Redlands Officials Seeking To Sidestep Building Height Restrictions With Alternate Measure

For the second election cycle in a row, voters in Redlands will be voting in a referendum on whether they consider the city’s current crop of elected officials to be out of step with them in terms of the intensity of development they want to see in their community.
Redlands, which was incorporated as San Bernardino County’s third city in 1888, was long considered its grandest and most visually resplendent municipality, located within the heart of the Inland Empire’s citrus producing region. With the urbanization of Southern California that began creeping eastward from Los Angeles in the 1950s and which intensified in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and then into the Third Millennium, Redlands residents more than any others in the region resisted the destruction of the idyllic living ambiance that had typified life in their city in the early 20th Century.
Over the decades, a multi-generational contingent of Redlands residents 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 locality, as was 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.
In the 1990s, the dichotomy in philosophy and approach toward development and the tempo thereof was illustrated by the differences between the two leading Redlands politicians of that era, Sven Larson and Bill Cunningham.
Larson, a general contractor, was in favor of reducing all constraints on the construction industry, while Cunningham, a citrus farmer, favored preserving the city’s existing groves and limiting to the extent that law and local ordinances could the intensity of growth that was to take place by imposing on the development community defined restrictions on residential density together with demands that those developing property had to provide adequate infrastructure to service new development and ensure that the city’s residents did not experience traffic delays or gridlock on the city’s streets and its regional highways because those roadways were overwhelmed by more vehicles than they were designed to carry.
While ultimately the general attitude of the residents in Redlands was that growth should be limited to a minimum, oftentimes, as is the case currently, those politicians elected to municipal office in Redlands over time, beset by lobbyists hired by the development community and the generosity developers showed in endowing elected officials’ campaign funds, grew sympathetic toward those seeking to convert the remaining groves and undeveloped property into houses, stores, warehouses and factories. Mandates from the statehouse in Sacramento for local communities to accommodate more and more residential development to ease a perceived housing shortage in California have pushed local municipal officials to embrace accelerated construction. In addition, trends in urban planning in recent years have emphasized the need to facilitate heavier use of public transportation, including commuter rail systems. In Redlands, this has manifested as the Transit Villages Concept, which calls for high density – translating into as many as 100 units per acre – residential uses in multi-story structures to be built within walking distance of train stations located near Redlands University, Downtown Redlands and in the New York Avenue District.
Thus, the balance or even the entirety of the Redlands City Council in recent years is at loggerheads with the attitude of a dynamic cross section of the city’s residents, who remain in favor of far less intensive development in the city.
Two years ago, this difference was on display when the city council used its authority to place what was designated as Measure G on the March 2020 ballot. Measure G called upon 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 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.
Thereafter, faced with the recognition that city officials remain wedded to a pro-development approach and to pushing the Transit Villages concept, two similarly-minded contingents of city residents, one functioning under the banner of Friends of Redlands and another calling itself Redlands for Responsible Growth Management, set about gathering petitions for yet another controlled growth initiative, this one calling for there to be height limitation of 50 feet – essentially three stories or less – on structures to be built in the area around the University of Redlands and Downtown Redlands and no more than 62 feet – tantamount to no more than four stories – in the New York Street district.
On June 7, 2021, members of Friends of Redlands and Redlands for Responsible Growth Management, which included former Mayor Cunningham, 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, until the November 2022 election.
That delay allowed the city council to consider Village Partners Ventures’ proposal to undertake the State Street Village project, a mixed-use commercial/residential project including five-story structures intended to replace the now defunct Redlands Mall in Downtown Redlands. On May 10, 2022, the Redlands City Council and the Redlands Planning Commission during a joint meeting collectively signed off on allowing the State Street Village proposal – including four story residential edifices topped with fifth level rooftop restaurants, accompanied by at least two five-story parking structures – to proceed.
Just as the city council in 2020 sought to have the city’s residents approve undoing low growth/controlled growth Proposition R, Measure N and Measure U, the Redlands City Council on June 21 unanimously approved offering the city’s residents a more developer-friendly measure as an alternative to the height limitation measure on the November ballot promoted by Friends of Redlands and Redlands for Responsible Growth Management.
Whereas Friends of Redlands’ and Redlands for Responsible Growth Management’s measure is intended, if it is passed by the city’s voters, to limit the height of buildings built in the area around the University of Redlands and Downtown Redlands to three stories and those in the New York Avenue District to four stories, the city’s height limitation measure stipulates a maximum of four stories for buildings near and around the university. The county registrar of voters office has not yet designated a nomenclature, typically a letter, for either of the two measures.
To lend credibility to the initiative they are proposing, city officials brought in Redlands University President Krista Newkirk to state that the Friends of Redlands/Redlands for Responsible Growth Management measure would negatively impact the university.
Newkirk indicated that the University is contemplating residential structures – presumably dormitories for students but potentially living quarters for others to be constructed by the university – that will extend to four stories. Newkirk also mentioned parking structures, the height of which she did not explicitly identify. She said she wanted the university to be free to construct those parking structures to whatever standard the university deemed appropriate. That potentially could be five stories or higher.
Newkirk said “The university [would be] unable to develop the project if we are subject to the constraints of the Redlands for Responsible Growth Management initiative currently on the November ballot.” She said it would be “financially unfeasible to construct the University Village without the ability to add four-story buildings to a portion of the project.”
Word has reached the Sentinel that a potential global compromise is in the works among city leaders and principals with Redlands for Responsible Growth Management and Friends of Redlands by which the city would be given a free hand to construct what in local terms is considered “high rises,” meaning buildings of five and potentially six stories in the area in and around the university, Downtown Redlands and in the New York Avenue District in return for an “ironclad and irrevocable” commitment on the part of city officials, essentially into perpetuity, that the largely undeveloped expanse at the southern end of the city, composed of rolling hills and once-productive expanses of agricultural land where the development standard now stands at one residential unit per acre, be altered so that the maximum density upon development there can be no greater than a single residential unit per five acres.
Cunningham, who is now 95 years old, is considered to be key to whether a compromise, such as the one said to be in he works, can be ironed out.
Of major concern is that if four-, five-, six- or even seven-story buildings are allowed to be constructed in the Downtown Redlands District, within a few decades those tenements will devolve into slums which will take generations to be eradicated. Controlled-growth advocates want to prevent such apartment buildings from being constructed at all. If, however, such structures are given approval, those concerned about the future of the city want the city to obtain a contractual assurance, backed by a perpetual bond, that the owners of the buildings in question will be required to reclaim and refurbish the buildings if they fall into disrepair.
There is little prospect of that, many residents feel, given the way in which the city council on May 10 gave Village Partners Ventures carte blanch on proceeding with the State Street Village project, without a number of the conditions of approval, including architectural design standards and the timeline/deadlines for the project completion, being specified.
Details on any agreement between the city and Redlands for Responsible Growth Management and Friends of Redlands must be arrived at relatively quickly, as any change in the measure to go before Redlands voters in November must be set before the Registrar of Voters deadline for formulating the ballots in August.
If no compromise is reached, the November election will serve as another showdown between the will of the controlled growth forces in Redlands and the city officials who find themselves in the position of advocating on behalf of the development industry seeking to ply its trade in the 36.24-square mile city of 73,168.
Mark Gutglueck

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