By Mark Gutglueck
Redlands City Officials’ mad rush to approve the redevelopment project on the site of the shuttered Redlands Mall may very well have resulted in a further decade-long or more delay in that project coming to fruition, meaning that the 11.15-acre site at the heart of one of San Bernardino County’s most resplendent cities, which has already been dormant for over a decade, will have lain fallow for a quarter-of-a-century before the project hastily approved last month will materialize.
At the root of the massive faux pas was the determination of city officials to prevent height limitations on buildings within the city that a committed core of city residents is purposed to impose on future development from being applicable in the downtown area and the developers who have cultivated a rapport with the city’s municipal establishment. The project approved last month is to entail residential structures at least four stories high and perhaps a parking facility six stories in height. In their desire to accommodate the developers on the height issue, city officials ignored or bypassed locking the proponent in on a number of conditions and design specifications for the project, which city officials now belatedly recognize as being of substantial moment and tremendous import in the decades going forward.
On May 10, the Redlands City Council and Planning Commission gave a green light to Village Partners Ventures’ State Street Village, a proposed 700-housing unit, four-story mixed commercial-residential-office development on the grounds of the shuttered Redlands Mall.
The Redlands Mall, once considered to be an asset to Redlands’ traditionally grand downtown district, was completed and opened in 1977, but was closed in 2010, a year after its anchor tenant, Gottschalks, filed for bankruptcy and shuttered its Redlands store. Only the stand-alone CVS Pharmacy located on the site remains active. 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.
Over the decades, a multi-generational contingent of Redlands residents have demonstrated themselves to be more committed than any other citizens within San Bernardino County’s 24 municipalities to the concept of attenuating the tenor of development within their community, as is demonstrated by the city’s voters’ passage of the controlled-growth or slow-growth Proposition R in 1978, Measure N in 1987 and Measure U in 1997.
The restrictions on the intensity of development embodied in those measures has, over the years, come in conflict with the intent of the development community and elements of the city’s elected leadership as well as some of the city staff in Redlands. Moreover, Redlands, like virtually all other cities in Southern California, has been under external pressure to adopt urban planning principles intended to transform the region into a megalopolis. One of those relates to transitioning commuters out of their personal vehicles and off of the freeway system into a dependence on public transportation, in particular a yet-to-be-fully developed network of trains and buses throughout the Southland. That plan calls for locating what are primarily young and unmarried or young married but yet childless couples into densely constructed residences in urban areas immediately proximate to rail stations which will allow them to travel to work or to transit stations with public transportation that can take them the remaining distance to their workplaces. In Redlands, this materialized as the Transit Villages concept, which calls for the city facilitating the development of three heavily populated districts within the city, all of which are located within walking distance of the commuter stations along the planned 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 Villages concept dovetails with the State of California’s and the California Department of Housing’s mandates that communities throughout the state accommodate ever greater numbers of residents, in particular as part of a formula called the Regional Housing Needs Assessment, one by which 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.
The high-rise apartments that are part and parcel to these transit districts are anathema to that contingent of Redlands citizens seeking to limit development and its impacts. They believed such tenements will within two decades degrade into slums. They do not believe the State of California has the authority to mandate that large numbers of individuals be housed within any given jurisdiction and their sentiment is reflected in the attitude of municipal leaders in many local jurisdictions throughout California and Southern California especially.
Redlands city officials, including its elected leaders, however, have consistently defied the significant streak of low-growth sentiment in the community, and have used the state mandates and the city’s Transit District concept to assist themselves in supporting elements of the development community who want to build aggressively in the city.
Indeed, many Redlands residents believe that the city’s elected leadership has been compromised by graft and corruption, the willingness of elements of the development community to deliver bribes and kickbacks to members of the city council, planning commission and city staff. They point to recently-departed City Councilman/Mayor Paul Foster, who rose to prominence in the community some two decades ago as a low-growth and anti-growth advocate but then flipped into an aggressive growth promoter after he was elected to the city council in 2010, leaving hundreds of those who had observed his transformation to puzzle at what inducements had been offered to him to effectuate that change. As accusations that he was on the take and that he was serving as a political zerk who was helping distribute political grease to his council colleagues hit a crescendo last year, he abruptly announced he would take his leave from the council as of January and move to an island off the coast of Washington State, a step-and-a-half ahead of the FBI and other law enforcement and tax authorities looking into his depredations in abusing his position of public trust, his critics say.
A failed ploy by Foster to free himself, the council and City Hall generally from the limitations on development was the effort in 2019 and 2020 to get Redlands residents to pass Measure G. Measure G was an initiative put forth by the city government asking the city’s residents to eliminate, in one fell swoop, the restrictions of Proposition R, Measure N and Measure U, allow developers to construct up to 27 housing units per acre, eliminate height limits on buildings in the city, relieve developers of the requirement that in building their projects they have to provide infrastructure to maintain traffic-bearing capacity on the city’s streets equal to what was available prior to the development taking place, permit residential land use designations to be placed into the city’s general plan that did not previously exist and abolish the requirement that developers carry out an socioeconomic‐cost/benefit studies for the projects they are proposing, among other things.
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.
In the initial aftermath of the Redlands Mall going belly up, as the lingering economic downturn of 2007 persisted, no one was enthusiastic about reclaiming the property. In 2014, as the recession ended, 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 with regard to the property. In doing so, VPV pushed Redlands city officials toward the intensification of density in the downtown core, claiming it could recreate on the property commercial uses akin to what had existed with the mall, augmented by residential uses unparalleled in terms of density – units per acre – in all of Redlands.
A primary element of Village Partners Ventures’ State Street Village proposal was the height of the construction. Working at cross-purposes to Village Partners Ventures were dual groups of Redlands residents who had banded together under the sobriquets Friends of Redlands and Redlands for Responsible Growth Management, including 95-year-old former Redlands Mayor Bill Cunningham, who had collected more than an adequate number of signatures on petitions calling for a referendum on tall and dense development in Redlands in the form of a ballot measure calling for banning any 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 and the mall property, to no more than 50 feet, and the permitting of buildings to a height of no more than 62 feet – tantamount to no more than five stories – in the New York Street/ESRI Transit Village Area.
On June 7, 2021, the representatives with Friends of Redlands and Redlands for Responsible Growth Management turned over to Redlands City Clerk Jeanne Donaldson three large boxes containing petitions calling for a special election to stop tall and dense development to which 7,715 signatures were affixed, which was more than the signatures of 15 percent of the city’s voters – 6,409 – needed to force the city to hold the election within 109 days of the requisite number of signatures being verified. In a highly controversial move, the city council voted to delay that special election from 2021, before the consideration of the Village Partners Ventures’ State Street Village proposal, until the November 2022 election, which would come after the Village Partners State Street Village proposal.
The city thereafter put the State Street Village project, entailing the demolishing of existing on-site buildings and improvements; erecting five mixed-use buildings up to four stories high, one of which would have a rooftop outdoor restaurant; 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; 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, on a fast track toward approval and development. The project 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.
When concerns surfaced about the suitability of the architectural standards the project was to adhere to, city officials, militating on behalf of Village Partners Ventures, cited the restrictions of Senate Bill 330, which has a provision that a residential project be subjected to a maximum of five public meetings prior to a determination of whether it is to be given approval or rejection. By the close of March, the city had held three public hearings relating to State Street Village. On April 12, the planning commission took up the matter up for a fourth time, a meeting where 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. When questions about the project’s architectural design surfaced at that meeting – including concerns voiced by Brett Waterman, a building preservationist of national and international note who is based in Redlands; Former Redlands Mayor Karl “Kasey” Hawes; former Redlands Mayor Carole Beswick; Deborah Barmack, a Redlands resident and the former executive director of the county’s transportation agency; and Garry Cohoe, the former city engineer for the City of Chino Hills and a resident of Redlands – the planning commission balked at signing off on the project.
Thus, on May 10, 2022 the project was taken up by the combined Redlands City Council and Planning Commission for the fifth time. A slew of issues relating to the project had not been fully hashed out. There was no explicit commitment by Village Partners Ventures, Redlands Development Services Director Brian Desatnik and City Planner Brian Foote acknowledged, with regard to the terms of the development agreement for the project, the city’s fee structure, a timeline for construction and the project completion deadline. Neither had city staff firmed up for the commission’s or council’s approval the project’s architectural requirements. Despite that, the planning commission gave favorable review of a conditional use permit and the vesting of Tentative Tract Map No. 20425 for the proposed project and the city council ratified the commission’s action and itself voted to adopt “the sustainable communities environmental document prepared for the project in accordance with the California Environmental Quality Act” and the vesting of the tract map for the project.
In this way, Village Partners Ventures on May 10 was given license to proceed with the entirety of the State Street Village project, in essence, in any way it chooses, and is on the honor system in terms of complying with the city’s standards, such that the city does not have the legal authority to hold the company to its implied standards or indeed, any standard at all. According to city officials, 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.
What had occurred on May 10, was a turn of historic significance not just to Redlands or San Bernardino County but the whole of California, as the Redlands City Council and Planning Commission voted to approve the State Street Village project without a significant number of its features having been delineated or specified. By the next day, municipal officials and developers up and down the Golden State were examining what had occurred in Redlands 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.
This week, the implication of what Redlands officials had done on May 10 became abundantly clear as public officials elsewhere in the state who have been loathe to surrender their land use authority in the face of SB 330 saw the manifestations of the dilemma Redlands officials are now in, uniformly draped over barrels with their bare backsides exposed to Village Partners Ventures.
This week, on Tuesday, June 14, the Redlands Planning Commission sought to mitigate some of the damage that had been done on May 10. Unanimously, the panel voted to recommend the city council ratify a contractual arrangement with Village Partners Ventures relating to the State Street Village project clarifying a good degree of the details that were left out of the approval given on May 10.
An examination of the terms the planning commission is seeking in that contract demonstrates what a weak bargaining position the city council left the city in with its May 10 vote. The planning commission suggested that the city council try to forge an agreement with Village Partners Ventures that it commit to start construction on the State Street Village project within five years and that it promise to complete the project within 10 years of that.
Even as they mused over the timelines, the commissioners acknowledged they were far too generous. The consensus was, however, that the city had no leverage to get anything out of Village Partners Ventures.
The fifteen-year project completion guarantee the city is likely to ask for is way beyond what is standard when it comes to such requirements. According to a city staff report prepared for the commission meeting, developers are typically given a two-year deadline to get a project under way, with a potential for an extension of up to three additional years upon request.
Under such written and explicit development terms, according to Development Services Director Brian Desatnik, the developer’s entitlement to build can be revoked if the deadlines are not met. At present, Redlands has no such authority with regard to Village Partners Ventures’ State Street Village project.
City officials sought to use the presence of the CVS Pharmacy on the project site as an explanation as to why Village Partners Ventures could not be pressed to meet a more conventional project completion deadline. CVS’s corporate predecessor committed to locating in the Redlands Mall in 1975, two years before the mall opened, pursuant to a long-term set lease agreement, such that for the last 35 years approximately, the company has been benefiting by rock bottom rent at that location. The company yet has 15 years left in its lease, and Village Partners Ventures has been unable to induce CVS to move out of the location. As a consequence, Village Partners Ventures will not be able to initiate the project it was given clearance to undertake on May 10 until 2037. City officials, who before the May 10 hearing were doing everything they could to get the State Street Village project approved, are now claiming they did not know about that limitation.
Village Partners Ventures is reluctant to acquire another piece of ground locally, at what will likely be considerable expense, and construct quarters to house a pharmacy, again at considerable expense, and then lease it to CVS at a rate comparable to the one worked out in 1975. To free up the 11.15-acre mall site for development, that is what it would need to do. Village Partners Ventures is not willing to commit the nearly $6.5 million needed to carry that out.
At present, Village Partners Ventures is in secret negotiations with the City of Redlands to see if the city would be willing to bear Village Partner Ventures’ full $6.5 million cost to find CVS a new Redlands location or a significant portion of that cost.
Redlands officials are mortified at the thought that city residents will find out that bribes paid to city officials over the last several years and resulting in deals cut with certain entities that led to circumstances such as the city agreeing to allow the State Street Village project to proceed without first nailing down all of the specifics regarding the project has led to the point where the city is contemplating spending in excess of $6 million to see the State Street Village project begin in a timely fashion.
That City Attorney Dan McHugh recently decided to leave the city is not a coincidence, the Sentinel is informed.
By Mark Gutglueck