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Alhambra Changes How City Notifies Residents of New Development Projects

Residents hold up signs of protest against the 801 E. Main Street development during a Planning Commission hearing. The controversy over the development led to the city changing public notice policies. Photo by Phoenix Tso.

Location

Alhambra , CA United States

Alhambra’s city planning staff has implemented two major changes to its notification procedures for development projects with upcoming permit hearings before the Planning Commission. The planning staff will replace the current 8 inch by 11 inch notices with large signs, and will also send out notification letters not only to property owners within a 300-foot radius, but their tenants as well.

Staff from Alhambra’s Department of Community Development unveiled the new notification signs at Monday night’s Planning Commission meeting. The signs will be at least 24 inches by 36 inches and are titled “Notice of Public Hearing Planning Permit.” They provide information including the project name, address, zoning designation, project description and hearing information. The sign will also include a color rendering of the project. They must be posted along all street frontages of the project site.

These signs and tenant notice letters are part of city efforts to improve communication with affected parties about developments in their neighborhoods. Two recent developments have brought this issue to the fore, including a proposed office building at 801 E. Main St., which the Planning Commission denied after vocal opposition from residents living in Lindaraxa Park, the residential neighborhood next to the project site.

Many of these residents said they weren’t adequately informed of the project before the Planning Commission hearing, and that the city should expand its notification radius from 300 feet to include more people. Deputy Director of Development Services Vanessa Reynoso said they have decided not to do so at this time, because the larger signs and the additional tenant notices would already significantly expand public notice.

Reynoso added that this is something the city could consider when it updates its zoning code. This and other changes, including adding other languages on these notices would have to be decided by Alhambra’s City Council.

Bert Ng, who helped lead opposition to the 801 E. Main St. project, said these changes were a great start, but also suggested implementing them for Design Review Board hearings, which occur before Planning Commission permit hearings, and involve the architectural style of a project. Ng said that a Planning Commission hearing is already late in the process, and that more residents could give input earlier if they were notified of the Design Review Board hearings.

Another project that drew attention to Alhambra’s notification procedures is a mixed-use project at 101 to 107 S. Chapel Ave., where a Sikh gurdwara is currently located. The Planning Commission approved the project on June 17 after a staff report incorrectly stated the temple was vacant. During the Planning Commission hearing, property owner Herald Lau said that he had informed the Sikh community of plans for the new development. Gurdwara President Santokh Singh, however, told the Alhambra Source that Lau never told the community about this project. Singh said that members of his community saw an 8 inch by 11 inch notice of the project taped to a tree in front of the Gurdwara after the hearing date had already passed.

At the end of Monday’s Planning Commission meeting, Linda Paquette, a Pasadena-based attorney who also worships at the Gurdwara, urged the Planning Commission to bring the project back for a hearing, saying that they approved the project based on a false finding of the Gurdwara being vacant. Commission President Allan Sanchez asked Deputy City Attorney Greg Murphy what the Planning Commission could do.

Murphy said that the procedure to bring back a project that’s already been approved is vague, and that landlords are allowed to plan to change the use of their property without informing tenants. He said, however, that there might be a mechanism for the Planning Commission to bring back a project if commissioners felt they were substantially misled on the project findings. Sanchez directed Murphy to prepare a report of possible options for the Oct. 7 meeting.

The Planning Commission also considered a new proposal from the owners of the former Twohey’s restaurant site at the intersection of Huntington Drive and Atlantic Boulevard. This project came before the Commission on March 4, with the property owner applying to tear down the Twohey’s restaurant building, which includes a restaurant space of 6,217 square feet and a storage space of 1,532 square feet. It would be replaced with one building of 6,913 square feet, which would have four retail spaces, with three of them possibly becoming restaurants and one becoming a retail space. The Commission continued the hearing, after raising concerns about the traffic and parking issues the new project would cause, especially in conjunction with the crowded parking conditions created by the In-N-Out restaurant on the same lot.

At Monday’s hearing, staff shared a traffic study showing a decline in projected trips generated by the new businesses, compared to when Twohey’s occupied the space. The new project would generate 48 fewer trips in the peak morning traffic hours of 7 to 9 a.m., and 25 fewer trips during peak evening traffic hours of 4 to 6 p.m.. A parking lot study conducted on a Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. showed that the parking was at full capacity for only 15 minutes to 30 minutes from 12 noon to 12:30 p.m. during peak lunch hours. As part of the project, an entrance lane from North Atlantic Boulevard will be added, so there’s a dedicated lane for In-N-Out’s drive thru and a dedicated lane for the parking lot to improve traffic flow.

At the March 4 hearing, residents and commissioners were also concerned about whether the Twohey’s building has historic significance. Staff said that a consultant provided a historic resources assessment and determined that the building isn’t eligible for a national historic designation, primarily because it is less than 50 years old, having been built in 1977. The staff report said the building didn’t meet state requirements for historic significance either, and pointed out that the Alhambra Preservation Group didn’t list Twohey’s on a historic resources inventory map. The restaurant’s iconic neon sign has already been moved from the premises.

Almost all the Planning Commissioners raised issues with the traffic study, saying that it didn’t take into account traffic during peak hours for In-N-Out, which commissioners either said occurred outside of peak traffic hours, or lasted longer than peak hours. Giancarlo Ganddini, whose firm the Ganddini Group conducted the traffic study, said that the traffic study is concerned with the impact that a project adds to the surrounding traffic conditions, and that the hours looked at have to be consistent, otherwise under the California Environmental Quality Act, other projects would be subject to changes in hours for traffic studies that are being conducted. Murphy agreed, and said the best indication of the traffic on-site is from the parking study.

Commission President Sanchez said he supported the project, saying that parking issues mainly come from In-N-Out, and that the parking lot and driveway reconfigurations would help with congestion. He said that the Commission could only go by the existing traffic study to evaluate the traffic impacts of the project. Deputy City Attorney Murphy recommended evaluating whether the project is physically suitable for the lot that was proposed, or compatible with surrounding land uses.

The owners’ representative, Pat Patterson, offered to only allow space A and B in the new building to have a restaurant use, and that any additional restaurant tenant would have to go before the Planning Commission for approval. Planning staff modified this condition to limit total restaurant square footage for space A and/or B to a maximum of 3,742 square feet, including the outdoor dining area, unless approved by the Commission. Despite that compromise, many commissioners felt that four tenants in total would exceed capacity for the site. In-N-Out regional manager Andrew Rose also said during public comment that four new businesses would make it even harder for people to access the shared parking lot. Patterson said it wouldn’t be economically feasible to reduce the number of tenants.

The Planning Commission voted to 7 to 1 deny this compromise, which also included limiting delivery hours in order to reduce congestion in the parking lot. After two-and-a-half hours, the Planning Commission voted unanimously to continue the hearing until Oct. 21, and direct staff and the applicant to research whether the number of tenants on that site could be reduced.

Commissioner Andrea Lofthouse-Quesada recused herself from this vote, in the interest of giving the applicant a fair hearing, after having informed Alhambra residents of the project on social media. Commissioner William Yee was not present for the Planning Commission meeting.

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