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Alhambra City Council Adopts General Plan But Adds Stronger Historic Preservation Language

Photo courtesy of Alhambra Preservation Group.

Location

Alhambra , CA United States

After four years of discussion, including additional outreach efforts at the beginning of 2019, the Alhambra City Council voted unanimously to adopt a draft general plan that lays out the vision for the city’s growth and development for the next 20 years.

Before the 5-0 vote to adopt the plan, the Council agreed by consensus to strengthen language on the issue of historic preservation, adding a city commission that would consider preservation questions and a citywide historic resources survey to the general plan’s implementation actions.

The Council also decided to further lower the maximum height of new buildings allowed in the Central Business District to five stories, and directed city staff to study whether doing so would push housing that Alhambra is required to zone for to lower density neighborhoods. If that finding is made, the city might have to amend the height restriction again for the CBD, which comprises downtown Alhambra.

The Planning Commission had originally recommended that the height be lowered from 10 stories to six stories.

A lively audience of around 50 people attended the hearing, including Planning Commissioner Andrea Lofthouse-Quesada; Craig Statton, president and CEO of Atherton Baptist Homes; and several Lindaraxa Park residents who were involved in opposing the 801 E. Main Street development for not fitting in with the surrounding residential neighborhood. The development was not approved by the Planning Commission.

Nineteen residents spoke during the public comment period, with the majority asking for the city commission on preservation and the historic resources survey. This is on top of revisions the Planning Commission made when they considered the general plan, changing the adoption of a preservation ordinance from medium to high priority, and directing the city to “consider” a preservation ordinance, rather than just “investigate” adopting one.

“From castles to cabins, from cathedrals to chapels, Alhambra has it all,” said Joyce Amaro, the vice president of the Alhambra Preservation Group, adding that the city still has a lot of historically significant buildings worth preserving, and that a city commission and a historical resources survey would help with that.

Later, when Councilmember Katherine Lee asked what a commission would do, and what kind of resources are needed to conduct a survey, Amaro said that a commission could weigh in on the historic character of a specific property and offer input on the impact a project would have on that character. A plan for a survey would make the city of Alhambra eligible for state grant funding to finance a citywide study, so that the 116-year-old city could finally inventory the diverse historic and cultural resources it has on offer.

An earlier draft of the general plan mentioned the city possibly establishing a commission and undertaking a historic resources survey, but those provisions were deleted with the understanding that the Council could consider them as part of an actual historic preservation ordinance, said Joe Power, principal of Rincon Consultants, which drafted the plan.

Some other members of the audience advocated changing “consider” a preservation ordinance to “adopting” one, telling the Council that the general plan should have more teeth. Mayor Adele Andrade-Stadler supported this change. City Attorney Joe Montes said this change could occur, but if the Council failed to adopt an actual preservation ordinance, they would have to amend the general plan to reflect that.

Each City Council member reaffirmed their commitment to adopting a preservation ordinance. As a body, they decided to keep the language on considering a historic preservation ordinance and program in the general plan implementation actions, while adding back in the mentions of a city commission and survey. This gives them the option of ironing out details like whether a commission’s decisions would be binding or advisory, and how a survey would be conducted, when city staff formally presents options for Council consideration.

Several residents also asked the City Council to lower the allowed maximum height of new projects in various parts of Alhambra, saying that these buildings don’t fit the character of the city. Members of the audience held up signs advocating for only two-story buildings on Main Street to underscore their points.

The Planning Commission recommended that the maximum height allowed in the Central Business District, which stretches approximately from Main Street from Chapel Avenue to 3rd Street, be reduced from 10 to six stories. Some commissioners wanted the maximum height to be lower, but city staff said that could prevent buildings that are already taller than that height from being easily upgraded in the future.

“Let’s really seriously consider the six-story height thing, because two [to] three stories where I live in Lindaraxa Park is already huge,” said Brad Michaels, one of the residents who fought against the proposed fours-story 801 E. Main Street development, which many speakers cited as an example of the kind of development that doesn’t fit in Alhambra.

Councilmember Lee proposed limiting the height of buildings along Main Street to two stories, saying that taller buildings would add more traffic congestion to Main Street, would block the view of the skyline and reduce walkability in the area. She also said that taller buildings were out of character if built next to residential neighborhoods, as was the case with the development at 801 E. Main Street.

Councilmember Jeff Maloney said that if the height was reduced in the Central Business District that might impact Alhambra’s overall capacity for the number of new housing units that the city is required to zone for as part of the housing element. Maloney expressed his concern that new housing would be pushed to other neighborhoods that don’t currently have as much density as the CBD allows.

City Attorney Montes also said that reducing the maximum allowed height along East Main Street, which is zoned as general commercial, would affect other areas with the same zoning designation. He suggested that the city consider a specific plan for the East Main Street area, which would include a separate process. City Manager Jessica Binnquist said that staff was already studying the revitalization of East Main Street as part of the city’s strategic plan, and could provide information that would help determine the development guidelines for the plan.

Ultimately, the City Council decided to add another Land Use implementation action exploring an East Main Street specific plan. They also decided to reduce the maximum allowable height of buildings in the CBD to five stories as a compromise, and then conduct an analysis on the housing element to see if that would bring them out of compliance with that document. The City Council could then adjust the height restriction if more density is needed in the CBD.

That analysis could coincide with the housing unit numbers that Alhambra is assigned for the 6th Regional Housing Needs Assessment cycle, for which the city would have to update its housing element for the period covering October 2021 to 2029. Draft numbers are expected to come out in the fall.

During public comment, Planning Commissioner Lofthouse-Quesada asked the City Council to add language exploring funding for creating green space around truck routes, in neighborhoods near the I-10 freeway and other areas with heavy traffic, in order to combat air pollution and other environmental impacts. At Vice Mayor Ross Maza’s request, this language was added to the resources section implementation action governing mitigation for areas where toxic air contaminants are generated. The Council also decided to add a Quality of Life implementation action for planting trees on Valley Boulevard and other major roads for environmental purposes.

Overall, the City Council, as well as members of the public, praised the general plan and the revisions made to it, including language concerning the promotion of alternative modes of transportation, and organize a task force to investigate turning vacant lots into pocket parks.

During public comment, some residents reiterated previous suggestions that the General Plan should be formally adopted once the new housing element is updated, and that a staff report of Planning Commission recommendations didn’t come out until the Friday before the City Council meeting, which didn’t give them enough time to review the changes. Overall though, the audience seemed satisfied with the changes the City Council made, and applauded the unanimous vote to adopt the General Plan.

The city sent a notice of determination of the general plan and environmental impact report to the California Governor’s Office of Planning and Research on Tuesday. Starting Thursday, anyone who wants to challenge the EIR can do so for the next 30 days. If that period closes without any challenges, the general plan officially goes into effect. The city will print the final general plan, including all revisions.

The city will then update Alhambra’s zoning code within the next two years to comply with the new general plan and its land use designations. The city will also update the housing element to account for RHNA numbers from 2021 to 2029.

At Monday’s meeting, The City Council also presented certificates of recognition to the Alhambra High School Dream Center, which provides support to the high school’s immigrant population, and to the Alhambra Certified Farmers Market for its 35th anniversary. The Dream Center also received the Community Activist of the Year award from Rep. Judy Chu.

The Council also voted unanimously to support the San Gabriel Foothills and Rivers Protection Act, introduced in Congress by Chu and Sen. Kamala Harris, that would expand protections for the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument.

Full disclosure: Joyce Amaro is a member of the Alhambra Source advisory board. Advisory board members have no editorial control or access to stories before publication.

You can read the January 2019 draft of the General Plan and implementation actions here.

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1 thought on “Alhambra City Council Adopts General Plan But Adds Stronger Historic Preservation Language”

  1. Michael Lawrence

    Not mentioned in the article is that Council Mejia added a disturbing amendment to an ordinance that will put new limits on free speech.

    The “Mejia Amendment,” which purports to codify limiting public comments before City Council and Commissions from the current 5 minutes to 3, that will come before City Council approval on September 9th, is a cynical attempt to further shield decision makers from the public in Alhambra. It is a “solution” proposed by Mr. Mejia to solve a non-existent “problem.’ And, it unnecessarily constricts the public’s right to provide input to Council and Commission decisions – precisely when such input is even more vital.

    First, the fact is, even with a recent uptick in public attendance at Council and some Commission meetings, most meetings are still poorly attended, with very few speakers – thus making the time limitation unnecessary. Second, attendance is higher when important matters are on the agenda – but it is vital for better decision making in those instances that there be more and not less public input. Therefore, limiting time for public input is precisely the wrong approach in those instances.

    Mr. Mejia, as justification, pointed to other jurisdictions where public input is limited to 1 or 3 minutes. That is an inapt comparison. We should be emulating jurisdictions that provide better opportunities for public input, transparency, and decision-making. Not descending to the level of the bad examples provided by Mr. Mejia. Let those jurisdictions improve their process! Alhambra should not be sinking to their levels.

    To the extent that Mr. Mejia is motivated by increasing “efficiency” in the public input process – there are far better options, without taking the one-size-fits-all, ham-handed, brain-surgery-with-a-meat-axe approach that he so hastily and thoughtlessly has proposed. Of course, we remind him that the ethics obligations he is bound by expressly state that the goal of public input is NOT efficiency but rather more transparency.

    Ironically, we urge the Council to take extensive public input on this issue. And, doing so will demonstrate how utterly misguided and cynical this proposal from Mr. Mejia is. Either Mr. Mejia is thoughtless as to the ramifications and implications of his proposal, and that is bad enough. Or, he is perhaps too clever, and that properly exposes his darker intentions. Either way, the Council should not allow itself to be manipulated by Mr. Mejia and approve his idea.

    Please plan on attending the next Council meeting on Sept 9th and voicing your opposition to this misguided proposal by Mr. Mejia. As an added bonus, use the opportunity to directly let Mr. Mejia know what you think of his proposal. We are sure he will welcome all of this input since he is planning to run for re-election in November 2020.

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