chance to get this right, so collectively, I think with the mayors’ encouragement, I think we can get there if we can meet together.”
The planning commission, taking no action on the project itself, voted to continue the meeting, as Hawes had suggested, to a future joint meeting of the planning commission and city council dedicated to the project.
-Mark Gutglueck

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