LocationAlhambra , CA United States
Environmental engineer Dr. Ron Sahu will give a talk on quality of life issues at the Alhambra Public Library on the 23rd of August at 7pm. He will examine green space, traffic and development and how a general plan update can address these concerns. This is an ongoing educational series presented by Grassroots Alhambra to encourage resident participation in the key decisions that will affect their quality of life in Alhambra.
Dr. Ron Sahu gave me a tour of his organic garden bordering the San Pasqual Wash and Story Park. It is lush with grapes, tomatoes and small watermelons that he assures me will be quite big in few weeks. We sat down in the cool shade of a tree and I asked him about his life and how he used his environmental expertise to become more engaged as a community activist.
Sahu lived his early childhood in a small village in India. Later the family moved their home to a university near Calcutta where his father taught mechanical engineering. The apple did not fall far from the tree, and like his father, he received his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering. In 1983, he applied to schools in the United States to pursue his master’s degree and was accepted to several, but they were in New York, Ohio or Minnesota. He distinctly remembers why he chose California. “I drew a line across the U.S. and said to myself these places were too cold,” he said. “I was accepted to the California Institute of Technology and it looked like a nice place and it was warm.”
After completing his master’s, he continued his education in the PhD program at Caltech where he studied the mechanical combustion of coal. His studies led him into the pollution aspects of coal production and the environment. Caltech was a good fit for him. The school had a long history of research into the environmental affects of pollution dating back to the 1950s. This was well before a general awareness of the harmful affects of pollution became known. The importance of research into pollution came home to him everyday. “When I was in Pasadena in the early 1980s, I couldn’t see the mountains and they were only 3 miles away,” he said.
He left Caltech in 1988 and worked for the engineering firm Parsons in Pasadena. While working at Parsons he met his wife, Cathy. She was born and raised in Alhambra in the Airport Tract. They bought a house on Story Street and have lived there for 30 years. At Parsons, he did environmental consulting and after 10 years left to pursue his own business as a consultant.
I asked Sahu why he chose environmental work as his career. “I like doing environmental work because it is an applied science with a lot to learn and research – not an area of knowledge set in stone,” he said. “If things are static, I tend to get bored. There is a tangible difference where you can go back and look at a project and see the effect you had.”
His community involvement has been gradual over the years. At first, he was mainly reactive. He did not go to council meetings, but did respond to some developments in his own neighborhood. There was a proposal to build condominiums in Story Park, which is literally in his backyard. His wife left flyers for the neighbors and Sahu helped organize a meeting of residents at the Joslyn Center at Story Park on North Chapel Avenue. The very idea of a condo project in their neighborhood park sparked outrage from hundreds of residents. There was tremendous push back against the developer, city council and city manager. The community pressure was too much and the project was eventually dropped.
“This was a terrific example of a grassroots movement that was successful,” he said. “Other than participating in my kid’s school programs, this was my first taste of community involvement.”
This led Sahu to question the planning process that was causing these developments to pop up. What was the underlying theme? “I came to find out the city has essentially been operating outside of a general plan for over 30 years. The entire system was operating ad hoc in my view without a coherent process,” he said. He feels that this was not benefiting a broad part of the community in a consistent way. It was benefiting a narrower segment – the movers and shakers of the community.
Using his professional background, he began to investigate how the city dealt with the California Environmental Quality Act when proposing and approving the many developments throughout Alhambra. It was crucial for cities to follow CEQA laws in order to protect residents against harmful development that would degrade the environment. Acting on his own, he tried to communicate to the city manager and staff that they were not doing the best job in dealing with CEQA issues. “They got tired of hearing about it from me,” he said. “I appealed to their better sense and failed. I did not do a good job acting by myself.”
Sahu tells me he was attracted to Eric Sunada’s campaign for Alhambra City Council in 2014. He identified with many of his campaign statements and his promise not to take developer or contractor contributions. Here was a candidate without prior affiliation with what Sahu “would fairly call a developer-driven city structure.” Although Sunada narrowly lost the election, Sahu felt there was momentum and joined Grassroots Alhambra. Grassroots Alhambra, a non-profit group,was formed by Sunada’s supporters after the election to continue raising issues of transparency in government and educating the public.
More recently, Sahu has become involved with the proposed Lowe’s development on Fremont street. “I faced traffic there everyday so I knew about the congestion, there was a natural interest to see if it was being done right,” he said. “I wanted to know if it was done consistent to the general plan and following CEQA laws.” Those two interests converged and he reviewed the documents the city prepared. He found that the developer, the Charles Company, and the city had concluded the traffic increase could be mitigated by adding a stop light and some driveways. “My own conclusion was different,” he said. “I found that technical shortcuts they made were not supportable; therefore they were in violation of CEQA. They had not met the spirit nor requirements of CEQA.”
Collectively members of Grassroots Alhambra met with the city management and staff. They tried to convey their concerns to them but the project continued its march down the approval process. It was approved by the Planning Commission and then Grassroots filed an appeal to the City Council, who denied the appeal. Given the seriousness of the violations, the location, the already degraded traffic conditions, along with a cloudy zoning authority, Grassroots Alhambra filed a lawsuit against the city and the developer.
The courts will now decide the outcome. Hopefully, Sahu thinks if they are successful with the lawsuit, the project will be re-analyzed under an Environmental Impact Report and the resulting required mitigations will be done right. Most importantly, he hopes the city would alter their process and be more thorough in their technical analysis, along with providing more transparency.
What is the role of Grassroots Alhambra in the city. Sahu saw it this way. “Grassroots Alhambra is not an episodic, reactive organization,” he said. “It is here to stay and has long term goals. Those long term goals are the continued improvement in the betterment of our standard of living and quality of life in the city. A basic part of our work is not only to hold the line of degradation of those aspects, but to move into enhancement. Doing that will be more of a marathon than a sprint.”
Is Sahu optimistic for the future? Thinking about his own past, he said, “I am an immigrant American and I am always optimistic that we have the best system in the world. It does not always work perfectly, but it works better than most places. It is a system we must rely on until the courts tell us otherwise. Yes, I am hopeful.”