In a turn of historic significance not just to Redlands or San Bernardino County but the whole of California, the Redlands City Council and Planning Commission voted Tuesday night to approve a project without a significant number of its features having been delineated or specified.
In approving Village Partners proposed 700-housing unit, four-story mixed commercial-residential-office development on the grounds of the shuttered Redlands Mall, the city council and planning commission elected to abide by the provisions of a 2019 state law that are now being challenged by other municipalities. One of the provisions of that law precludes a local governmental entity from holding more than five public meetings pertaining to a development proposal for a residential project before making a determination as to whether the project proponent can proceed with the undertaking.
Village Partners Ventures’ State Street Village qualifies as the most intensive land use proposal in Redlands’ history when measured by density and height. For that reason and others, the decision by the city council and planning commission to allow it to proceed without all of the features it is to entail being explicitly determined was of weighty consequence.
Well prior to Tuesday night’s hearing, the project proposal had generated considerable controversy. Multiple elements of the project are contrary to or in direct defiance of development standards put in place over the last four-and-a-half decades by Redlands residents as a means of limiting the intensity of development in the city and to preserve Redlands’ design, architectural and aesthetic standards.
Many residents, including those who support the controlled and limited growth ethos embraced by a wide cross section of the city going back for close to two generations, are supportive of city officials in their effort to reclaim the Redlands Mall property. The mall, which was completed and opened in 1977, was once considered to be an asset to Redlands’ once-grand downtown district, but has lain fallow since 2010, a year after its anchor tenant, Gottschalks, filed for bankruptcy and shuttered its Redlands store. Over the last dozen years, as city officials have grown increasingly desperate to see the now-blighted mall property transformed, they have consistently moved toward tolerating development proposals that a core of Redlands residents consider to be beneath the standards the city should accept.
At the same time, three factors have combined to compromise the ability of Redlands’ residents to limit the intensity of growth within the city in general and the intensity of growth in the downtown district in particular.
First was the lack of enthusiasm in the investment and development sectors in reinvigorating the mall site as a commercial center.
Second is the city’s adoption of a strategy, known as the Redlands Transit Villages Concept, calling 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 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 above ground or in two or three levels below ground.
Third, in October 2019, Senate Bill 330, known as the “Housing Crisis Act of 2019,” was signed into law with the goal of expediting residential construction in California. It is to remain in effect until January 1, 2025, and prohibits a city from denying approval of a housing project on what is termed “subjective standards” if the project otherwise meets objective general plan and zoning rules. Additionally, the law requires that the consideration/approval process for housing projects be expedited, such that a city can hold no more than five public meetings at which a project is considered before it is ultimately given approval or rejected.
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, Village Partners Ventures LLC and its subsidiary, 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 residents over the last five decades have 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.
In the aftermath of the Brixton debacle, Village Partners Ventures LLC made overtures about reclaiming the property. In doing so, Village Partners Ventures pushed Redlands city officials toward the intensification of density in the downtown core. As this was in keeping with the city’s Transit Villages Plan, city officials embraced it.
Village Partners Ventures’ State Street Village proposal is to entail 11.5 acres at the mall site being 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, as well as related site improvements to include sidewalks, driveways, landscape, lighting and street lights, storm drains, flood prevention features, and public and private utility connections.
By last month, the city had held three public hearings relating to the proposal. On April 12, the planning commission took up the matter up for a fourth time. It was widely anticipated by both those in favor of the project and those opposed to it that the planning commission would sign off on allowing the project to proceed.
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 recommending 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, while stating there was much about the project he appreciated, stated that “We in the city of Redlands are really rooted in historic architecture. I would challenge them [i.e., Village Partners Ventures] 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. 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.”
Former Redlands Mayor Karl “Kasey” Hawes told the planning commission that while, “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 and the former 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 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. All the way around, he said, what Village Partners Ventures had proposed does “not meet the intent of the architectural guidelines.”
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.” Beswick said that though, “We’re all eager to see the renovation of the mall… we don’t want to replace it with something of which we can’t truly be proud.” What Village Partners Ventures 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.”
In deference to Beswick, Cohoe, Barmack, Hawes and Waterman, the planning commission on April 12 complied with Hawes’ suggestion to hold a joint city council/planning commission hearing with regard to the project.
Staff, however, did not press Village Partners Ventures to revamp the project’s architectural elements or render specific changes that Beswick, Cohoe, Barmack, Hawes and Waterman indicated they thought would be appropriate.
Redlands Development Services Director Brian Desatnik and City Planner Brian Foote acknowledged that the city had not yet concluded with Village Partners Ventures the terms of the development agreement for the project, the city’s fee structure, a timeline for construction, and what the timeline for completion of the project was.
Thus, the joint council/commission as a body found itself on Tuesday night in the position, because of the maximum five-meeting provision of Senate Bill 330 (SB 330), of having to either reject the project altogether to force Village Partners Ventures to resubmit a proposal with the firmed up architectural specifications or alternately accepting the project as what was essentially an open-ended one, by which terms Village Partners Ventures was on the honor system to improve the architectural element of the project or, if it so chooses, build the project to whatever standard it sees fit.
Planning Commissioner Joe Richardson lamented that the city was surrendering control over the approval process to the extent that it was exercising no authority over the architectural standards.
“There’s still a lot we don’t know and there’s a lot we’re not going to know with this, and it’s really hard when it’s the biggest project you’ve ever dealt with,” Richardson said.
Councilman Eddie Tejeda said, “I want to make sure that we’re the council that gets it right. I will say to the developer that I did see some movement in the direction of looking for community input, however, I would say there was a significant lack of input from people who opposed the project, and that’s something that I expect you to do, to reach out to people who were not in support of the project. We can always find people that support our projects and tell us how they want them to look. I found many comments on social media that many residents would have preferred that State Street go all the way through and connect East State Street to West State Street. In your renderings, I didn’t see any changes to that effect. I think it still took intense engagement from members of the community to get some sort of movement. Our community is very engaged when it comes to matters of development in the community. But again, we circle back to what it is the council can under its authority do with respect to development, and we’ve come to this point where we either make a finding, which we can’t. We don’t have [an alternative to what was presented to the planning commission on April 12]. Staff hasn’t brought that to us and they’re not able to because there isn’t anything out there that we can grab onto. I thought it was important to acknowledge those folks that, yes, are not fully in support of the project, who support that the mall be developed in some way. I did hear that. I wish there was a way we could make some changes that related to those concerns, but ultimately we have to follow the law.”
There were a number of residents who showed up to express their views, some who were in favor of the mall being made over at last, and they did not seem to be particularly bothered by the density of the project.
Even some of those who were unhappy with the project itself expressed a belief that the long-dormant mall needed to be reclaimed in some fashion.
There were also residents who were adamantly opposed to the project. Some of those expressed concern about parking, traffic, the impact of four-story and five-story buildings on the sky line and potential impacts on schools, given the number of units.
Some residents expressed dismay at the project being rushed toward approval at this point with the city’s voters scheduled to vote on a ballot measure in November that if passed would limit building height to three stories.
City officials ignored that expression of concern, since even if that measure passes, it would have no bearing on the project, as SB 330 carries with it a provision that preempts development regulations that are not in place prior to a project application being filed.
There were a number of Redlands residents who saw Tuesday’s meeting as a last chance to convince city officials that they should not embrace more intensive development.
“As a 16-year resident of Redlands, my chief concern with the proposed Redlands Mall project is that it incorporates too many high-density apartment units, and too few homeownership opportunities like condos or townhomes,” wrote Michael Layne in a letter to the mayor, city council and planning commission. “Putting high-density apartment units in the middle of downtown will not help our downtown upscale boutique shops and restaurants. I am also concerned how traffic will be impacted by so many new residents in such a small area, on top of the recent congestion issues caused by the light rail extension. Also, how will our existing public schools absorb these thousands of new K-12 students? While I understand the economics of high-density development projects, at the end of the day, after the project has been built, the taxpayers of Redlands are the ones who will have to live with it, day in and day out. We will be the ones forced to pay for the needed infrastructure costs that will surely follow such a major development.”
“The proposal has already been accused of being too high,” John Paul Beall wrote in a letter to the mayor, council and planning commission prior to the meeting. “There are too many units, the units overall are too small, the architecture is too simple, there is too little parking, there is too high a density and too high a negative congestion impact on the surrounding neighborhoods and small businesses. All these decisions have been made in order to underwrite to a number. And that number is the high cost of the land the developer was forced to pay for an effectively non-performing suburban mall asset, blighted and falling down around us.”
LuAnn Benton in another letter told the decision-makers, “People that are opposed to this project are not opposed to development or the rebuilding of the Redlands Mall area. We just want it done in a responsible way and thought given to the historic nature of our town. The downtown State Street area is historic and quaint and has a charm all on its own. The new proposed development will give the appearance of Irvine next to old town Redlands. It will destroy the historic context of the area.
“The building heights are a concern,” Benton further stated. “Two or three stories would be more acceptable than the four to five stories proposed. The 700 new high-density apartments will generate around 1,400 new vehicles in the area along with all the delivery trucks and congestion that is currently a problem.”
In a letter, Ben and Darla Dillow stated that “[T]his proposal is so far out of line with the historic character of Redlands that it defies serious thought. May more reasoned minds prevail, and creative minds return to the drawing board with the challenge to better our city, not forever change it into a clone of those cities which have, with avarice and greed, served the few at the expense of the many.”
Kathleen Beall wrote, “Not only is this proposed development going to forever change Redlands, it will obliterate the view of our beloved mountains from even the Smiley Library or the Redlands Bowl area. It is overwhelming how wrong this is for our city. [O]ver 70 percent of our citizens agreed last year that no one wanted that density and height for our city.”
Beall continued, “Why doesn’t our city stand up to the state and sue for overreach like other self-respecting cities in the state? We don’t have to take this massive overreach for the high density, etc. To approve any additional housing plans at a time when a drought is at an all time high and I as a Redlands citizen cannot even water my yard on certain days without getting cited and given a potential fine is ludicrous. The city needs to get a backbone and stand up for its existing citizens.”
Beall’s reference was to the resistance in varying forms that more than a hundred cities in the state have lodged officially, registered informally or passively engaged in with regard SB 330 and mandates imposed on the state’s cities by the California Department of Housing under the auspices of state law and the Regional Housing Needs Assessment, which require that all jurisdictions, including cities and unincorporated county areas in California include in their general plan and zoning code an accommodation of the number of dwelling units specified in the assessment, meaning the city must allow the construction of at least the number of homes the state says is its share of the burden to meet housing demand statewide.
SB 330 gives developers leeway to sue cities or other jurisdictions that deny their residential project proposals. Since SB 330 went into effect, cities have not fared well in the face of such lawsuits and they have not succeeded, so far, in oversetting SB 330 by challenging it.
The state legislature, the California Department of Housing, advocates for the homeless, some social engineers and the building industry insist that the entire State of California is in the midst of a housing shortage, and they estimate that over 3 million more homes are needed in the state to overcome it.
Based upon the numbers formulated as part of the Regional Housing Needs Assessment, the state determined that within Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside and Imperial counties, which compose the region covered by the Southern California Association of Governments, 1.34 million new homes must be built by the end of 2028, an average of nearly 168,000 homes per year. Redlands’ share of that assessment is 4,487 dwelling units, 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.
Many local jurisdictions and municipal leaders in California have been loathe to surrender their land use authority in the face of SB 330. It should be noted that where SB 330 has been upheld with regard to it preempting local development regulations, the issues at stake involved for the most part regulations and development standards that were put in place after the advent of SB 330 and after the application for a project in dispute was filed. Preexisting development standards remain valid and a city’s authority to apply them remain intact under SB 330. Municipal officials in many cities and controlled-growth advocates throughout California are yet resolved to resist, both administratively and by going to court, state mandates that local authorities submit to overarching development dictates from Sacramento. It remains to be determined where the courts, appellate courts and ultimately the California Supreme Court will come down with regard to the conflict between state housing mandates and local land use decisions. There is a sizable contingent of Redlands residents who believe that current Redlands city officials are out of step with the majority of the city’s residents with regard to the advisability of aggressive development in the city and that Redlands therefore has not joined with many other California cities in seeking to reserve for local jurisdictions their ability to safeguard cities’ land use authority. Some Redlands residents have expressed the belief that Redlands officials are using SB 330 and state Regional Housing Needs Assessment-affiliated homebuilding mandates to mask their improper relationships with elements of the development industry by which they are engaging in the receipt of gratuities, kickbacks and payoffs in return for project approvals.
At present there is an effort through the constitutional amendment process to preserve local land use authority for all cities and local jurisdictions. Proposed California Assembly Constitutional Amendment 7 calls for amending the California Constitution to expressly allow local governments to override state laws on land use and zoning policies within their jurisdictions. Whether Constitutional Amendment 7 will succeed is open to question, however, as what is essentially the same California Legislature that passed SB 330 would be called upon to ratify it.
In Redlands over the last several years, there has been growing suspicion that the city’s elected and appointed leadership has been compromised by graft in the form of payoffs provided to them by elements within the construction industry, and that this accounts for the variance between the attitude of the general population of Redlands and the members of both the city council and planning commission with regard to development within Redlands City Limits. Those suspicions reached a crescendo over the last two years with a focus on former City Councilman Paul Foster, a one-time moderate growth activist who was elected to the council in 2010 and thereafter evolved into the most strident pro-development advocate on the council. Last September, Foster precipitously announced he was resigning from the council as of January this year and moving to Washington State, which was seen by some as a ploy to elude federal investigators closing in on him and the developmental interests they believe had been paying for his services.
In 2020, Redlands city officials, led by Foster, sought to find a way to work around the development restrictions the city’s voters had put in place by sponsoring Measure G, which called for relaxing or dispensing entirely with the provisions contained in Proposition R passed by the city’s voters in 1978, those put in place by the voters’ passage of Measure N in 1987 and those mandated by city residents’ embrasure of Measure U in 1997. The city’s voters soundly rejected Measure G, with 9,321 votes or 64.88 percent opposing it and 5,052 voters or 35.12 percent in favor of it.
That city officials pushed the State Street Village project, which embodies a multitude of features in conflict with the measures previously put in place by the city’s voters, is taken by many as an indication that city officials are answering to an entity or entities with undue sway over them.
There are elements within the Redlands community who believe that Foster, like a bad apple, infused the rot of corruption into his council colleagues and the planning commission, and that the council and commission, now having been themselves compromised by that element of the development industry willing to taint the governmental decision-making process with political grease, have dictated to city staff that it generate staff reports calling for the accommodation of development at any price. As evidence of this, those residents point to the manner in which the city has refused to join with other California municipalities in resisting the state mandates in SB 330 and the Regional Housing Assessment process, as they believe legal action challenging the State of California over its demand that local jurisdictions allow tens of thousands of homes to be built without providing the funding and other means to construct infrastructure such as roads and highways, water, sewage and water treatment systems, schools and hospitals and other necessities to accommodate the burgeoning population would ultimately succeed if pursued in the courts. SB 330 does not require the developers who are to profit from that growth to themselves provide that infrastructure. Many advocates of controlled growth find this particularly galling, particularly given that the state, region, county and Redlands are already plagued with an infrastructure deficit.
What occurred this week in Redlands with regard to the State Street Village project was of larger statewide significance in that it involved a decision whereby the council/planning commission essentially was faced with surrendering to the developer the city’s authority on what architectural and development standard would be applied to a project to be completed within its jurisdiction. Ultimately, and despite the expressed reservations in this regard by Richardson, Frasher and Tejeda, the planning commission recommended unanimously and the city council, with councilwomen Denise Davis and Jenna Guzman-Lowery participating remotely, voted unanimously, after an exhausting four-hour, 57 minutes and 53 seconds-long hearing, to give Village Partners Ventures carte blanche to complete the project to whatever architectural standard it wants. This was done, essentially, to prevent the developer from suing the city under SB 330’s provisions.
Just prior to the vote, Mayor Paul Barich said the developers had fully accommodated the city. “They’ve bent over backwards for us,” he said. “There is no perfect out there. I’m sorry. We’re trying our best. I just feel it’s easy to judge when you’re not up here, saying ‘If this, that.’ You guys are welcome to run for elected office and then you guys get to do it. It’s easy to sit back in the gallery there and try to second guess us. I have a pretty clear conscience that I’ve done everything that I could possibly do, and I feel very comfortable about this project.”
Curiously, in making its vote, the council voted to approve a resolution that adopted “the sustainable communities environmental document prepared for the project in accordance with the California Environmental Quality Act” but in identifying the property involved ratified in a second vote specified only that portion of the project relating to the 1.1 acres located at the southeast corner of East Citrus Avenue and Eureka Street where the existing CVS Pharmacy is located, and made no vote explicitly identifying the 11.15-acre mall site entailing five parcels located at the southeast corner of East Citrus Avenue and Eureka Street. The council did make a third vote to approve the planning commission’s review of what was referenced during the meeting as a conditional use permit and the vesting of “Tentative Tract Map No. 20425 for the proposed project,” again without explicit reference to the 11.15 acre mall site.
City Attorney Dan McHugh, perhaps anxious to wrap things up as the 11 p.m. hour was approaching, carried on as if this was a minor oversight that carried with it no consequence. Whatever technical glitch may have accompanied or did not accompany the vote, Redlands officials maintain that Village Partners Ventures was given go-ahead for the entirety of the State Street Village project.
Thus, Redlands surrendered a key element of its municipal authority without a fight.
City officials sought to minimize this concession, emphasizing that under the terms of the approval that were specified, Village Partners Ventures will be required to present its “final plans” to the planning commission for “informational” purposes before construction of each phase of the project begins. When pressed, however, city officials conceded that being apprised of what Village Partners Ventures will do ahead of time did not equate to the city having authority to control what architectural or developmental quality standards the developer will ultimately adhere to.
For that reason, the action by the joint Redlands City Council/Planning Commission Tuesday night was being examined by municipal officials and developers up and down the Golden State as a precedent by which project proponents can utilize the provisions of SB 330 to dictate to cities, rather than vice-versa, what development standards they will adhere to in building within their jurisdictions.