By Mark Gutglueck
Upland city officials and Bridge Development Partners, LLC corporate officers are yet seeking to lowball the group of civic activists who have so far successively prevented plans to establish the first of what would ultimately become a complex of warehouses for on-line retail behemoth Amazon, nearly four years after a differently composed city council gave the first major phase of the project go-ahead.
Unrecognized by the project’s proponents is that inside information possessed by those who have derailed the undertaking has left them impervious to the monetary concessions the developer has offered.
In June 2019, Bridge Development Partners previewed to the community the Bridgepoint project, what was described as three buildings comprising a 977,000-square foot distribution center to be built on a 50-acre property being leased from the Bongiovanni Family Trust slightly east of Central Avenue, north of Foothill Boulevard and south of Cable Airport. In October 2019, a revamped conception of the project was presented, one that was reduced to a single structure of 276,250 square feet. When the environmental review documentation for the project was posted on December 16, 2019, it came in the form of a negative mitigated declaration. In that documentation, the project was shown as a having been reduced once more to a 201,096-square-foot distribution center, with 1,438 parking spaces contained on the project grounds. Bridge Development Partners, LLC’s lease with the Bongiovanni Family Trust runs for an initial 50 years, with an option to extend it for another 50 years.
The city allowed the project to proceed toward approval without being subject to a comprehensive environmental impact report, which many Upland residents believed should have been carried out for a project of such size, intensity and complexity. Rather, the city elected to use a mitigated negative declaration to complete the environmental review process.
An environmental impact report is an involved study of the project site, the project proposal, the potential and actual impacts the project will have on the site and surrounding area in terms of all conceivable issues, including land use, water use, air quality, potential contamination, noise, traffic, and biological and cultural resources. It specifies in detail what measures can, will and must be carried out to offset those impacts. A mitigated negative declaration is a far less exacting size-up of the impacts of a project, by which the panel entrusted with the city’s ultimate land use authority, in this case the city council, issues a declaration that all adverse environmental impacts from the project will be mitigated, or offset, by the conditions of approval of the project imposed upon the developer. On February 12, 2020, the Upland Planning Commission voted 3-to-2, with members Gary Schwary, Linden Brouse and Yvette Walker prevailing, to recommend that the city council not approve project. Two weeks later, on February 26, 2020, the commission met again, this time with Commissioner Alexander Novikov, who was not present previously, participating. In a move unprecedented in Upland’s history, the planning commission reversed itself, voting 4-to-2, this time with Schwary, Brouse and commissioners Robin Aspinall and Carolyn Anderson prevailing, to recommend that the city council approve the project. Two of the members who had voted against the project on February 12, Brouse and Schwary, changed their votes.
On April 1, 2020, the Upland City Council by a 4-to-1 vote approved the project, in doing so accepting a $17 million development agreement offered by Bridge Development Partners. That approval included the council’s mitigated negative declaration rather than an in-depth environmental impact report.
Thereafter, a contingent of Upland citizens banded together, taking on the name Upland Community First. The group’s members retained attorney Cory Briggs, who then filed a petition for a writ of mandate, a lawsuit against the City of Upland, naming Bridge Development Partners as a real party in interest, seeking from the court an order that the city revisit the environmental review process for the project, make a determination that the mitigated negative declaration was inadequate and require that a full-blown environmental impact report for the project be carried out before the project is allowed to proceed.
The approval of the project was something of a cultural, social and political watershed in Upland. Less than two months after the approval of the project, Councilman Ricky Felix, who had voted to approve the project but was taken aback by the vitriol his support of the project provoked, resigned from the council. Mayor Debbie Stone, who was the force on the council militating most heavily in favor of the Bridgepoint project, bounced Walker, Brouse and Novikov off the planning commission because of their votes against the project in an effort to stem the criticism headed her way. In the 2020 election, the city’s residents exacted retribution, voting Stone out of office as mayor, replacing her with Bill Velto, one of the members of the council who had also supported the project, but in a less obvious manner. The 2020 election saw further revamping of the council, with Carlos Garcia elected to replace Felix during the final two years of the term he had forsaken when he resigned, and Shannon Maust being elected to replace Velto in the council seat he vacated to run for mayor.
As a consequence of the Upland Community First legal filing, any action toward the completion of the project, including site grading, was suspended.
In July 2021, Judge David Cohn entered a ruling that the mitigated negative declaration was a flawed environmental certification for the project, primarily in the way in which it wrongfully used a greenhouse gas threshold of ten thousand metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in calculating emissions from the distribution facility on a yearly basis as a maximum allowable limit and the consequent inadequate mitigative provisions for the greenhouse gas emissions from the operation.
“The failure to provide substantial evidence to justify the single quantitative method used as the greenhouse gas threshold of significance constitutes a prejudicial abuse of discretion,” Judge Cohn ruled. “The public and decision-makers have not been provided sufficient information necessary to understand the threshold or the data used in the analysis establishing the threshold and reason for the significant change in baseline emissions in the subsequent greenhouse gas analysis. Accordingly, the city’s approval of the mitigated negative declaration is set aside.”
While the cost to Bridge Development Partners, LLC of carrying out a more thorough analysis of the carbon dioxide and chlorofluorocarbons to be generated at the warehouse would not have been prohibitive, Bridge Development Partners, LLC is reluctant to carry out that analysis because it anticipates that the mitigation that would be outlined in a thorough report would quite likely entail expenditures at the facilities Bridge Development Partners, LLC eventually intends to build on the Bongiovanni property over the potential 100-year lease of the land to run to well in excess of the $35 million to $40 million in 2020 dollars the company has so far given indication it is willing to put up in public benefit payments.
Of significance was that Amazon, as an online retailer, bypasses the normal collection of sales tax that normally takes place in brick-and-mortar retail establishments. Upland, therefore, would not see any real financial benefit from hosting the project, which is proposed to entail vans and trucks heavily laden with merchandise coming and going and which would result in wear and tear on the city’s roads and streets, to say nothing of the hazards and congestion such traffic entails, not to mention the impacts on air quality as was highlighted in Judge Cohn’s decision.
Poorly hidden from the public, or unstated at this time, is that after completing the first 201,096-square-foot phase of the project on a portion of the 50 acres is that a second, third and even a fourth phase would eventually follow, such that the complex would become a facility very close to the 977,000 square feet originally proposed. The 1,438 parking spaces to be built in the first phase is a dead giveaway of that, those who have analyzed the project observed.
The two council newcomers elected in 2020 – Maust and Garcia – at first appeared to be more empathetic to the issues raised by Upland Community First than were Stone and Felix or the other two members of the council who joined with them in approving the project, then-Councilman and now-Mayor Velto and Councilman Rudy Zuniga. But over time, they have changed and are now in support of where City Hall and the community development department – headed by Velto’s close associate Robert Dahlquest – would like to go, which is a settlement of the lawsuit in which, in exchange for money put up by Bridge Development Partners, LLC, the case would be dismissed, allowing the original mitigated negative declaration to suffice as the environmental certification of the project.
Just prior to Velto’s assumption of the mayoralty in December 2020, he donned the mantle of a back channel communicant between Bridge Development Partners, LLC and Upland Community First, offering, if the citizens’ group would settle the matter outside the rubric of Judge Cohn’s authority, to increase by first $21 million and then ultimately $23 million the $17 million in mitigation fees that Bridge Development Partners, LLC offered and which the city council approved in April of that year. That $40 million, which was to be put up by Bridge Development Partners, LLC, was intended to cover the infrastructure demands and damage wrought by delivery operations and as payments in lieu of sales tax from Amazon’s operations over the 50-year lease life of the building. The offer Bridge Development Partners, LLC was making through Velto divided the grassroots Upland First coalition into two factions. One of those splinter groups deemed the offer a reasonable show of good faith by the developer. Other members of the coalition, however, looking at all of the costs of and downsides to hosting a continuously expanding set of warehouses over that half-century, calculated the cost of offsetting or mitigating that damage to be well in excess of $40 million when it was quantified monetarily. Moreover, they held that the lawsuit they filed to prevent the Amazon warehouse from proceeding involved principles beyond the simple provision of money, even as much as $40 million, and that the litigation should not be settled until an environmental impact report on the project is completed. They resisted the pressure being brought by Velto, and no deal with Bridge Development Partners, LLC was closed, which prompted Bridge Development Partners, LLC corporate officials, who had preserved deniability by negotiating through Velto, to publicly disavow that any offer beyond the $17 million specified with the project’s 2020 approval had been made.
Bridge Development Partners, LLC, as the real party in interest in the lawsuit brought by Upland Community First against the City of Upland, in December 2021 appealed Judge David Cohn’s ruling upholding that challenge. The matter has now been rerouted back to San Bernardino County Superior Court, where until recently it was being heard in the courtroom of Judge Gilbert Ochoa. Briggs, on behalf of Upland Community First, petitioned to remove Judge Ochoa and the case is next scheduled for a hearing before Judge Donald Alvarez on June 3, 2024.
Both the city and Bridge Development Partners, LLC have tremendous misgivings on where the litigation is headed from here and are, in the words of a city official, “determined” to bring it to a close.
The Sentinel has learned that during Thanksgiving week, Velto employed Upland Police Chief Marcelo Blanco in an effort to convince the decision-makers of Upland Community First to drop the suit. Blanco sought to inveigle the Upland Community First members to “come down to the police station” in an effort to employ strong arm interrogative tactics to induce “cooperation,” meaning that one or more members of the Upland Community First Board of Directors would make a commitment under duress that would then be considered binding on the organization as a whole. Blanco, in making his pitch, emphasized the benefits that would come to the police department specifically, which would entail, he said, Bridge Development Partners, LLC underwriting the cost of the city hiring three police officers. Blanco was not focused on the substance of the suit itself, but angled more toward how the city, meaning City Hall and its various departments, in particular the police department, would be advantaged by the suit ending and Bridge Development Partners, LLC being allowed to proceed. While the $40 million offer from December 2020 was not mentioned specifically, it was noted that Mayor Velto was still seeking to leverage a settlement, and it was implied without anything being put in writing that Bridge Development Partners, LLC would up the original $17 million in community benefits to $40 million.
Upland Community First members were, one of the group’s participants said, “astounded” at Blanco’s lack of sensitivity to and understanding and/or appreciation of the issues at stake in the litigation.
Moreover, Upland Community First members believe that it is improper for the city or anyone at Bridge Development Partners, LLC to be in contact with members of Upland Community First with regard to the issues that are at the heart of the litigation, and that the only legitimate negotiating that can take place would be between Briggs, representing Upland Community First, and City Attorney Steve Deitsch, representing the city.
Moreover, unbeknownst, apparently, to Bridge Development Partners, LLC is that a former or disgruntled current employee has conveyed internal information to Upland Community First to the effect that Bridge Development Partners, LLC can route as much as $160 million into a public benefit account for a combination of the City of Upland, its residents and its various community organizations and still realize a profit from the project. Accordingly, an offer of $40 million in public benefit payments in conjunction with the Bridgepoint Project is considered by Upland Community First members to be only 25 percent sufficient. Unless Bridge Development Partners, LLC is willing, in writing in advance through some legally binding agreement, to appropriate $160 million over the 50-year life of the lease with the Bongiovanni Family Trust to make payments in lieu of sales tax, redress any destruction or deterioration of the road infrastructure, cover the cost of reducing the production of harmful air pollutants and redress any other untoward impacts of the project, Upland Community First is not willing to entertain dismissing the lawsuit.
Furthermore, Velto’s constant assumption of the role of intermediary/negotiator has raised the suspicions of a number of the Upland Community First members, who have conveyed a commonly held perception that he is militating not on behalf of his constituents but rather Bridge Development Partners, LLC.
“It is obvious that the city can swing a way better deal than what Bridge is offering,” one said. “That warehouse project will impact existing development in the area, and it will impact future development in the area, not to mention the city’s infrastructure for the next two generations. There needs to be a wider and deeper discussion about how creating the infrastructure for the warehouse Bridge wants to build now and the ones that will be built later should dovetail with other plans for adjoining or nearby properties. That should all be part of this discussion. The $40 million Bridge has offered is nowhere near enough to pay for that infrastructure and off-site improvements now and in the future and to offset the impacts and lack of sales tax revenue involved in this. The $17 million Bridge offered was an out and out insult. That Mayor Velto is going along with Bridge every step of the way is a huge red flag. Something’s amiss. I don’t think anyone in the community wants to ask why he is front-ending for Bridge. He’s the mayor. He is supposed to be representing the city, not some company that wants to be based in the city without paying any taxes. No one is going to ask that question because the answer is not something anyone is prepared to deal with.”
By Mark Gutglueck