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Emotional Affordable Housing Site Debate Fuels Alhambra City Council Meeting

A member of the Sikh community addresses the Alhambra City Council Monday night. Photo by Helen Arase

Location

Alhambra , CA

Monday night’s lengthy Alhambra City Council meeting was marked by high emotion, much of it public frustration and anger, over the issue of alternative sites for an Affordable Housing Project which has been targeted to be built in a public parking facility just off Main Street.

And more frustration and a bit of dismay were on display late in the night during public comment when the subject of the Sikh Gurdwara and city delays in finalizing a Planning Commission vote citing “an element of fraud” in the permit process came under discussion.

But before the housing and the Gurdwara issues came up,  a report on City Accomplishments in 2019 was presented by Asst. City Manager Lucy Garcia.  In a power-point presentation, Garcia ticked off key successes and department highlights during the last year.  In Police and Fire, for instance, that meant the hiring of 11 new officers and staffers at APD as well as bringing aboard a new canine. At Alhambra Fire that meant the hiring of a new firefighter/paramedic and the purchase of a new Dodge 4500  Rescue Ambulance. A copy of the accomplishments report may be found on the city’s web cite at www.cityofalhambra.org.

The report also listed as key accomplishments “40 Permanent, Supportive and Low Income” housing units in the city, which brought some critical remarks during public comment as it was noted that this project is a long, long way from being formalized and completed.

This led to the next agenda item, which was the Alternate Site Study for the Affordable Housing Project requested by council of city staff at the January 13 meeting. Marc Castagnola, Alhambra’s director of Community Development, presented the findings ticking off the current site and four possible alternative locations. They are:

The Current Site:

—Second and Main Street: A parking facility with 48 spaces for Main Street Businesses. The land size is 18,399 square feet or 0.422 acre. Zoning is CBD —Downtown Revitalization District.

The Alternatives:

—Fremont & Hellman: The site of the city’s old library building. The parcel is 4,813 square feet or 0.110 acre. Zoning is PF for Public Facility.

—Commonwealth & Chapel Ave.: The site  is now used for parking and access to Alhambra’s Seventh Day Adventist Church. The land area is 20,854 square feet or 0.478 acres. Zoning is R3—Multi-Family Residental.

—The Old Shorb Clinic at  612 N., Shorb Street: The former L..A. County facility is on 60,036 square feet of land or 1.378 acres. It is zoned PF for public facility.

—Chapel Ave. Sites: These sites were listed at sites #5.1, 5-2, and 5-3 in Castagnola’s presentation. All sites are currently under a parking agreement and are all zoned for parking. Site one has 46 parking spaces on a land area of 13,695 square feet or 0.314 acres; Site two has nine surface parking spaces on 8,750 square feet of land or 0.200 acres; Site three has 63 surface parking spaces on 20,125 square feet or 0.200 acres.

Castagnola’s presentation noted that the current site at second and main meets all minimum development criteria and all city codes. And the developer—American Family Housing—was offering an additional level of parking to replace all spaces needed for the housing development.

But public comment on this issue was sharply divided and often emotional.

Liza Rodriguez, the owner of Vidorra, a women’s clothing store on Main Street who is also president of the  Alhambra Central Business District Assn, commented that many Main Street shops and restaurants are struggling, including hers, and that taking away any parking spots would be a huge blow to their survival.

Sharon Gibbs, the executive director of Alhambra’s Chamber of Commerce, echoed her view on the parking issue and questioned the advisability of the site as a residential location noting the high level of noise from nearby Main Street businesses both during normal hours and overnight with trucks making deliveries.  She added that loud music from nearby establishments including a dance studio across the street is another factor in making the site unsuitable.

Advocates for affordable housing offered emotional and sometimes angry testimony accusing the council in effect of putting parking and profits over people and looking the other way during the severe homeless crisis in asking the city to explore alternative sites. The crisis is real and time can’t be lost on this important project was the view of the advocates.


Teresa Eilers, field organizer for the Everyone In campaign with United Way holds up a protest sign during the meeting. Photo by Helen Arase


Resident Chris Olson related her middle-class family’s personal history noting that her younger brother, who had lived in precarious housing circumstances for much of his life, died at 43 after being hit by a car  in Phoenix. He was homeless at the time.

Activist  Eric Sunada made the case that the 2nd and Main St. site was actually an ideal locale for those with financial limitations as it is in walking distance to markets, public transportation, the public library for internet access, and schools.  He said that parking was a false issue in this discussion noting that abundant parking in market-rate developments on other parts of Main had done little to help some of the businesses there that had failed.

Others who commented said that there was never going to be a perfect site for this kind of development so since the city should just proceed with the current plan and look to the other sites for additional  housing development locations.

Interest was voiced in sites that would offer those who move in to such a development the chance to live in an actual residential community.

Suzy Dunkel-Soto, the vice president of the city Planning Commission, was one of several speakers who thought that the old Shorb Clinic site had strong potential for the affordable housing site. She cited the potential for the location with its much larger parcel size and the fact that it is in a residential area as positive factors. Of course, the site would need some remediation work that might cause some delays and increase costs for the project.

Some on the council were less optimistic on the Shorb location citing already existing costly efforts to put a recreation center at that site. The Chapel Ave. sites now housing parking became the next best option to some on the council but obtaining those sites would involve renegotiating the current parking agreement.

The back and forth and emotional pleas went on for nearly an hour. Deputy Mayor David Mejia firmly rejected the assertions of affordable housing advocates that the council was placing parking and business profits before the legitimate needs of people. He cited his own family’s history relating the example of his grandmother who lived in a housing project in Boyle Heights and his parents who lived for a time in difficult circumstances in Lincoln Heights. 

Council Member Adele Andrade-Stadler asked business owner Liza Rodriguez to come back up to the podium and she questioned her on the outreach done with Main Street businesses by American Family Housing and whether there had been any attempts at compromise on the parking issue.

She said that she was amenable to exploring some compromise on the subject.

The word compromise seemed to break the log jam on this subject and in the end Council asked city staff to work a two-pronged approach to continue study alternate sites while also working with American Family Housing to move forward on the current site.

It was after 11 p.m. when the next contentious subject came up in public comment.

 Citing an incident at the Jan. 21st Planning Commission meeting, Linda Paquette, a member of the Sikh Community who does legal work for the Alhambra Gurdwara, accused a city staffer of “lying” to the Planning Commission. The “lie” occurred, she said, when the official tried to explain why the minutes of the commission’s Dec. 2 vote had not been returned to the commission in a timely manner. The  vote had decided that an “element of fraud” existed in a permit process initiated by the landlord.

 The city official, Vanessa Reynosa, the deputy director of community development, had first said that the minutes had been delayed by a backlog of work for the Planning Commission and would not be available until March 16, more than three months after the Planning Commission vote. Indeed, the first scheduled meeting in January had been cancelled presumably due to the backlog of work.  But after questioning by the commission, she admitted that the minutes were being held back at the request of  Herald Lau, the land owner in the Gurdwara dispute.

City Manager Jessica Binnquist expressed a bit of shock at the accusation of “lying” and members of the council looked perplexed. The council had sent the Gurdwara dispute back to the Planning Commission for action in a vote in late October. 

Binnquist confirmed that Herald Lau had asked for the delay telling the city only that he was “negotiating” with the Gurdwara.

Paquette said that this was not the case and that no negotiations had been initiated by Lau or his representatives. But the landlord had served the Gurdwara with a 30-day eviction notice three days after the Planning Commission’s December vote.

The Sikhs are  contesting the commercial eviction and have retained Dennis P. Block, a noted tenant-landlord attorney, to fight the action. The availability of the staff minutes that outline the “element of fraud” vote are needed by the Sikhs for the case, Paquette said. Failing that, Planning Commissioners may be called to testify in court.

Paquette reminded the council that it was on their order that the issue had been sent back to the Planning Commission. She called this specific incident “corrupt” and urged the council to take steps to end this type of activity. 

“This corruption is a pre-existing condition,” she told the council noting that is has been in Alhambra long before they were elected. “You can correct it. The issue should be looked at.”

Binnquist said that she would investigate the incident by listening to the audio transcript of the Planning Commission meeting to determine the exchange between Reynosa, the Commissioner and public comment from Paquette and Sikh elders. 

The next Planning Commission meeting is now scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 18. The Feb. 3 Planning Commission meeting was canceled the day after last week’s contentious meeting.

The City Council also honored the Alhambra High School football team and passed 13 items some of them substantial, on the consent agenda Monday night. Check the the agenda for more information.    

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3 thoughts on “Emotional Affordable Housing Site Debate Fuels Alhambra City Council Meeting”

  1. Mr. Luthi, the presidents of the Alhambra Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Business Association ARE stigmatizing poor people with their rationale for not wanting an affordable housing development near businesses. What else would you call it when the president of the Downtown Business Association gets up and publically states that she is opposed to the development because poor people don’t have enough money to spend at the local businesses, like she did with her disposable income comment at the 01/27/2020 city council meeting? This is just factually incorrect by the way. Poor people spend their money near where they live. They don’t put it in a savings account or drive to Pasadena to spend it.
    And what about when these organizations advocate that parking is more important than people? 30 parking spots vs. 100 people living in the proposed development comes out to 3.5 people per parking spot. Is that how much one low-income person is worth to them? And the curfew bologna? Come on! Even after the developer said they could replace the parking spots, the Chamber and DBA folks immediately came up with other excuses for not wanting the project there.
    I will add that the Chamber and DBA supplied ZERO data to back up their claims that the project will force businesses to go under. ZERO. Only fear mongering and stigmatizing comments were espoused by these two organizations on the business community’s behalf.
    The Chamber and DBA claim to represent all Alhambrans but it is blatantly clear now that they only represent themselves and a handful of business interests that put profits over people. All businesses who do not agree with this selfish and harmful approach to business advocacy should leave these organizations. I would not want to be associated with them after what they said about an affordable housing development that will help many people. Shame. Stop the stigmatizing and start helping!

  2. To the Alhambra Central Business Association, Chamber, and Council–stop stigmatizing residents who need affordable housing. You do bad all by yourself: Here’s a short list of failed businesses in the new downtown that received public subsidies and lots of parking:

    O’ My Sole shoes, Angelena’s Restaurant, Medium Rare, Maria’s French Restaurant, Sir Walter’s Candy, California Brewing Co., Penny Lane, Tony Roma’s, Senior Fish…and this is just a start because I got tired of counting.

    Let’s be clear: The Alhambra Central Business Assoc. is saying that residents of the proposed development are too poor to be of use and a parking lot is more valuable. Are you kidding me? Do you not realize that the purpose of affordable housing is to relieve residents of the largest burden on household income (rent) so they may start living their lives? That means social relevance. And if all you understand is money, that means buying food, clothes, goods, and eating at restaurants. The idiocy of this is surpassed only by the councilwoman who said the site is too small and that larger families are more worthy. This is NIMBYism. This is also idiocy when the alternate site she is targeting off Chapel is smaller and hidden away behind an ugly parking structure and the high rise Wysong Plaza. Madness.

    To all you deniers: the people you are shutting out are our friends, family, and neighbors. If their money is no good, then neither is ours. Boycott the Central Business district now!

    Editor’s Note: Eric Sunada, a longtime Alhambra activist on housing and development issues, is a founder of Grassroots Alhambra. He also was a member of the Alhambra Source’s advisory board; advisory board members do not set the website’s editorial policy nor review its articles.

    1. No one in Alhambra is stigmatizing poor people who need affordable housing. Histrionics are not going to advance your cause.

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