Bill Cunningham 1926-2023

Former Redlands Mayor Bill Cunningham, among the most dynamic and effective controlled-growth advocates in San Bernardino County history, died at the age of 96 on August 16.
Born October 5, 1926 in Manhattan Beach, Cunningham, the youngest of six children, grew up in Southern California. After graduating from high school in 1944, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps and was among the youngest of the final installment of recruits during World War II.
After his discharge as a sergeant, he enrolled at USC. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, on November 27, 1947, he stopped at the soda fountain at the drug store in Newhall for a fudge sundae, and thereupon made the acquaintance of Beverley Wheeler, who was working there. They were married on June 4, 1949.
Cunningham graduated from USC and obtained his first major teaching position at William S. Hart High School. In 1952, he and Beverley moved to Redlands when he was hired at Redlands High School as a teacher and football and track coach.
The couple purchased the 18-acre Glencairn Farm, which included orange and kiwi groves. They raised their four children there.
Cunningham taught at Redlands High School for 19 years. Thereafter, he taught at San Bernardino Valley College, from 1971 to 1982. He subsequently taught physics and astronomy part time at the University of Redlands for 15 years.
As early as the late 1950s, Cunningham had the opportunity to sell the Glencairn Farm acreage at a profit, but he was and remained committed to preserving Redlands’ agricultural district.Beginning in 1973, Cunningham served on the Redlands Unified School Board.
At that point, efforts by speculators, investors, the real estate industry and the development community to convert large portions of agricultural property in and around Redlands to housing were under way. Over the next decades that activity would intensify. Cunningham was wary of that trend from the outset.
In 1987, he was elected to the Redlands City Council. In that capacity, he rotated into the position of mayor.
He reflected the attitude of many residents in wanting to control any growth that occurred. This resulted in the pro-development forces seeking to characterize him as being “against progress” and “anti-growth.”
Another local politician of that era was Sven Larson, a general contractor, who was in favor of reducing all constraints on the construction industry. Larson’s philosophy contrasted with Cunningham’s intention of preserving the city’s existing groves.
At Cunningham’s instigation over the years, Redlands became the city in San Bernardino County most committed to historical preservation and land use policies aimed at limiting the intrusion of massive residential subdivisions into the city’s older, sometimes gentrified, sometimes working-class, neighborhoods and its agricultural districts.
As much or more than virtually any other individual in local politics in San Bernardino County, Cunningham tested the envelope, exploring the extent to which the authority of law and local ordinances could check 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.
Cunningham had a hand in the drafting and then the passage of the controlled-growth or slow-growth Proposition R in 1978, Measure N in 1987 and Measure U in 1997.
Cunningham was also instrumental in getting the city to purchase for preservation purposes citrus groves when their owners were on the brink of selling that land to developmental interests.
Despite the demonstrated sentiment within the Redlands community against intensified development, the building industry through concerted efforts at political support of candidates in favor of “economic development” managed time and again to install members of the city council sympathetic to the development community.
This manifested in a multitude of ploys by developers and the officeholders they controlled to find ways to work around the controlled-growth measures that had been put into place.
One such approach was to meld the concepts of the Arrow Line with inner-city mixed-use projects featuring multi-story apartment projects. The Arrow Line project is intended to reestablish the rail transit system that had existed in Southern California in the 1910s, 1920, 1930s, 1940s and into the 1950s until it had been phased out as part of concerted effort devised by then-General Motors Chairman of the Board Arthur P. Sloan to eliminate all commuting options other than the automobile in America’s major urban settings, including the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area. As such, the Arrow Line is that portion of the commuter rail system running throughout Los Angeles, Orange County and western San Bernardino County which spans from Downtown San Bernardino to Redlands. Redlands city officials sought to clear the way for four, five and even six story tenements in the city’s downtown district where, they said, dense residential development was justifiable because the residents there would commute into Los Angeles by means of the newly reestablished rail system.
The city began touting the modern urban planning concept of creating within Redlands the so-called Transit Villages, five concentrated areas – in the environs of Downtown Redlands, Redlands University, New York Street/ESRI headquarters, at the juncture of the rail line and Alabama Street and at the juncture of the rail line and California Street – at which rail stations on the line leading to Los Angeles would be augmented with high rise buildings.
In 2019, the city arranged to put on the March 2020 ballot Measure G, which 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.
Cunningham, who at that point was 93 years old, was spry enough to recognize that the forces at City Hall and their development industry allies were threatening to undo much of what he had accomplished. He rallied and was involved in the thick of things in coordinating opposition to Measure G, which was soundly rejected at the polls, with 9,321 votes or 64.88 percent opposing it and 5,052 voters or 35.12 percent in favor of it.
City officials, nevertheless, remained wedded to a pro-development approach and to pushing the Transit Villages concept. Conscious that the 2022 election season was approaching, Cunningham, at that point moving on toward 95-years-old, became a prime mover in an effort by an entity known as Redlands for Responsible Growth Management to stymie those pro-growth forces. In conjunction with a similarly-minded contingent of city residents known as the Friends of Redlands, 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.
In June 2021, members of 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, until the November 2022 election.
That delay of some 16 months gave the pro-development and city establishment forces an opportunity to go to work on lobbying Cunningham, who was the spiritual and political godfather of those standing against the well-financed and intensely motivated development industry.
Officials with the University of Redlands, in particular, were intent on being able to build dormitories to house more students as well as to rent or lease housing at a profit to nonstudents to shore up the university’s dwindling post-COVID-19 revenue. University officials brought to bear all the leverage they possessed in the discussion with Cunningham, including that Cunningham had once taught at the university. As the author and official sponsor of what had been designated as Measure F for the November 2022 ballot, Cunningham had the authority to pull the measure or alter its terms. Would he consider, university and city officials holding those discussions with him asked, allowing a slightly higher height limitation on the buildings near the university train station? Cunningham balked at that request, but then city officials sought to persuade him by offering, if he were to accept the four-story university limitation, to include a provision that would prevent any alteration of the agricultural zoning in the city’s south end without a prior vote of the city’s residents. As that accomplished a goal Cunningham had long sought, he agreed. Thereby, Measure F was reconstituted to call for limiting building heights near the downtown train stations and buildings more than a quarter-mile from the university station to three stories and 43 feet. It called for limiting buildings within a quarter-mile of the university station and near the planned stations on Alabama Street, California Street and in the New York Street district to four stories and 68 feet. It called for removing the city’s development fee policy from any development near the university station, which was instead to be government funded and/or subsidized. It called for prohibiting buildings more than two stories tall from being built near single-family residences, with specified exceptions. It called for requiring approval by voters before certain agricultural land in San Timoteo Canyon can be rezoned.
When Cunningham agreed to those alterations to Measure F and allowed it to go onto the November 8, 2022 ballot, large numbers of the members of Friends of Redlands objected, believing the concession of allowing buildings in the university district to reach four stories to be an unacceptable sell out. They revolted when the matter came to a vote on November 8, 2022 and Measure F was defeated by an overwhelming margin, with 8,504 or 38.19 percent of the 22,267 voters participating in the election in favor of it and 13,763 or 61.81 percent opposed.
It was a final ironic twist in what was the last public event of Cunningham’s life, one in which he made a long-last and rare compromise with the pro-development forces he had been incessantly battling, only to see that compromise rejected.
Cunningham was at one time the treasurer of the San Bernardino County Association Museum, president of the Fortnightly Club, president of the Torch Club and president of the Redlands Association.
He is survived by his children, Andrew and Barbara Cunningham of Redlands and Virginia Cleave of Grants Pass, Oregon; his son-in-law, David Cleave of Grants Pass, Oregon; his grandchildren, Jennifer and Kyle Forsythe, Rebecca Cunningham, Peter and Nikki Cunningham, Andrew and Elizabeth Cleave; and six great grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his wife, Beverley Cunningham and his youngest son, James.
-Mark Gutglueck

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