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Alhambra Planning Commission Moves Forward in Considering New General Plan

Photo courtesy of Alhambra Preservation Group.

Location

Alhambra , CA United States

Alhambra’s Planning Commission discussed Monday night whether to delay or recommend the adoption of the draft general plan to the City Council, after an additional outreach process that failed to yield significantly more participation from the public.

The Commission unanimously decided to follow the advice of Deputy City Attorney Greg Murphy and Director of Community Development Marc Castagnola and send their recommended changes to the draft general plan to the Department of Community Development staff by the end of the week. The staff would then compile these comments into a report for the May 20 Planning Commission meeting agenda, grouping similar comments around a common theme and identifying those comments by commissioner. The 10-person Commission could then spend more time discussing the points where there isn’t substantial agreement, rather than the points where there is agreement by eight or nine of the members.

“When you come back here at your next meeting, if a substantial majority all agree on a point, then you wouldn’t have to spend 15 minutes discussing that point,” Deputy City Attorney Greg Murphy observed in proposing this process.

The Planning Commission could vote on a resolution to approve the plan at the next meeting, if they can agree on what changes to recommend to the City Council, Castagnola said. The City Council would ultimately decide whether to adopt the draft General Plan.

The original plan for Monday night’s meeting was for the Planning Commission to agree to recommend that the City Council adopt the General Plan, and come to a consensus on what recommended changes City Council should consider. Instead, the Planning Commission spent a little under an hour discussing whether to recommend adopting the general plan or whether to recommend delaying its adoption.

Commissioners Andrea Lofthouse Quesada, Scott Chan, Danny Tang and Ron Sahu supported this delay, saying that general plan outreach was still inadequate, even after the city postponed discussion on the plan from late January to Monday night to conduct additional outreach.

Sahu, who was named to the commission after the January meeting, was the first to suggest recommending the delay. He also said that the general plan should be updated after the 2020 Census is conducted, when there is more accurate demographic data to take into account. He also said that further public engagement needs to occur on issues like the bike plan and affordable housing, especially since the Housing Element is not included in the general plan and is not expected to be updated until 2021.

“I’m not comfortable with the things that are in flux — rushing into it and adopting this,” he said of the General Plan process.

Commissioners Barbara Messina and Commission Vice President Suzi Dunkel-Soto opposed recommending a delay, with Messina saying that delaying the plan would leave Alhambra unable to update the zoning code or move forward with any of the actions needed to implement policies that the plan outlines.

Dunkel-Soto said that while additional outreach only attracted a small portion of Alhambra residents, the overall feedback process provided a good representation of the community as a whole. She proposed that the Planning Commission get through as many recommendations as possible, even if it meant staying late. “We have a really good idea from the reports, from the feedback from the community tonight and what’s been provided to us to at least come back with something.”

Commissioners William Yee, Eric Garcia and Debra Moreno Garcia, and Commission President Allan Sanchez also opposed a delay, or asked that they be able to make recommended changes to the General Plan before considering one.

Moreno Garcia countered Sahu’s points specifically, expressing doubt that the Census would give as accurate a picture of Alhambra’s population as hoped, due to the possible inclusion of a citizenship question that might deter the city’s large foreign-born population from participating. She also said that the General Plan and the Housing Element work well together, and that there would be further opportunities to improve them even if both are updated on different timelines. Overall, she said that it would be more beneficial for commissioners to discuss their recommendations first, before deciding whether or not to recommend a delay.

Commissioners ultimately agreed to send their recommendations into the city to avoid a discussion that could go into the early hours of Tuesday morning.

Monday night’s meeting also included a presentation from Joe Power, principal of Rincon Consultants, which drafted the General Plan, and specifically addressing questions that the Planning Commission had during their Jan. 22 hearing. This included addressing the research that went into the General Plan, changes in the land use map necessitated by the policies outlined in the draft plan, the amount of open space that Alhambra and the General Plan has to work with, the plan’s emphasis on hotels and a medical office corridor on Garfield Avenue, the lack of dedicated bike lanes and bike paths in a draft bike plan map, and the omission of key implementation actions concerning preserving historic buildings and resources.

Power also outlined additional outreach that the city conducted to get more feedback on the General Plan, after concern from the Planning Commission and the City Council that only several hundred people out of a city of almost 86,000 had given feedback, and that outreach was not tailored to those comfortable with languages other than English.

At the end of February, the city mailed General Plan summaries in English, Chinese and Spanish to 14,716 utility customers as inserts with their bills, and emailed the summaries to 2,581 customers. City staff also notified residents through an email list; through website and social media posts; postings at 10 city facilities; at recent events including Read Across America and Burger with a Cop; in local newspapers, including the Spanish-language La Opinión, the Chinese-language World Journal; and in Around Alhambra, the Chamber of Commerce newsletter that goes out to every household. Outreach efforts conducted at the beginning of the General Plan process in 2015 were also multilingual.

Despite this additional effort, which delayed the Planning Commission’s General Plan hearings from late January to Monday night, the city only received one more written comment than it had before the expanded outreach. Around 50 people attended Monday night’s hearing, many of whom had participated in General Plan outreach before the expanded effort.

The commissioners addressed this part of Power’s presentation most directly, debating whether the lack of response necessitated delaying the adoption of the General Plan. During the Planning Commission’s deliberations on whether to recommend delaying the adoption of the General Plan, some commissioners said that the additional outreach showed that “a critical mass of participants has been reached,” as Commission President Sanchez put it. He also said that those who were engaged in the General Plan process represent a cross-section of the larger community.

Commissioner Chan disagreed, saying that while he appreciated the extra effort the city made, more attention should be paid to the effectiveness of the outreach being conducted. “To me, this community outreach process needs to always include different levels of engagement, and that’s focus groups, key informant interviews, going to people.”

Fourteen people spoke during the public comment portion of the hearing, with many raising questions on topics that the Planning Commission had also brought up during the Jan. 22 hearing. These included concerns about the General Plan not being updated at the same time as the Housing Element, as well as a draft bike plan map emphasizing shared lane markings instructing cars and bicycles to share the road, rather than dedicated bike lanes, which residents said would be safer for cyclists.

Power, from Rincon Consultants, said that their housing consultant determined that the General Plan complies with Alhambra’s current housing element, and that in 2021, when that document is updated, only minor revisions were anticipated to the General Plan.

As for the bike plan, he said the plan’s emphasis on “sharrows” came from a need to balance an increase in biking facilities with safety concerns, especially on roads with heavy traffic. He also pointed to the map as a starting point for a comprehensive bike plan that would go through a separate process.

Alhambra resident Cliff Bender said the General Plan’s implementation actions on issues like adopting a bike plan or adopting a historic preservation ordinance were not strong enough, written with too many qualifying words like “investigate” and “consider.” Power said that this language was chosen to give the City Council more flexibility in adopting the General Plan, so that the plan could evolve with changes that occur over 20 years. Deputy City Attorney Murphy added that from a legal standpoint a rigid implementation action could open the city up to a lawsuit if there was deviation from the document.

Alhambra Preservation Group President Oscar Amaro said that the general plan’s implementation actions on Historic Preservation were not strong enough. He said that a draft environmental impact report for the General Plan included conducting a city survey and forming a commission to determine historic significance, but that these items were omitted from the final EIR. Power said that the General Plan’s historic resources sections included a lot of suggested actions for achieving preservation, including an ordinance, and that the implementation language was revised to give more flexibility to the City Council over how they wanted to go about this issue.

Some residents who spoke during public comment live near the disputed development at 801 E. Main St., and advocated for an emphasis on architectural compatibility and alleviating traffic impacts for new projects in Alhambra.

A couple of residents also brought up the Almansor Golf Course, saying that at least part of it should be converted into open space that would allow activities other than golf. Commissioner Chan also expressed dissatisfaction that the golf course was being counted as open space. Power said that could be included as a Planning Commission recommendation.

A few Alhambra residents, as well as several employees from Adventist Health Glendale Foundation, asked that the General Plan address improving air quality by promoting efforts to reduce secondhand smoke. Power said that the Planning Commission could also recommend that change if they so wished.

In addition to addressing Planning Commission and resident concerns, Power presented an updated land use map, with corrections and clarifications made to Alhambra’s current land use map. These corrections included changing the land use designation of schools in Alhambra from “open space” to “institutional,” and updating the amount of open space in Alhambra to 192 acres, including the golf course, city parks and vacant lands that could theoretically be used for recreation.

The new land use map also designates a “medical office” designation for Garfield Avenue, in order to emphasize the amount of medical offices already appearing at that location. Power said that this would not be a significant change from its current designation as “office professional,” of which medical offices are already a secondary use.

Power also addressed concerns that the General Plan was advocating the construction of hotels like the ones constructed in neighboring San Gabriel, by saying that the economic firm that Rincon Consultants worked with only suggested that the city could accommodate a few of these businesses. He pointed out that hotels are one of many allowed uses in various commercial zones in Alhambra, and that a property owner would still have to decide to build a hotel, and conform with zoning regulations like height limits.

Power also took pains to point out that mention of a linear park over the Union Pacific railroad trench on Mission Road had been deleted, after considerable opposition from residents and some City Council members.

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