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Alhambra Planning Commission Recommends City Council Adopt Draft General Plan

Photo courtesy of Alhambra Preservation Group.


Alhambra , CA United States

Alhambra’s Planning Commission voted unanimously to endorse adoption of the Draft General Plan to the Alhambra City Council on Monday night, agreeing on a set of recommended changes on how five issues addressed by the General Plan would be implemented.

Commissioner Eric Garcia had to leave the meeting early and was not present for the final vote, which was 9 to 0, to recommend adoption of the General Plan. He brought his recommended changes forth earlier in the night.

The General Plan and the Planning Commission’s recommended changes will go before the City Council on June 10 for consideration. If the General Plan is adopted, the city of Alhambra will then consider a new zoning code and Housing Element within two years.

The Planning Commission decided to adopt stronger language when it came to implementing a historic preservation program in the city; a comprehensive bike plan that goes beyond the map included with the draft General Plan; a measure on per capita open space that does not include Alhambra’s Municipal Golf Course; to explore alternative uses for the golf course when the space’s current management contract expires in 18 years; redrawing the notification radius for projects that will go before the Planning Commission; and limiting the height of buildings in the Central Business District to six stories, instead of 10 as is currently allowed.

The Commission decided on all of these recommendations by consensus, except for the recommendation to explore future alternative uses for the golf course, which they voted on, after a few commissioners expressed opposition to that idea.

The Commission agreed prior to the Monday meeting to recommend that all references to the linear park proposal — which would have been built over the Union Pacific railroad trench on Mission Road — be deleted from the General Plan; that a mobility implementation action, calling on the city to apply for grants to improve traffic circulation, to include additional language on investigating alternative modes of transportation like cycling and transit; to change the priority level from medium to high on a quality of life implementation action to investigate turning vacant lots into pocket parks; to add “family oriented” businesses to the General Plan quality of life section, concerning what future business development to promote; and to modify General Plan quality of life policy “to market vacant storefronts on Main Streets and Valley Boulevard” to not only attract traditional tenants, but to host “temporary or permanent events.”

The three-and-a-half-hour meeting, led by Planning Commission President Allan Sanchez, was a focused discussion, with commissioners submitting their recommended changes ahead of time, and the Department of Community Development compiling their suggestions in an agenda staff report. The city recommended adoption of certain suggestions based on the level of consensus there was on the items; if the suggestions were not already in progress; and if they were not in direct conflict with the General Plan.

City staff did not recommend the Planning Commission to delay the adoption of the General Plan, which was a focus on the May 6 Planning Commission meeting on the General Plan. Staff also suggested against adding language about the I-710 stub and a change in measuring traffic from the Level of Service standard to Vehicle Miles Traveled, since the plan can be amended once more information on both issues is forthcoming. Despite comments during the May 6 hearing about preventing secondhand smoke, staff said that such an issue was not applicable to the General Plan.

Staff also recommended against keeping the suggestion to reduce the size of the golf course for additional park space due to the management contract already in place; nor did they recommend additional modifications to historic preservation language or to the bike plan, since both are in process in the city and would be subject to their own hearing processes. The Planning Commission chose to make recommended changes to those last three items anyway, as outlined below.

Nine people spoke during the public comment portion of the hearing, with many of them calling for stronger implementation language on issues like historic preservation.

“I know the excuse was, ‘We’re giving the city flexibility,’ I read that as ‘You’re giving yourselves the flexibility to give yourself an out,’ ” said Oscar Amaro, president of the Alhambra Preservation Group, who in previous meetings spoke out against the deletion of implementation actions concerning the adoption of a preservation ordinance, a citywide survey and the formation of a commission to promote preservation.

Many commissioners agreed that some of the implementation language needed to be stronger, while also not constraining the City Council’s decision-making.

A few residents also spoke out against the controversial commercial condominium development on 801 E. Main St., saying that this very development showed that the city shouldn’t allow new buildings up to 10 stories high and that there should be uniform design guidelines for new projects.

Below are more details on the Planning Commission’s recommended changes to the General Plan.

Historic Preservation

The Planning Commission agreed by consensus to strengthen the language on a General Plan implementation action concerning the adoption of a historic preservation ordinance. The implementation action, labeled R4, originally directed the city to “investigate adoption of a preservation ordinance.” The language was changed to “bring to the City Council for consideration a historic preservation program,” which could include an ordinance, and measures beyond that, including a historic resources survey and a new city commission for preservation. The Planning Commission also agreed to recommend changing the priority level on this action from medium to high.

Commissioner Eric Garcia asked for the language on another historic preservation implementation action, labeled R5, to change from “investigate the potential for incentive programs” for historic preservation to “consider creation of incentive programs,” and to change the priority level from medium to high. This change was adopted by consensus.

Bike Plan

The Planning Commission also agreed to stronger language for the implementation actions concerning a bicycle plan. Instead of directing the city to “consider adoption of a bikeway system, such as the one shown in the bikeways map of the Mobility chapter, in order to provide safe and efficient connectivity for bicyclists throughout the City,” as stated in the implementation action labeled M2, the Commission recommended language that says, “Develop a bikeways system with input from the community, and consider adoption of that system that prioritizes rider safety, in order to provide safe and efficient connectivity for bicyclists throughout the city, and consider integration with bikeways systems from neighboring cities.”

The new language was adapted from Commissioner Scott Chan’s notes, and speaks to past criticism that the bike plan map included in the draft General Plan needed to be more comprehensive, while also keeping traffic safety in mind. The priority level for this implementation action was also changed from medium to high.

Open Space

There was debate within the Planning Commission over whether Alhambra’s Municipal Golf Course should be considered open space along with park space, since only one use is allowed and people have to pay to use it. The draft General Plan currently counts the golf course as open space, and calculates the amount of open space in Alhambra as being 2.2 acres per 1,000 people. Chan said in his notes on the draft general plan that grant funding to increase green space is often tied to park needs figures, and that an accurate assessment of park space was essential.

The Commission agreed to recommend adding a per capita measure of park space without the golf course to that same definition, on page 53 of the General Plan, in order to distinguish the golf course from multi-use park space.

There was also debate among the Planning Commission members over whether to explore additional or alternative uses for the golf course, with some residents making the point during public comment that the city is in need of more park space, and that the popularity of golf is in decline. Some commissioners, including William Yee, Andrea Lofthouse-Quesada and Danny Tang, suggested exploring additional uses for the golf course in their list of recommendations. Yee wrote that the golf course generates revenue for the city, but perhaps the space could become a nine-hole golf course, rather than an 18-hole one.

Commissioner Debra Moreno Garcia asked if the Commission could recommend exploring other uses for the golf course, since the city contract with the new golf course manager will likely expire before the next General Plan update, expected after 2040.

Deputy City Attorney Greg Murphy suggested adding a quality of life implementation action to “investigate the feasibility and utility of establishing alternative uses of the current golf course at Almansor Park.” This action would also be added as a General Plan policy in the Parks and Recreation/Open Space implementation section on page 63.

The city of Alhambra recently entered into an 18-year contract with a new manager of the Alhambra municipal golf course. In addition, this manager also has an option to opt out of the project after five years. For this reason, the implementation actions would be designated as medium priority, with a long-term timeframe. Alhambra’s Parks and Recreation Department would be responsible for these actions.

Commissioner Barbara Messina opposed adding these implementation actions, saying that the new golf course manager invested millions of dollars to upgrade the golf course. “For us to come out and say, ‘Gee, now we want alternative uses,’ I just don’t think it’s fair for the term that he was guaranteed the contract,” she said. Commissioner Ron Sahu said that the recommendation, if implemented, would likely occur after the contract term is up.

The Planning Commission voted 8 to 2 to include the recommendation to investigate alternative uses of the golf course. Messina and Sanchez voted no. Commissioners Andrea Lofthouse-Quesada, William Yee, Scott Chan, Eric Garcia, Danny Tang, Suzi Dunkel-Soto, Debra Moreno Garcia and Ron Sahu voted to include this recommendation.

Community Engagement

Some residents living close to the controversial commercial development on 801 E. Main Street spoke on Monday about the lack of communication from the city of Alhambra about this project and its scope, echoing comments made during the two previous Planning Commission hearings on the project itself.

Sahu brought up extending the radius for mailing notifications to neighboring residents and businesses of project hearings beyond the state requirement of 300 feet. Director of Community Development Marc Castagnola said that the city has increased that radius in the past on a project-by-project basis, that “routine” projects would warrant the minimum radius, and that the city would prefer having the discretion to decide which ones would warrant a wider radius. Castagnola said that extending the notification radius for all projects would impose an additional cost burden on project applicants, including property owners who want to build an addition on their home, but didn’t offer specifics on what that burden would be.

“It would just help address significant community concern that a lot of people were not aware [of the 801 E. Main St. project],” Sahu said. “How do we bridge that gap?” Planning Commission Vice President Dunkel-Soto asked whether a recommendation like this could even be added to the General Plan, or if the City Council alone would have to take this up as a separate measure.

Murphy said that the Planning Commission could make this recommendation as part of the general plan, and that extending the notification radius to 500 feet would likely not pose too much of a cost burden on any applicant with a project before the Planning Commission. He said that the complications occur in trying to extend the radius beyond that, or trying to predict which projects might be controversial. He said that projects that are consistent with zoning guidelines, like the development at 801 E. Main St., wouldn’t necessarily read as controversial to city staff, making it hard to predict what would benefit from a wider notification radius.

Lofthouse-Quesada said that the problem went beyond a notification radius. She advocated for city leaders to look at other, more effective approaches to engage the community in discussions about land-use and what projects would be suitable for Alhambra. “What we need is an alternative space where we can discuss some of these land-use questions,” she said, offering few specifics on what those alternative spaces would be.

As a result, Murphy recommended adding language to Land Use implementation action number two that encompasses changes made to the zoning code after adoption of the new General Plan. The addition would be to “revise standard notification procedures for development projects.” This addition would reference a General Plan quality of life policy on providing “transparent decision-making processes that facilitate public engagement of diverse stakeholders.” The implementation action would be designated as high priority and have a near-term timeframe. Specifics would be ironed out as the city revises the zoning code.

Height restrictions

The Planning Commission also agreed that the Central Business District should not allow buildings up to 10 stories high. Commissioner Danny Tang suggested limiting the height of buildings throughout the city to four stories, saying that tall buildings bring traffic and pollution to cities.

Murphy said the Central Business District currently has five-story buildings. Adopting a lower height limit as part of the new General Plan would designate these buildings as “legal non-conforming,” and would limit how much these buildings could be improved or maintained. The Planning Commission therefore agreed to recommend limiting the number of stories for buildings in the Central Business District to six stories. They discussed whether to impose a height restriction as well, but took the advice of Castagnola not to do that, since it would be hard to predict what additions a building would need over time for proper maintenance.

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2 thoughts on “Alhambra Planning Commission Recommends City Council Adopt Draft General Plan”

  1. Thank you for the great summary of a complicated issue. You are providing excellent transparency in local government. A free press is essential to good government.

  2. Michael Lawrence

    Excellent coverage of a complicated subject. Thank you Phoenix and Alhambra Source for giving the residents information and transparency on our government at work.
    The golf course contract has a 10 year renewal option for both the city and the vendor. At that point either party could stop the contract. So many things can change and having a option in our General Plan is wise. Barbara Messina’s comment about having other options as being unfair doesn’t make sense. It is a written contract that both the city and the vendor agreed to. What is unfair about that?