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Face of Alhambra's W Main Street to change in 2011

The face of Alhambra’s West Main Street will undergo major changes in 2011, erecting construction projects that the city has valued at $105 million. The transformation got started last week with the demolition of the circa-1975 former library. Next year construction will begin on a Spanish Revival-inspired four-story structure with townhouses and shops. It’s the first of three construction projects that are slated to get underway next year on the stretch of Main Street between 2nd Street and Atlantic Boulevard, making way for nearly 200 homes, stores, and offices that the city says will bring more than 600 workers to the area.

Casita de Zen“That’s a lot of people in a time that people are complaining that there are no opportunities,” City Manager Julio Fuentes said. "It’s amazing what we’ve done."

The City Ventures library project and Sam Wong’s Casita de Zen housing development are part of a 2005 redevelopment plan for the West Main Corridor. Its stated goals were to “further support the revitalization of Downtown Alhambra and establish an upscale, mixed-use district encompassing commercial, professional, and financial uses accompanied by housing.” Other objectives included extending the walking district along Main Street, creating an “attractive, coherent streetscape” and ensuring that “suitable public infrastructure is provided” along with development.

Los Angeles Community Development Commission buildingAn additional project under development in the West Main Corridor, which is not officially part of the master plan, was the sale of the Edwards Atlantic Palace to the Los Angeles County Community Development Commission (LACDC), which is planning on converting it into a 130,000-square-foot building. Doug Cohen, a consultant for the LACDC, estimates that two agencies that will use the site, the Community District Block Grants and the Housing Authority, will bring roughly 575 employees to the building. The architecture of the building, which will be LEED certified according to the city, will echo the BMW dealership across the street, with a flat roof and glass veneer.

City Ventures Development ProjectAll three projects are scheduled to begin construction in 2011, with the library site leading the way. City Ventures purchased the old library from the city for $4.55 million and the city estimates its value will be $30 million upon completion. The artist renderings for the site shows two castle-like structures, complete with turrets, divided by a courtyard. The ground floor will be reserved for retail, while the top three floors are for apartments, with additional townhomes facing Alhambra High School. The project, according to the city, will create 80 homes and six shop units. Developers hope to have models ready for display by July 4, 2011 and construction completed by 2013. The project should generate $260,000 per year in property tax and $23,000 in sales tax, according to estimates made by Vanessa Reynoso, the city’s former deputy director of development studies.

These new buildings should bring more business and life to this stretch of Main Street, but will also likely cause increased congestion in already stressed thoroughfares. City Manager Fuentes said this should not stand in the way of development. “The bottom line for us that we’re not going to discourage development because of traffic because no matter what happens we’re going to have traffic,” he said. “It’s naive to believe that we can stand still and the traffic will go away. It won’t because everyone else around us won’t, they’re going to develop.” At the same time, he said that measures will be taken to encourage alternate forms of transit, including encouraging ride sharing, potentially developing a bicycling plan, and creating new links to other transportation systems that exist such as the Gold Line.

The effect of the new developments may yet to be determined, but there is no question the scale of investment is noteworthy. “In this economy, that’s a significant investment anywhere and it certainly would be for most cities of 85,000,” said the city manager of Ventura and former mayor of Pasadena, Rick Cole. “Alhambra has had a history of city initiative as well as changing demographics, and it’s been aggressive at redevelopment investments, so it doesn’t surprise me.”

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6 thoughts on “Face of Alhambra's W Main Street to change in 2011”

  1. Michael Lawrence

    Alhambra residents have been complaining about traffic congestion and overdevelopment for many years. When the city manager dismisses our concerns with comments like the one above, he begs the question: Is this sound planning for the future? The Environmental Impact Reports for the current projects indicate major gridlock at our intersections.

    Our city has one of the highest population densities in the San Gabriel Valley. Alhambra has a population density of 12,000 per square mile as compared to 6,000 in neighboring Pasadena. 62% of our households are rentals. This creates a transient population that has little or no investment in the community or government. It is no wonder that a election was not held this year for lack of candidates.

    We need to develop in a way that improves the quality of life for the residents first and not dismiss complaints as an obstacle for the building of even more residential units.

    1. Mr. Lawrence,

      I agree and don’t agree with you.

      First of all, I agree with you that such projected congestion begs the question: Are these developments sound planning for our city’s future? And yes, the EIR does indicate increased traffic. We also do need to develop in a way that improves the quality of life for us residents here in Alhambra.

      However, I agree with Mr. Fuentes, the city manager, that such congestion SHOULD NOT stand in the way of development. Development is a continous process that must parallel the growth and vitality of this city. To deny this is to deny our very own success! We do need to develop carefully however. One important feature of these new projects are the UNDERGROUND PARKING SPACES that will be available for new residents, which will not tie up surface level parking spaces. The MIXED-USE zoning will also provide the retail business that residents will hopefully use; all WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE from these new home units, thus reducing the need to drive a car. Street traffic will most likely come from commuters in and out of the city (residents and non-residents), but frankly, this will happen in ALL CITIES surrounding Alhambra in the future. I do advocate the creation of walkway bridges across Main St.

      Also keep in mind Mr. Lawrence that the City Ventures condos will be FOR SALE, not FOR LEASE. I believe this will also go for the Casita Zen project. Therefore, the majority of these units will be OWNER-OCCUPIED, and NOT RENTALS. If Alhambra plays its cards right, future developments may hopefully decrease the need for commuters (or cruisers)to traverse through Main St. (think of commuters who don’t need to drive through Main St. to go to Costco if there is another Costco somewhere in the eastside; now multiply this scenario with other examples of development that will dot the San Gabriel Valley).

      Remember, Alhambra is just one spot on the map. We are uniquely SPECIAL as a growing city, but at the same time, the whole world doesn’t revolve around us.

      1. John Gacis,

        I agree with your statement that “development is a continuous process.” It’s also a necessary one. But it should really be about curing blight, keeping up our infrastructure, renewal of spirit and vitality. It should be compatible with the environment and sustainable. And I will argue with you until the cows come home that the city needs to consider congestion; not only for its residents, but for it’s own businesses as well. Statements such as “congestion should not stand in the way of development” is contrary to what true development is all about and is indicative of a lack of vision formed by inputs from all stakeholders.

        I would be happy to discuss development issues with you on this forum or another for as long as it takes. But for now, let me hit some of the areas you highlighted in all caps in your comment above. I would appreciate it if you could cite concrete backup information for your claims in the future.

        UNDERGROUND PARKING SPACES as a mitigation for relieving the parking problem: I want to make sure you realize that this is far from a panacea. In fact, the proposed projects themselves will still add to the parking problem. Take for instance the Casita de Zen project. Building it will remove about 40 public parking spaces. Yes it will have underground parking, but it will have less parking required than what is normal for residential units. Combine this with the fact that the development is nearly 50% denser than the number of units per acre afforded to it by the city’s building standards (exemptions were made via Specific Plans), and you end up with less parking overall.

        MIXED-USE zoning as means to relieve congestion by keeping things WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE: You need to provide the homework that shows this to be the case. Studies have shown that mixed-use developments help relieve traffic when people work within walking distance of the development. Otherwise, they still commute to work via cars, in the case of Southern California. In our case of Alhambra, the incompatibility is that people who can afford to buy or rent one of these condos will not be able to earn a livable wage working at the retail shops in the area. Even when residents of these developments patronize nearby businesses, they are still more likely to drive a vehicle because of the big-box nature and purchased loads from the most visited stores in the area.

        OWNER OCCUPIED and NOT RENTALS: Please show me where this is the case. Although the units are indeed FOR SALE, they need not be owner occupied. The city will not be able to preclude buyers from then leasing out their properties. This may end up being the norm rather than the exception since many of the units may be purchased by investors based overseas. If the city finds a way to restrict the units to be occupied by the owner and somehow make it enforceable, they had better tell the developers asap because they will run from this project like it has the plague.

        Eric Sunada
        San Gabriel Valley Oversight Group

      2. Thank you Mr. Sunada for your well-organized response to my previous comments.

        You are right, development should address the issues you mention and congestion should always be taken to consideration. However, let me expand on the idea of congestion from my perspective. It is also a continuous process that should not be bounded and eliminated. It can’t be because of limited resources and a growing population. Therefore, it should always be monitored and alleviated to the maximum extent possible. Congestion plays an important factor in city development, and while important, should not always be THE factor in go/no go decisions of development projects. That was my point. The statement you quote refers to my ideas on the original article which I agree with Mr. Fuentes. As he reflects, development trumps congestion. But I do believe that this only works if we create development that can adapt to a growing community. I see congestion as a given, how development manages this is not. Although it is almost always labeled a bad thing, congestion does inform us of our past success (instead of blight) and pushes us to move ahead and develop further. It is a constant recurring signal that justifies the viability of past development and provides the unforgiving impetus for us to continue. The new projects springing up on Main St. shouldn’t be feared. It is only the start of further projects that will continue to address the congestion issue if the city plans properly in the future. Our housing needs are being addressed, hence all the construction. And with time, the city must continue to develop the infrastructure around these areas to minimize congestion. Perhaps we can call this responsive and creative leadership, after all, it’s spelled out in the Alhambra Mission Statement.

        Now, let’s go on to the topics that we have pointed out previously (WITH CONCRETE BACKUP INFO):

        First of all, I live in a 129-unit condo complex in Alhambra (like you) and I have 2 parking stalls based on the size of my unit. Because of this fact (only 2 stalls) I limit my future vehicle ownership to no more than 2 cars. I will not claim everyone thinks like me but I have personally observed (within the last 4 years) most residents in my complex limiting their vehicles to no more than 2 (sometimes 3) cars. Those that don’t either find parking extremely difficult or get their cars towed. It’s called a learning curve. With 129 units here, I do not see a rampant overflow of surface level parking where residents have to start moving out. People learned and adapted. And this is where I disagree with your views on parking spaces. You state that the Casita Zen will have less parking required than what is normal for residential units. Is this necessarily a bad thing? Each unit should have at least one parking space and perhaps very limited visitor/guest parking stalls. You mention the details in the Specific Plans, however I do want to point out that providing more than adequate parking spaces only enforces car dependency. Please remember this: When the units go for sale and buyers mull over the unit details and appurtenant parking spaces with their real estate agents, the parking issue will most likely be addressed. Let the buyers make THEIR CHOICE of where they want to live. The city/developer made the right choice; if we give something (parking spaces) that only fuels more of what we don’t want (cars), we have shot ourselves in the foot. We must not always let certain hard rules (parking spaces) cultivate the main direction of development for any city project. If exemptions were made, then that is based on the developer’s council along with our city leadership’s vision for our community.

        You state that I need to provide the homework to show mixed-zoning relieves congestion by keeping things within walking distance. First, I will humbly claim that I am not an expert. However, I am an observer, traveler, and avid reader. In addition to where I live, my work and personal travels (23 countries) have allowed me to journey through many congested big cities (Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Manila, Frankfurt, Toronto, London, Rio De Janeiro, etc.). I won’t claim academic credence for these experiences for your homework criteria (although I have a Bachelor’s), but I do feel the congestion of my community growing like any other big city out there. I still drive to the grocery store (which is only 3 blocks away), but as residential development grows and the market survey justifies retailers to open more stores, walking to stores will be more feasible for me. I say this not as a mere personal anecdote, but a reflection of what I have seen around the world. I have seen people walk to stores within their commuting distance (this time with legs not a car). Again, this is only possible if development adapts to the needs of the community: close proximity of needed services. Once this phase peters out, you still have the problem of people commuting to work outside the city. I totally agree with you that the retail stores don’t provide the living wages to work IN Alhambra. Hence, you believe that more residents here will congest the roads here going to and from work OUTSIDE the city. I myself fall into this category. But do you think all commuters will leave and return from work at the same time? Will the increase in cars correlate with the number of units being built? As businesses in the city and economy grow, will employment locations change or remain fixed forever? How about residents who have flex work hours or the self-employed who can set their own work schedules? I’m sure you are aware of the L.A. Community Development Center opening up on Main and Atlantic. While this development won’t guarantee that the 500+ employees will actually live in Alhambra, this employer does offer positions of higher salaries who can afford some of these units. I have seen their job openings. It also sets the stage for other businesses to assess the viability of Alhambra’s location. Also, people on the streets are always in TRANSIT, not fixed to any time or location. Can we not push for our transportation development as well? More buses? Ride/share? Parking shuttles? Expand the ACT bus routes? Should I even dare say high speed rail? From my perspective, there are many variables involved and people will adapt and learn. Traffic choking points can be analyzed, but no matter what model we use for future predictions, a working knowledge of actual data must be used for validation. People drive in all directions to go to work, sometimes carpooling. When I drive, I avoid the congested areas and rush hours by using alternates. However, the alternates are also becoming congested. I’ve been leaving for work much earlier and have been looking for van pools. My point Mr. Sunada is that growth is inevitable and that is why we must adapt our habits and continue to develop our infrastructure. For example, the California High Speed Rail, I feel, is a necessity for the growth of our state, even if it does go through the Alhambra I-10 corridor. We can control development, but we can’t stop our city’s population growth. You mention people in nearby areas driving in to patronize big-box retailers and causing vehicular traffic. Reminds me of the soccer moms loading up their SUVs at Costco. And true, I see them. But what alternatives do they have? You LIMIT development and I can assure you that congestion and parking lot rage will only get worse. Actually, it’s getting worse now. My concrete back-up information is when you just look at all those customers fighting for parking spots. LIMIT the number of businesses (like Costco) and more people will be driving through Alhambra every day. Limit the number of residential units and people will have to keep driving far away to get to the places that do have major box retailers. Giving more opportunities for new businesses and homes ends this congestive nightmare. This goes for all our surrounding cities. Such opportunities need to be addressed continuously because density will obviously increase. This is why I believe we must embrace congestion with a creative mind and not use it as a roadblock for good developments that address future needs. Look at the Ralphs (and projected Target store) in downtown Los Angeles. Their business model in urban areas is changing, even modifying their inventories (and sometimes store size) to cater to local needs (LA Times, Nov 2010.). Thus, Alhambra is not necessarily doomed to urban congestion. We are all stakeholders; with proper planning/development and a leadership that embraces growth, sustainability will be more likely viable.

        You are absolutely correct that the city will not be able to preclude buyers from then leasing out their properties. But their mortgage companies possibly can IF they claim it as owner-occupied for loan purposes. However, you are right that I cannot claim the majority of these units “WILL” be owner-occupied. I should have stated that the majority of the units will “most likely” be owner-occupied. I am stating an opinion, not a fact. Why? What concrete evidence do I have? First of all, the real estate market overall is down and the requirements of getting an investment loan have been much harder than in the past (I was a loan officer). Absentee buyers have been paying a median of $215,000 for properties just last month (DQ News, Jan 2011), which reflects a number much lower than what the starting prices for these new units will be (>300K). And yes, I am aware it’s the median, and not the average. Second, the marketing of these units is focused on the live/work concept that would naturally attract an owner-occupied buyer. Of course tenants would be attracted too, but with starting prices in the higher range, rents will also be higher comparable to other locations. Third, you mention an interesting point about many units bought by investors overseas. Look at the Alhambra Regency Plaza, the upper floors look like a ghost town. I knew a tenant there (4 years ago) who said many of the units were vacant, even though they were not listed for sale. I will agree with you, perhaps many of these units are bought by investors overseas. But I have observed that many of these units bought by overseas investors sit empty or go through long vacancies. So while they are not owner-occupied, they are not rentals either! I have seen a few units of this nature in my place as well. Most buyers also probably have the financial means to hold on to these properties as marked by the ratio of # foreclosures / # units I’ve seen in these complexes. This reflects fewer distressed units and “transients” that causes a neighborhood to deteriorate. I somewhat disagree with Mr. Lawrence that we will create an influx of transients that have little or no investment in the community or government. It depends on the dynamics of property ownership, types of future developments the city envisions and the sense of community the city leaders/residents create. Our diverse and large Asian community, new projects, the Summer Jubilee and Chinese Lunar New Year events are but a few things that demonstrate our drive to connect/invest in our community. The rest of the future lies in our imagination…

        I believe Alhambra is heading in the right direction. The city has a good pro-active strategy for our community’s growth. I do feel that the concerns of the slow-growth advocates are warranted. But it is hard to quantify the fluctuating demands of our city at any given time. The trend however, in the long-term, is that our city WILL grow. We must address those needs and plan accordingly.

        Thanks again Mr. Sunada for taking the time to read my response. Please feel free to respond to my email (under my profile) so we can further discuss the issues if you so wish.

        John T. Gacis

  2. Wow, I guess the Main Street will be impossible to pass during the construction period for next 2 years, then a street to avoid once it is done.

    When our city manager saying “The bottom line for us that we’re not going to discourage development because of traffic because no matter what happens we’re going to have traffic”, it clearly shows that he does and will NOT use main street to commute himself at all. Bringing over thousands employees to this compacted location along side of the narrow main street is absolutely disastrous. Sadly, we do not even have much alternative ways the go around the downtown besides some single-lane side street or go through already congested Valley Blvd or Huntington Dr.

    Alhambra downtown will look better if it has the layout as Old Town Pasadena with all single level commercial buildings by the main traffic vessel for Alhambran. The better location for these kind of projects listed above is where old Mervyn’s plaza was at (East of Garfield). They just didn’t do good job to prompt that area.

    Complaints will pour in when the projects are under their way.

    1. Hi Len,

      Why do you assume the city manager will not use Main St. to commute himself? What if he doesn’t need to? I live in Alhambra and I don’t always need to use it. I also use Commonwealth Ave, Mission Rd., and Valley Blvd. The new projects will add more traffic right next to Main St., but look at the Regency Plaza development. Do they have rampant problems with their traffic and parking? If they do, please explain so we can all learn.

      The old Mervyn’s plaza is under the J.H. Snyder Company, from what I understand. The last I heard, the city is negotiating with a national retail tenant but I haven’t heard of any disclosures yet. When it does get built, I’m not complaining. I believe it will add to the property values near my neighborhood. Many of my neighbors I’ve talked with feel the same way. Sure there will be more traffic and noise, but at what impact? If the right developments are chosen, it can be mitigated.