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Alhambra Planning Commission Continues East Main Street Development Hearing; City Plans to Facilitate Dialogue Between Community Members and Developer

  • Rendering showing view of proposed 801 E. Main St development from North Cordova Street. Photo courtesy of City of Alhambra.

  • Rendering showing view of proposed 801 E. Main St development from North Granada Avenue. Photo courtesy of City of Alhambra.

  • Conceptual drawing showing cross-section of proposed development at 801 E. Main St with setbacks. Photo courtesy of City of Alhambra.

Location

Alhambra , CA United States

Alhambra’s Planning Commission unanimously decided to continue a hearing on a 45-unit commercial condominium development on East Main Street, in order to give the developer and residents living near the project time to meet to air their differences over the project. The dialogue would be facilitated by the City of Alhambra.

The hearing would be continued to June 3, and residents would have the opportunity to communicate their concerns to the developer, represented by Ken Lee, vice president of development at Pacific Plaza Premier LLC, and for Lee to explain how the project, intended for vacant land at 801 E. Main St, was designed. The June 3 hearing would include a report on what was discussed during the meeting, which is being coordinated by Alhambra’s Director of Community Development Marc Castagnola.

Several commissioners raised concerns over the lack of communication between neighboring residents and the developer over this project prior to the hearing, with Commissioners William Yee and Debra Moreno Garcia first raising the possibility of the developer having a dialogue with community members before the commission conducted a vote. Planning Commission Vice President Suzi Dunkel-Soto made a motion to continue the hearing until a meeting could take place, and asked the residents to appoint two representatives to participate.

“I just think that when the three sides, the city, the development and a couple from the community — come together, let’s see what happens,” Dunkel-Soto said. “We’ve seen it happen in other projects.”

At first, Lee expressed misgivings about meeting with residents, saying that the proposed project conformed to zoning requirements and city processes, including a design review board hearing where the architecture of the building and parking structure was approved.

“There was a process that went into it, and there was a design review process as well,” he said. “I’m asking for the due process to be followed here.”

He later said that he was willing to hear residents’ concerns before the Planning Commission votes on the project. “We don’t want the project to become a lightning rod and I understand that from a community engagement standpoint, there was not a level of engagement in terms of direct dialogue, per se.”

Lee clarified that he didn’t want the meeting to be an “open design” strategy session, but a “structured process.” “I think we would be open to a dialogue that is facilitated by the city, that is civil, that is productive, and where there are positions that are described and that are heard and received with respect.”

All nine Planning Commissioners present voted for the continuance. Commissioner Eric Garcia was not present at the meeting.

Around 70 people attended the special hearing, which at times grew loud and contentious, as the Planning Commission, the developer and residents discussed the project and the terms of the dialogue. At one point, residents loudly protested when they learned that they wouldn’t be able to speak at this meeting, since the Planning Commission had closed public comment during the first part of this hearing, which took place on April 15. That meeting was cut short after the public comment portion and during commissioner comments, due to a microphone malfunction. Planning Commission President Allan Sanchez called a five-minute recess to restore order at that point.

Before Monday night’s decision to continue the hearing, several commissioners spoke of a lack of a smooth aesthetic transition from the parking structure to the surrounding neighborhood, with Commissioner Scott Chan calling the change “very abrupt,” a concern also voiced by Commissioner Eric Garcia on April 17.

Commissioner Moreno Garcia praised the project for incorporating many characteristics of “smart development,” such as bringing economic growth and access to healthcare resources to the community. She also said that smart development also meant taking into account the quality of life of the surrounding community and said the lack of transition from parking to neighborhood could negatively affect residents’ quality of life aesthetically.

She asked if Lee would consider a treatment to the structure that could utilize art, greenery, water or other design features, who responded that he would be willing to work with the city architect on building treatments to soften the parking structure on the Granada Avenue and Cordova Street sides. He said that landscaping would already soften the view from the back and showed renderings depicting tall trees mostly blocking the parking structure from that angle.

Commissioner and former Mayor Barbara Messina said the new renderings eased her fears about the visual impact of the development. “I visualized, ‘Oh my God, they’re looking out their window and they’re going to see this mass wall,’ ” she told the Alhambra Source, before asking to see the drawings and finding that was not the case.

After the Planning Commission continued the hearing, residents who live near the proposed project gathered in the lobby of City Hall and appointed Marisol Grier and Lewis McCammon to represent the community’s concerns about the project. Concerned residents plan on meeting with the representatives to decide on what they would present to the developers.

McCammon, who lives near the proposed project on North Cordova Street, spoke during public comment on April 15, bringing up the issue of adding more traffic around the Cordova Street entrance, where there is no traffic light; the height of the parking structure and building; and the lack of notice to community members in that area. He said that he looked at the plans and spoke with one of the Alhambra city planners on the project, Abraham Tellez, but was still concerned about the aforementioned features and possible outcomes of the project, and about how minimal the medical office building setback is from Main Street.

He said that most residents were fine with developing a medical office building on the empty lot, but that the height of the building and parking structure was not necessary. Community members also said that the proposed development, which is a large modern glass-and-metal building, would stick out in a neighborhood of older buildings, with wood-frame homes in the residential area behind it. “What the community wants is something that is compatible and complementary to East Main Street and the neighborhood that this building is going to reside in,” said resident Constant Bertram Ng.

Grier, a realtor who lives on Lindaraxa Park North, said that she was hoping to schedule a meeting with other residents soon. She also spoke during the April 15 hearing, asking for more projects in the area that are family-friendly, in keeping with the character of the Lindaraxa Park neighborhood.

The proposed project would involve a four-story 45-unit commercial condominium development at East Main Street and North Cordova Street that could house a pharmacy, medical offices, restaurants and office space. The project would combine seven lots for a total area of 89,818 square feet, with the commercial building consisting of 61,672 square feet. The rest of the site would have a surface parking lot and a staggered two-level parking structure with a top deck in back, totaling 290 spaces.

The Cadillac dealership that was previously at that site closed in 2012. The Planning Commission approved plans for a Nissan dealership in 2014, but the project was dropped in 2016. The current owner James Chou bought the land in 2018.

Sixteen people spoke during public comment on April 17, with some supporters saying that the project would bring jobs and much-needed medical care to Alhambra. Most of those who spoke in opposition were residents who live north of the project, next to or nearby the proposed parking structure. They said that the project’s modern architecture didn’t fit in with the surrounding Lindaraxa Park neighborhood, that the project would create traffic and that the city didn’t adequately communicate with residents about the project itself.

After the recess to restore order, the hearing resumed with comments from the commissioners who were not able to speak on April 15 or who were not present for the first meeting. Along with their concerns about traffic created by the project, especially at the East Main Street and North Cordova Street entrance onto the property, where there is no traffic light, they discussed misgivings about the height and scale of the medical office building and parking structure.

Commissioner Danny Tang said that he was concerned about the height of the project, and asked if the project could be redesigned to keep the 45 units, but without as many stories.

“Based on what I heard from the community, I would suggest that instead of keeping a four-story [building], we can do a three-story, but instead of making it taller, we can make it shorter [and] wider,” he said. “You’re still going to have that 45 units, but the height I think is the biggest issue.”

Commissioner Ron Sahu said that the height in combination with not enough setback from Main Street creates a visual impact as one travels down Main Street incompatible to the surrounding buildings. The proposed setback is currently around 12 feet, according to Castagnola.

Sahu built on Tang’s proposed redesign, and suggested a building that preserves the original square footage of the proposed building, but that was only two stories tall and was set back farther from Main Street. He also suggested including underground parking, instead of the staggered parking structure, which nearby residents said would obstruct their view of East Main Street. “You can meet all of the requirements and having something that the neighbors can get behind,” he said.

Sahu was also concerned over the lack of communication to residents about this project, with only 61 property owners being mailed notices about the project. He said that the city should consider informing people of a wider radius than 300 feet about projects like this. Three-hundred feet is the notification radius required by state law. Commissioner Andrea Lofthouse Quesada also asked for more community input into the project, before the idea of a facilitated dialogue crystallized.

Several commissioners expressed their hope that the dialogue with the developer would be productive. “As commissioners, we have concerns that not enough public input was put in, so by continuing, we address that, but at the same time, I urge residents to also be open to hearing what Mr. Lee has to say and some of the things that can happen to maybe mitigate the project so it is a win-win situation,” Yee said.

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