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City Strategic Planning Talks Small Business, Housing, Sustainability

Patrick Ibarra of The Mejorando Group facilitates the 2020-2021 Strategic Planning for a special City Council meeting on Zoom.

Location

Alhambra , CA

The Alhambra City Council’s Strategic Planning Meeting Tuesday brought several “hot topics” to the fore for discussion as the five-member body sought to clarify objectives for the next fiscal year.

The meeting, which in other years had been held prior to the adoption of a budget, was in Reese Hall at the Alhambra Civic Center library, which is increasingly the council’s new home-away-from-home, at least until the state approves in-person public participation at council meetings.

The meeting, in other years had been held prior to the adoption of a budget, was held a few days after, in Reese Hall at the Alhambra Civic Center library, the council’s increasingly new home-away-from-home, at least until the state approves in-person public participation at council meetings.

All five council members were in attendance as was city manager Jessica Binnquist and City Clerk Lauren Myles. The planning and discussion session was facilitated by Patrick Ibarra of The Mejorando Group.

In speaking to council members in advance of the session, Ibarra had identified several “hot topics” such as economic development, transportation, which included traffic, and a heading called “community” which contained a number of items that would be touched on by the council members blanketing topics like affordable housing, the status of the eviction ordinance, sustainability, re-zoning, design standards and guidelines. The effectiveness of the city’s boards and commissions was also on the list.

Ibarra started the session, which ran from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. with a few thoughts on goals.

“You are all community builders,” he told the council, saying that he hoped the outcome would “create clarity and drive change.”

Looking at the hot topics, he hoped that the council members would “reaffirm the values you came in with today. You want to be successful by choice not by chance.”

And then he turned it over to Binnquist for a quick update on some of the progress on goals from the last session in April 2019.

  • Working with American Family Housing on the affordable housing project at Second and Main.
  • Progress toward an Inclusionary Housing Ordinance, which the council reviewed at its last scheduled meeting. That ordinance will now go to the Planning Commission for review and perhaps return to the Council for next action as early as the July 6 meeting.
  • Negotiations for new residential and commercial sanitation contracts.
  • Better marketing and communication from the city after the hiring of a designated specialist in that area.
  • Progress toward a citywide bike plan, which may be finalized by September.
  • An expansion of de-escalation and implicit bias training for all staff members — sworn and unsworn — at the Alhambra Police Department. The goal remains to fill eight APD positions.
  • Historic Preservation Ordinance: This is ready to go but discussion has been delayed by the COVID-19 restrictions on public attendance at council meetings.

Before tackling the hot topics part of the agenda, the council heard from a number of residents who emailed their thoughts on what issues should be addressed in the near term.

The headline here was the Emery Park Community Group which is gathering signatures on a petition calling for a moratorium on all “large-scale” development in Alhambra including “The Villages” project at The Alhambra. Melissa Michelson, acting as lead spokesperson on these issues, wrote in her comment that 385 individuals had signed the petition and that this number included residents throughout Alhambra.

The petitioners urged that any environmental impact report for The Villages also include a study of traffic as well as “particulate matter and air pollution” in the Fremont Avenue corridor, which has long been cited as a traffic challenge in the city.

The petition also urged adoption of an affordable housing ordinance and a review of the impact of the SR-710 freeway stub.

Most of the seventeen or so residents who emailed their comments voiced concerns about unchecked growth. Some wrote of their concerns about commercial development on East Main street near the Lindaraxa Park neighborhood.

One resident, Lewis McCammon, urged a more robust process for these strategic planning meetings with a much more engaged process for resident input, development of metrics for success for the process and again making it again the horse-before-the-cart of the budget process.

And then it was on to the hot topics. Much of the discussion felt like a conversation or snippets of an informal conversation. Much of it was fascinating window into the individual concerns of each council member. The full Zoom meeting can be found on the City of Alhambra website.

What follows is a general summary, by council person, of their thoughts/concerns:

Katherine Lee

Council member Lee was focused, as were many of her colleagues, on struggling business areas of the city.  In her comments, she said that many of the subjects in the hot topic areas seemed interrelated and that business was one of them. She said it was important to survey residents to determine what kinds of businesses they wanted in Alhambra, what kind they would support with their dollars and then attempt to make that happen. She also cited the success of inviting business areas in Pasadena and Monrovia as models of what Alhambra might achieve. She encouraged the use of public art in each of the city’s five council districts to beautify and engage. She wondered if there was money from the city’s art fund for this and of endeavor.

Binnquist noted that much of the fund has already been earmarked for the city’s 2021 Rose Parade float but added that the Tournament of Roses is scheduled to hold a meeting later this month to determine whether the parade and the Rose Bowl game will go on as scheduled in the wake of COVID-19 and fears of a second wave of the disease in the fall and winter.

No parade, no float and there would presumably be some money for public art.

“Zoning and traffic go hand-in-hand,” Lee said at one point. “If we allow 10-stories, someone is going to come along and build 10-stories. How many cars are we adding to the street for each project,” she asked, “How many cars will be added if zoning is maximized?”

Lee was also skeptical of the blending of architectural styles in the city and wondered if the council wanted to consider guidelines and impose limits on clashing architecture styles to find something that was “visually pleasing” to a majority of residents.

She said that some of this might be accomplished in the zoning code update that is now in the starting stage and due to finish by spring, 2021.

Jeff Maloney

His major concern seemed to be all areas of sustainability for the city. He encouraged the idea of bringing in an outside consultant to get community input on various elements including water usage, green space. He thought that grants, what he often refers to as “other people’s money” might be found for this kind of effort. And he urged that a broad canvas of stakeholders including interest groups like API Forward Movement be brought into the conversation. He also wants the city to come up with an emergency preparation plan for the whole city on how it might respond after an earthquake or some other type of unforeseen disaster.

On the changes brought about by the I-710 stub, he said that “if the ultimate goal is to fix the three on/off ramps off the I-10 then we will have a lasting legacy.”

He was the only council member willing to address head on the Emery Park group’s petition on a large-scale building moratorium. “I’m hesitant to say we stop building, given what we face in the housing crisis, homelessness, statues with the state. If we lead our constituents down that path we may be doing a disservice to them.” But he also said that every project must be mitigated in terms of open space impacts and affordability adding that he was “uncomfortable telling the public we will take care of this through a moratorium.”

“A blanket moratorium in a city like Alhambra is just not realistic,” Maloney said.

Ross Maza

Alhambra’s mayor received much support from his colleagues for the manner in which he’s handled the job during the unprecedented times of COVID-19. Democratic engagement by Zoom meeting isn’t easy and he was cited for his patience in leading during the time of crisis.

In his comments, Maza took the view that the business question had both a short term and a longterm answer. The key short term was supporting local businesses in as many ways as possible to help them emerge strong from the lockdown. That might be in terms of area beautification and keeping shopping areas clean and tidy as well as efforts to encourage Alhambra residents to shop Alhambra. On the longer term, he urged that City Hall have a staffer designated to consistently recruit new business to the city.  It was not quite clear how this effort would work with efforts by the Chamber of Commerce to bring in new business.

Perhaps in this economy, the idea that too much is not enough when it comes to attracting and retaining business and the important taxes they bring to the city.

Maza also urged strong outreach to residents on the I-710 issue to make the process inclusive and dispel many of the misconceptions on the I-10 off-ramp projects that he said are floating around on social media.

The mayor also expressed concern about the seeming proliferation of illegal fireworks in the city. Alhambra has historically allowed the sale of “safe and sane” fireworks around the Fourth of July. Binnquist told the group that Alhambra Police and Fire were working to identify pockets of this activity and deal with it.

David Mejia

The vice mayor was very focused on business saying the city needs to be aggressive in retaining existing businesses while actively enticing new business into the community. But he was clear in his view that commercial property owners needed to be held accountable for the general condition of their property, the looks of the retail locations. He encouraged a survey of residents to find out specifically what kinds of businesses they wanted to see in Alhambra citing, for example, the view of some that the West Valley area could use a supermarket.

Mejia was skeptical on Lee’s notion of mandating architectural styles saying that put the city in the position of being, in effect, a homeowner’s association for the whole city. He was against telling residents what they can do with their property.

“Historic preservation will help with the process,” he said.

Mejia was enthusiastic on modernizing technology for City Hall and for the city as a whole.

On the hot topic of transportation, he said the city is going to have to manage expectations on traffic mitigation on the changing face of the I-710 and the improvement to the on-and-off ramps on Fremont, Garfield and Atlantic. This process may take a decade to complete, he said, and we have to be patient and realistic on understand that what we are doing today is just setting a guideline for the future.

But, he said, “If we aren’t smart with these projects, they will take designated money to handle them away” an apparent reference to Measure R funding that will be key infusion for Alhambra.

He was also interested in the effectiveness of the city’s commission process saying that some of those residents who have served on commissions just felt as if they were rubber stamps with little input. He encouraged a look at the whole commission process.

Adele Andrade-Stadler

In terms of the business situation, she wondered if the city should be tracking how many businesses are actually coming back from the pandemic shutdown and how many are gone for good. She urged that the city do a better job in tracking usage of commercial property to see how long prime commercial locations are staying vacant. She mused about a vacancy tax or assessment as a carrot to induce landlords to rent their properties and not wait for some larger government subsidy. Finding ways to mitigate vacancy rates seemed, in her thinking to be a key factor in business discussion.

She also agreed with Lee that there should be efforts to beautify business areas and suggested relatively low-cost public art projects to attract shoppers.

She asked where the city stood on the subject of evictions now that the city’s measure limiting that action has expired. The city is now under county guidelines, which cover cities that don’t have their own statues and that measure is expected to be extended into July from the current end date on June 30. City attorney Joseph Montes also chimed in that state courts in California have put a moratorium on handling new eviction proceeding at this time.

Andrade-Stadler also expressed some concern on the effectiveness of the city commission system and urged them to be rethought in terms of subject. She expressed the hopes that a city cultural affairs commission might be established and would reflect the great diversity of the city.

On the issue of the I-710 she agreed that it was going to be a long-term project and encouraged a more effective outreach to residents from City Hall not only on the stub and I-10 on and off-ramp issues but other issues as well.

Bottom line

While much of what the council members talked about was already on the strategic plan objectives for 2019-2020 few new items emerged. The next step for city staff would be to take those items and incorporate them into the current objectives and bring them back to the council for review, possibly at the July meeting.

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