On the evening of Monday, July 25, Alhambra resident Alex Rivest rose to address the five members of Alhambra’s City Council. The council had just heard a presentation from the Parks and Recreation Department about options to expand off-street parking at Almansor Park. Standing in front of the council, Rivest delivered a blistering attack on proposed construction of a parking structure at Almansor as expensive and wasteful. And, he charged, the city had been “sneaky and disrespectful” in failing to inform the public adequately about its plans.
Adding parking at Almansor has been controversial since the proposal for a parking structure became public earlier this year. But Rivest also tore into city plans for funding it.
“Can any single one of you justify how building a multi-level parking structure, or destroying current city assets such as the tennis courts fits into the national objectives of the [federal community development] funds?” Rivest demanded. “After oral communications or even after I talk, you have the opportunity to answer this question. If you do not publicly justify how these projects fit into these CDBG national goals tonight, then your silence is also noted….
“If you intend to build a parking structure and destroy green space,” he continued, “then we think you are grossly misusing funds on this project.”
Bristling at Rivest’s criticism, Mayor Barbara Messina addressed him directly. “I will gladly answer your questions at public comment because you are so wrong,” she said. “Next card.”
With his angry attack, Rivest brought into the public record an equally controversial issue — the envisioned use of federal funds intended specifically to benefit low-income residents to build off-street parking at Almansor Park.
The federal funds are called Community Development Block Grants, or CDBG for short. This money is distributed by the federal government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development and has traditionally been used to provide affordable housing as well as other “community development needs.” Under federal rules, at least 70 per cent of the funds must benefit low- and moderate-income residents.
The matter was not settled at the City Council meeting last month and will come before the council again on Tuesday, Aug. 22, when city staff members have been told to report on alternative uses for the federal funds that Alhambra has available.
“There are other parts [of the city] that possibly have need for a better use of this funding,” Councilman Stephen Sham said to applause from the audience. “If the staff comes back with no alternative or some other alternative, then we make a decision of which way we want to go.”
According to Alhambra’s Annual Action Plan for Housing & Community Development, the city received a little over $800,000 in CDBG funds for the 2016-2017 fiscal year.
This would not be enough for any of the Almansor expansion projects that Martin Ray, the director of Community Services, presented to the council except to lease parking spaces from the neighboring Emmaus Lutheran Church.
Other options for use of the federal money at Almansor include expanding the existing surface parking lots, and adding basketball courts, tennis courts, a lawn bowling court and better amenities around the gymnasium.
The City Council wanted to combine the federal funds with money the city received from selling Fremont Plaza earlier this year to exercise one or more of these options. Located on West Commonwealth Avenue, Fremont Plaza had been developed by the Alhambra Redevelopment Agency and now houses businesses like Toys “R” Us and Party City.
The City Council approved its sale in March to Las Vegas-based CFT NV Developments for $24,880,000. After payments to the state and Los Angeles County, the city netted a little over $7 million from the sale. It then amended its 2016-2017 action plan in order to include this money along with its CDBG funding. These are the funds the City Council is considering using for additional parking and improvements at Almansor, and under complex federal rules it must be spent by next May 1st.
Many cities in California have used entities like Alhambra’s Redevelopment Agencies to buy up property and to turn “blighted areas into vibrant business centers,” as the Alhambra Source previously reported. In 2012, however, Gov. Jerry Brown ordered California’s cities to shut down their redevelopment agencies and sell off their properties, arguing that cities were not using these agencies to fight urban blight but were “needlessly” investing in private businesses instead.
City officials say this money from the Fremont Plaza sale is tied to “capital improvements” because of rules adopted in the city’s five-year consolidated development plan. At the City Council meeting in July, deputy city manager Jessica Binnquist explained that other city programs could not use this money because of restrictions on their spending but that capital improvements could do so.
“We have designated capital improvements for any of our program income and additional funding that we are to receive to the program,” Binnquist said. She added that the city had designated off-street parking as a priority and that Alhambra’s HUD representative and program manager had visited Almansor Park and concluded that additional parking met the CDBG requirements.
Along with Alex Rivest, other residents disagree. “I do not believe demolishing tennis courts and lawn bowling greens and then building a multi-level parking structure in the park constitutes ‘benefiting a Low and Moderate Income Area,” Cheri Cabot wrote in a formal letter of objection to HUD. “In fact, it diminishes the value of the already low and moderate income area by the destruction and construction.”
HUD regulations require that residents must be given a voice in the spending of these federal community development funds through “reasonable and timely access to local meetings.”
In Alhambra, residents would have had the opportunity to discuss use of these funds, including development of additional parking at Almansor, at meetings of the city’s Housing and Community Development Citizen Advisory Committee, but this year the committee has met only in January, March and April. The other monthly meetings have been cancelled.
Cheri Cabot said she first heard about possible use of the federal funds to build a parking structure at Almansor Park at the March 1 committee meeting, which she attended on behalf of the Alhambra Bowls Club. At the time, the City Council considered destroying one or more of ABC’s lawn bowling greens if the structure were built.
Cabot said Binnquist had talked about using the federal funds for the parking structure, but added that neighbors were objecting to the plan.
In an interview, Binnquist said members of the public had asked at the meeting about using the funds to finance a parking structure and she responded that it could be spent on that or other public improvement, including parks and streets. Any project that is proposed to be built with these federal funds will need to return to the Housing and Community Development Citizen Advisory Committee for approval and recommendation to the City Council. There is then a 30-day review period before the City Council may act. However, the committee, like other Alhambra committees, is only advisory, and significant decisions require City Council action.