LocationAlhambra , CA
The Alhambra Planning Commission voted Monday night to deny an application for a 45-unit condominium office building at 801 E. Main Street after almost three months of continuing the matter in an effort to find ways to overcome their concerns and those expressed by nearby residents.
The Planning Commission action Monday involved two votes. They first voted on a resolution to approve the project, which was recommended by city staff. They rejected that resolution on a 6 to 3 vote, with Commissioners Barbara Messina and Eric Garcia and Commission Vice President Suzi Dunkel-Soto voting to approve the project. Commissioner Debra Moreno Garcia was not present at the meeting.
The Planning Commission then voted on a resolution formally denying the project, based on a number of findings. These findings included the site not being suitable for the proposed density of the project and that the project would be incompatible with the residential land uses north of the project. The Planning Commission also found that the project could be detrimental to public health and safety, due to the parking structure’s proximity to residential uses, the height of the project, and the traffic generated.
The panel voted 8 to 1 to approve this resolution formally denying the project. Commissioner Barbara Messina cast the only no vote.
Some Planning Commissioners who supported the project offered thoughts on redesign with Ken Lee, Vice President of Development at Pacific Plaza Premier Development Group, to see if more of their colleagues would support the application.
Lee had previously agreed to limited changes to the project design in response to residents and commissioners’ concerns that the project was incompatible with the Lindaraxa Park neighborhood behind it. In a May 29 meeting with city staff and two residents, Lee said the developers would utilize more landscaping to create a buffer between the parking structure and the residences to the north of the development. He would also add a “green wall” of plants to the parking structure to further soften the look.
Lee also offered to reconstruct a set of Lindaraxa Park pillars, a historic centerpiece of the pocket park in the Lindaraxa neighborhood, as an “off-site amenity that provides a community benefit.”
In previous meetings, Lee was not open to redesigning the parking structure, or lowering the height of the building, which was proposed to be 62 feet. However, on Monday, Lee said that he could reduce the building height by six feet. He and Commissioner Eric Garcia also agreed on extending the setback between the parking garage and the north property line to 18 feet, provided the project could still meet its parking requirements. This would put the structure further away from the residents to the north and from a daycare center behind the proposed development. A resident and some commissioners mentioned the proximity of the project to the daycare facility as possibly infringing on the privacy of the children who go there.
Lee also agreed on the city putting up a traffic light at Main Street and Cordova Street, after multiple residents and commissioners said the project would cause traffic congestion at that intersection. If the public works department decided that a traffic light was needed, the developer would pay its “fair share” to install the signal. The “fair share” would cover how much traffic the project itself add to existing traffic.
Lee also chose to increase electric vehicle charging stations from 18 to 50, and bicycle parking from 15 to 20. Presented by city staff at the beginning of the meeting, this new information was offered to show that this development would evolve with the times.
In a presentation before Commissioner comments, Lee said that the planned parking structure may have three levels, but because it starts below grade, it is effectively one story and rises only a little bit over the wall separating the development from the residential neighborhood. He showed a video simulation of the office building and garage from different vantage points.
He also mentioned that the Planning Commission recommended that building heights be limited to six stories in the Central Business District in Alhambra’s new General Plan, saying that meant the Commission supported a more vibrant and business-friendly Main Street corridor.
Lee said later in the hearing that Pacific Plaza Premier Development Group designs responsible projects, and that four stories made the most sense for this development. He said that underground parking, which Commissioner Danny Tang had suggested, would be cost prohibitive for the developer.
Commissioner Ron Sahu said that he could not support the project, due to uncertainty over traffic impacts and the project density’s incompatibility with the neighborhood. He also brought up a larger debate related to the controversy over the 801 E. Main Street development. He said that if the Planning Commission approved a project of this height, then they would have to approve others like it, and that he was not prepared to do that until there’s a community driven process of how East Main Street should develop.
“I think this would be a great project, but in a different place,” he said.
Planning Commission President Allan Sanchez led the discussion in adding these conditions of approval. He ultimately voted no on the project.
The project applicant has 10 days to file an appeal of the Planning Commission’s denial with the city. The appeal would then be considered by the Alhambra City Council in a regular meeting.
Lee told the Alhambra Source that they were disappointed in the Planning Commission’s decision and that they disagree that the project is incompatible with the neighborhood.
“We’re weighing our options right now, including filing an appeal, modifying the project or even selling the property,” he said. “Those are all viable options and we’re just evaluating them.”
Almost every seat was occupied at the Alhambra City Council chambers, as around 100 people witnessed the proceedings. The hearing often became contentious, with audience members cheering speakers they agreed with, or yelling out at those who they disagreed with.
Around 30 residents spoke during public comment, with several supporting the project because it would bring jobs and tax revenue to the city. Alhambra Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Sharon Gibbs and Brad Jensen, director of public policy at the San Gabriel Valley Economic Partnership, were among those who spoke in support of the project.
Jensen said the office building would add 150 to 180 high-wage jobs, filled by people who would go to Main Street’s restaurants and businesses, thus increasing tax revenue.
The vast majority of attendees were neighboring residents opposed to the development. Many claimed the project would cause issues with privacy. Others said that the project was incompatible with the neighborhood, would generate too much vehicle traffic in the area, and that they should have been notified of the plans before the project went to the city’s Design Review Board.
“The cold, hard metal and glass that has become so ubiquitous in urban development does not belong in the middle of a community of quaint Norman Rockwell homes,” said Lindaraxa Park resident Wade Hall, invoking the artist who drew inspiration from Alhambra for his idyllic paintings of American life.
The residents gathered hundreds of signatures against the development, which they displayed during the meeting.
City Councilmember Katherine Lee and Mayor Adele Andrade-Stadler attended part of the meeting, leaving before the commissioners started deliberating.
Lee said that she wanted to hear what the residents had to say, especially since the project is in her district.
“I’m glad that the residents are starting to speak up, letting the city know what they think of issues, including projects,” she said. “I think that’s really healthy and that’s a good thing for the city.”
Andrade-Stadler said she attended after many residents contacted her about the development and wanted to see the community engagement for herself.
“I wanted to verify for myself that there was a neighborhood against the development,” she said.
Both are reserving final judgment on the project, in the event that it comes to the City Council in an appeal. Lee and Andrade-Stadler also said that they wanted to explore expanding the city’s project notification radius standards from the current 300 feet at City Council.
Traffic was a primary concern for Commissioners Sahu and Andrea Lofthouse-Quesada, both of whom voted against the project.
Sahu expressed doubt at the results of the traffic study conducted by the traffic engineering firm, the Ganddini Group. He said that their study didn’t take special consideration of pedestrian traffic and how it would affect vehicle congestion. Sahu also pointed out that traffic counts weren’t done at a time when the nearby Granada School lets out. He also noted that traffic generation was only counted from the adjacent streets, rather than the traffic generated by the project itself. As a result, the study didn’t give a full picture of the traffic impacts, Sahu said.
Giancarlo Ganddini, the principal of the Ganddini Group, said that the traffic study was conducted according to the city policy of looking at traffic at peak morning and afternoon hours on streets adjacent to the project. Limited adjustments are usually made to numbers to account for pedestrian impacts. Counts are typically required to be done when school is in session to account for traffic impacts on or from Granada School.
Lofthouse-Quesada expressed particular concern about how traffic generated by the project would impact streets in the surrounding neighborhood, making it harder for people to access Lindaraxa Park, for example. She said that there wasn’t enough information or measures proposed to address those impacts for her to support the project.
Commissioners Danny Tang and William Yee were mainly concerned with the scale of the project. Tang reiterated a position he expressed at previous meetings that the developer could redesign the project so that it had fewer stories, but with the same square footage. He also said that underground parking would solve a lot of issues that people have with the project, including privacy concerns.
Yee was also concerned about the scale of the project, saying it would look out of place on East Main Street, and mentioned that there wouldn’t be so many residents opposed to it if it did fit in with the surrounding area.
Commissioner Scott Chan, along with a few other commissioners, said that the parking garage potentially overlooking the daycare was a concern of his.
“That is something that will rest on my conscience if we pass this project,” he said.
Chan then said that the lack of community engagement on the project is especially concerning to him, and that active engagement needs to occur for every initiative that the city undertakes. “Why do we only see community when people are so pissed off that’s they’re here?” he asked. “How do we get community involved earlier on so we don’t get to this point here?”
President Sanchez said that the lack of public outreach did not just lie with the city. The developer had a responsibility to reach out to residents as well to get their input on the project.
As for the commissioners who supported the project, Commissioner Messina said that the parking garage is not as tall as the residents closest to the project fear, and would not affect their view, and added that the project met zoning and development requirements. This echoed her comments during the April 15 meeting, where she said the project is well designed and forward-thinking, and that development has been instrumental in revitalizing key areas of Alhambra like Main Street.
Dunkel-Soto said that the office building was a “responsible project” for the area, and that, if the developer sold the site, there would be no guarantee over who the next owner of the land would be or what they would try to build there. As was the case with Messina, she said in a previous meeting that the project meets all development and zoning requirements. She also said that the city could look at traffic impacts and consider installing another traffic light after the project is built.
Garcia said that he thought a four-story structure is appropriate on Main Street. He said that he did value the residents’ concerns, which is why advocated for a larger setback between the parking structure and the residences to the north and adding a traffic light on Cordova and Main. He supported the pedestrian-friendliness of the project, and that the added greenery that the developer agreed to in a previous meeting would further soften the look of the office building and garage from the vantage point of the neighborhood to the north of the development.
Residents met in the City Hall lobby after the hearing to celebrate the vote, and discuss strategy in the event that the project applicant appeals the Planning Commission decision to the full City Council.
“We have to keep showing up,” said Marisol Grier, one of the neighboring residents opposed to the project, to the assembled crowd. “The bottom line is if we show up we win.”