Redlands officials this week broached the threshold of allowing the construction of hundreds of single-bedroom dwellings, large numbers of which are ultimately to be used to house families.
Casually and with seeming indifference to the concerns of several people who expressed specific reservations and thousands who had weighed in previously but were not present to lodge a protest this week, the Redlands Planning Commission unanimously approved two projects in the downtown area proposed by the same firm. Within the footprint of the residential development component of each of the projects, are densities, respectively, approaching 100 units to the acre in one instance and 78 units to the acre in the other.
At no time during the discussion leading up to the approval of the so-called “The Grand” project at the corner of Redlands Boulevard and Eureka Street and its sister “City Center” project at the corner of Eureka Street and Brookside Avenue did officials explore the implication of raising children in such confined space.Suggested, but left unsaid, was that the rising cost of housing has led to a circumstance in which public officials do not flinch at the prospect of mothers and fathers living with their children in circumstances that during the last century in many places in California would have constituted violations of public health and safety codes that could, and in many cases did, result in children being removed from the custody of their parents and put into foster care.
Approved as two separate projects were 276 dwelling units, nine of which were to comprise two-bedroom models. The remaining 267 units were single bedroom living arrangements. The size of the units are to range from 517 square feet to 1,249 square feet, with an average size of 650 square feet.
While both city officials and the project proponent justified constructing the diminutive units by asserting that limiting the square footage of the dwelling units would reduce the rental cost, no specific unit rental rates were mentioned or committed to.
What occurred at the August 30 Redlands Planning Commission meeting is historically, culturally and socially notable because Redlands, which incorporated as San Bernardino County’s third city in 1887, has long been, and is yet, considered its grandest and most visually resplendent municipality, located within the heart of the Inland Empire’s once-thriving 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.
A milestone in that cultural war was the pro-development city council’s effort in 2020 to, in one fell swoop, undo generations of bulwarks against overdevelopment that have been built into the city mode of governance. Through Measure G, the council two years ago sought to 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 completing 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.
In March 2020, the city’s residents soundly rejected Measure G, with 93,21 votes or 64.88 percent opposing it and 5.052 or 35.12 percent in favor of it.
Developers and city officials appear undaunted by the intense resident resistance to high intensity, high-density development.
This week, at the planing commission meeting, the city administratively moved forward with two residential projects that exceed the density of anything previously built in the 36.43-square mile, 73,168-population city.
The first item considered and approved was Vantage One Real Estate Investments, LLC’s proposal to convert an approximately 40,000 square foot retail furniture store constructed in 1975 at the northeast corner of Redlands Boulevard and Eureka Street into what has been dubbed, according to Planning Commission Chairman Steve Frasher, “The Grand.” The development is to entail the demolition of the existing commercial building and site improvements and the conversion of the site into a 145-unit apartment building, comprised of studio and one-bedroom units ranging in size from 517-square feet to 829-square feet. The project is to consist of a single four-story building, built over a subterranean and surface level parking structure and includes a total of 22,948 square feet of common recreational space consisting of a 12,214 square-foot roof deck and a 10,733 square-foot pool plaza within a courtyard on the first level.
There are to be 33 “junior” units of 517-square foot single-bedroom units, six 612-square foot one-bedroom, one-bathroom units with a den; 43 units one bedroom, one bathroom units with a 586-square foot floor plan and 43 one-bedroom, one-bathroom with dimensions of 655-square feet; thirteen 768-square foot one-bedroom, one bathroom units; and a single 804-square foot one-bedroom, one bathroom unit.
The second item considered is what Frasher referred to as the “City Center Project,” located two blocks south from The Grand Project, also brought forth by Vantage One Real Estate Investments, LLC. It is located at 212 and 216 Brookside Avenue. It entails the consolidation of 17 parcels totaling 3.01 acres at the northwest corner of Eureka Street and Brookside Avenue where the city’s safety hall and police station, city council chamber, a San Bernardino County courthouse, and two single-family residences were located. The development proposal for the property, which was purchased by Vantage One from the city in 2017 and where the previously existing structures have already been demolished, is to create two parcels for development purposes. The westlying 1.68-acre parcel is to be converted to 131 residential units. The lion’s share of those are to be 68 Studio apartments of 559 square feet. The remaining residences are proposed as two 587-square foot units consisting of a studio apartment with a den; 27 apartments with a single-bedroom and bathroom with dimensions of 745 square feet; 25 one-bedroom, one-bathroom 815-square foot units, each with a den; six spacious two bedroom, two bathroom 1,010-square foot units and three luxurious two bedroom, two bathroom 1,349 units with a den.
The second 1.33 acre parcel to the east is planned as the location of the commercial/retail portion of the project. Touted as a “transit-oriented development located less than one-quarter mile from the downtown Santa Fe Depot train station,” the mixed-use proposal is to involve four new buildings, those being the 131-unit apartment building and three commercial buildings for restaurant uses, represented by Vantage One as a 3,505-square foot pad; a 3,450-square foot pad; and a 3,578-square foot pad. The project is to involve a parking garage underneath the apartment building, as well as a surface lot with carports located in the northwesterly portion of the site, with a total of 213 parking spaces, of which 173 are intended for residents and 40 as parking spaces for non-reidents.
There has been widespread speculation within Redlands over what is motivating the city’s political leadership and its staff members involved in land use decisions to gravitate toward developing and redeveloping the Redlands downtown core so intensively, to a density far greater than was the case historically, greater than what is the case in the vast majority of other cities in San Bernardino County and in a manner so out of keeping with that favored by an energized and vocal set of politically active Redlands residents, the ones who historically were responsible for the passage of strict low-growth and controlled growth measures in 1978, 1987 and 1997 and the rejection of the city government’s effort to have residents approve the intensification of development in the city two years ago.
The most benign interpretation is that Redlands city officials are ahead of the curve and have come to embrace the theories and strategies of futurists and urban planners who consider it imperative that Americans, indeed, the residents and citizens of the world and inhabitants of the planet, end their dependence on individual motor vehicles. Such urban planning enthusiasts envision constructing cities and communities where larger and larger numbers of the population, in particular that element consisting of unmarried recent high school graduates or college graduates who are entering the workforce or married couples without children, cluster in domiciles close to commuting centers such as railroad stations, subway terminals and the like, and use public transportation to commute to work and elsewhere. In this interpretation, Redlands city officials’ adherence to its Transit Villages concept, by which high-rise residential structures at various spots in the city’s core along the commuter rail route that has been established, explicates why they are defying the preference expressed by the city’s residents that the tempo of development not intensify and that the city maintain the traditional and past residential density standard of somewhere in the range of four to eight residential units to the acre.
A more malignant theory as to why the city’s political leadership and its municipal professionals are refusing to effectuate the development standards articulated and expressed by its residents in the course of four referendums related to land use policy in the 42 years between 1978 and 2020 is afoot. In that narrative, some elected officials and key city employees are being paid off by elements within the development industry and their colleagues are either blindly or knowingly going along with them and abetting them in what is taking place.
Evidence for both theories, depending upon one’s orientation and perspective, were on display at the August 30 planning commission meeting.
An issue of determinate focus in this matter is the manner in which regard was being shown toward the eventual occupants of the residential units Vantage One on Tuesday night was seeking permission to build and whether units of that size would be appropriate for family units that included children which will come to occupy them. That such living arrangements would be acceptable for young and perhaps upwardly mobile recent entrants into the workforce or couples without children is not in dispute. Less certain is that the configurations of all but the two-bedroom models of the City Center Project would be considered appropriate living quarters for families with children.
Emily Elliott, a registered member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, has a relationship to the first of the Vantage One projects approved by the planning commission early Tuesday evening, that being The Grand Project. One of two available sources pertaining to Elliott shows her as a senior associate and project manager at Michael Baker International. Another shows her association with the City of Redlands in the capacity of project manager in the arena of environmental and community planning.
Though Ryan Murphy, another planner with Michael Baker International was listed as the “principal planner” on The Grand Project, Elliott offered the presentation with regard to it to the planning commission and the public on Tuesday evening. Though it was not explicitly articulated Tuesday evening, it appears that the firm of Michael Baker International is serving in the capacity of providing contract environmental and community planning services to the city.
Elliott avoided making reference to it as a multifamily project but did acknowledge that it is to be a “high density residential development.” In her iteration of what she said was Murphy’s presentation relating to the project, Elliott offered an explication of the grounds for the intensity of the project, saying it was “related to the development of downtown train stations.” She said The Grand Project was “therefore exempt from Measure U approved in 1997 to enact several principles of managed development within the city,” including limitations on the height and density of residential structures.
Elliott alluded to the concept of locating large numbers of resident commuters near train stations, explaining that the limitations on building height and density that are inherent in the low-growth measures adopted by voters in Redlands over the decades have built into them suspension of those restrictions to accommodate transit-oriented projects.
“The language of Measure U provides exemptions for six special categories of development, including one for future development directly related to Redlands train stations,” Elliott said. “On October 19, 2021 the city council adopted Resolution 8270 determining the project is directly related to the downtown train stations and therefore is exempt from the provisions of Measure U. The 1.49 acre site is located in the commercial land use designation of the general plan.”
Elliott asserted, “The project is consistent with several goals and policies of the general plan, one of the primary strategies [being] to encourage more transit oriented development in close proximity to the three train stations in the core areas of Redlands rather than continuing the pattern of subdivisions in sprawling development around the periphery of the city.”
Despite the consideration that a substantial number of Redlands residents value Downtown Redlands as a quaint area that should be preserved, Elliott alluded to the area’s official designation as the “Town Center Historic District,” which is now tied in with the Transit Villages concept. Under the city’s guidelines, builders are allowed to erect buildings as high as four stories in the University Street Transit Village and the Alabama Street, California Street and New York Street Transit Villages.
“Four stories residential is permitted within the Town Center Historic District,” Elliott noted.
Tom Robinson, a principal partner in Vantage One, in his remarks to the planning commission said of The Grand, “It’s the right use for the right property. Residential downtown is definitely needed. It’s a great project.”
In the face of what was essentially friendly questioning by the planning commission, troubling elements of the residential plan emerged, one of which was the impact of space limitations in accommodating at least 285 residents and perhaps as many as 1,385 within 3.17 acres, in particular the inadequate provisions for parking.
A 183-space two-floor subterranean parking structure is to be built below the four-story The Grand Project and a 213-space parking garage underneath the apartment building portion of the City Center Project, as well as a 40-space surface lot with carports located in the northwesterly portion of the City Center site.
No one directly addressed the inadequate parking at the two projects, though Robinson indicated, when queried about the dearth of parking spaces, that city officials were responsible for Vantage One skimping on that element of the project. “They want to discourage car ownership, so you have your rental rate for your apartment and you’ll have an additional rate for your parking space,” he said. “All the guest spaces are free. Anyone can park in those. Every unit will have a parking space, but they’ll have to pay for it. I’ll envision that some of the people are not going to have cars, [with] people riding skate boards and scooters.”
Robinson added, somewhat improbably, “I would like to park my car and not have a car and Uber around or… jump on the train.”
At one point, Commissioner Karah Shaw maneuvered toward a focus on the heart of the issue relating to the minuscule size of the living quarters that Vantage One is going to construct. The primary factor behind the reduction in the size of the apartments was the developer’s effort to drive down the cost while maintaining profitability, such that as many units as possible were included in the projects.
Shaw asked if “middle income” renters would be able to afford the units.
Robinson provided a less than clear answer, one that implied the units would be affordable to lower tier government employees, who are relatively well-paid in comparison to many of those working at basic jobs in the private sector. He replied, “That all depends on cost, but what we’re looking at is it’s a community building, so the community should be in there and it’s important to have a school teacher and [an employee of] the fire department. They make enough so they’ll be able to rent apartments.”
Robinson then gave an unsolicited defense of the size of the units, saying that formerly the average size of apartments ranged from 950 square feet to 1,000 square feet but that the typical size of apartments had “shrunk down to 700 to 750 square feet.”
While there were references during the hearing and discussion among the commissioners to the apartments being suitable for younger working adults who were unmarried and presumably primarily without children, the consideration that the apartments were to also be occupied by families crept into the discussion.
Commission Chairman Frasher at one point said with regard to The Grand Project, “These units are a studio and one bedroom, so they are going to be appealing to younger tenants or small family units. I’m concerned that they would be affordable to people that are starting out because that does seem to be the part of the mix that we are missing in downtown Redlands.”
In response to that, Robinson said, “I think the affordability comes from how much is it gonna cost to build the building, and then you have to back into the rents. We want to have a community building. It’s better for us to have the people who work here live here and we’re going to do everything we can to keep them affordable.”
In this way, the implication was that the units were meant for anyone who could afford them, irrespective of whether they had a family, including a substantial family, or not.
As the meeting’s presiding officer, Frasher did not use the opportunity available to him to elicit from Robinson precise dollar figures as to what would be deemed affordable, nor any commitment to adhere to any particular rental rates once the projects are completed.
Brian Foote, Redlands planning manager and city planner, at a point 1 hour, 37 minutes and 54 seconds into the meeting, gave clear and away confirmation that the city officially considered the one-bedroom apartment units to be acceptable and adequate quarters for families. In response to resident suggestions during the public input portion of the hearing that the placement of densely packed residential uses in buildings rising to the level of four stores in the downtown area were either inappropriate, improper or out of compliance with the city’s zoning code and sound planning principles, said “In the draft Transit Villages Specific Plan, a multifamily residential project such as this would be a permitted use in the district known as Village Center which is immediately surrounding the train stations. A residential project such as this is an allowable use.”
Foote’s characterization of an apartment complex that consisted of what are exclusively one-bedroom units provoked some guffaws and expressions of skeptical regard from those members of the public seated in the gallery, which in turn elicited from Elliott an icy glower.
City officials are having, or so it seems, the last word on what is permitted and what is to take place in terms of the property ultimately being developed in the city, overriding the objections of a significant cross section of Redlands residents who believe that those officials are disregardful of the public’s misgivings about the intensity of that development. Simultaneously, a subset of that cross section believe that those officials are ignoring the public because inducements have been provided to pivotal influencers or decision makers at City Hall by those with millions of dollars invested in property they have designs on developing and tens of millions of dollars or even hundreds of millions of dollars riding on the outcome of official city action. Indeed, at Tuesday’s meeting, several of those in attendance made verbal note among themselves of the presence of one individual also in attendance who, it was said, was responsible for the delivery of payola to a handful of Redlands city officials and thereby swaying the votes of the city council and the planning commission with regard to a number of projects that have been approved recently.
Reports of bribes being filtered to Redlands officials hit a crescendo in the summer of 2021, which was punctuated by the September 7, 2021 announcement by then-Councilman and former Mayor Paul Foster that he was resigning from the council, effective the first week of January 2022, and moving to Camino Island in Washington State.
Foster came onto the Redlands City Council in 2010, having achieved that status largely on the strength of his activism and other efforts to limit growth in Redlands. Within a relatively short period of time once he was on the council, however, Foster made a transition into a pro-development force within the community through his function at City Hall. Abandoned were the arguments he had once made that though the city city could not ban development from occurring, it could apply the strictest standards and the law, statutes and existing codes to limit that growth to what was permissible and ensure that it was beneficial to the community rather than a drag on its infrastructure, resources and finances, such that the development community should defray the costs its projects imposed on the city. In the place of the arguments he once made, Foster asserted that both landowners and developers had rights that had to be honored. Whereas he previously had maintained that the city was under no obligation to grant zone changes and approve or agree to variances or the granting of conditional use permits simply because those seeking approval for their project’s requested them, Foster grew willing to accommodate virtually any application that came before the city from a real estate speculator or project proponent. Over the last seven or eight years he was in office, Foster assumed the role of mentor to the several members of the council that were elected after he was in office. With seemingly no exceptions when it came to land use policy in Redlands, as Foster voted, so voted the rest of the city council, such that the development proposals that have come before the city in recent years have found enthusiastic accommodation.
Even after Foster’s departure, the current city council and the planning commissioners the council as a body installed continue to vote in favor of aggressive development projects that are out of favor with a large and vocal segment of the Redlands community. Suspicions that Foster may have tainted Redlands’ official governmental and land use processes and served as a zerk in the distribution of political grease to his one-time colleagues and underlings at City Hall in a way that has outlived his presence in Redlands persist. This week’s decision by the planning commission to approve 267 one-bedroom dwelling units as potential living quarters for families who are to take up residence in Redlands in the future deepen questions as to whether those officials are more loyal to the developers who are profiting by doing business in the city than the constituents they have been entrusted to represent.