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Friday, July 18, 2014

Opinion: Are Alhambra leaders abusing their power and overdeveloping the city?


By Michael Lawrence and Eric Sunada, July 16, 2014

 Plaza on Main and Third streets | Photos by Matt Siriouthay
Plaza on Main and Third streets

There is no question Alhambra is growing. High-density residential and commercial developments are breaking ground around Alhambra: the Zen Terrace on Olive and Commonwealth, Plaza on Main at Fourth and Main, and Casita de Zen at Third and Main, to name a few. Yet is this “smart growth"? We don’t think so.

A planning tool little known to residents has created the loophole to enable many new developments to far exceed density recommendations in the city's zoning ordinance. All California cities are required to have a General Plan for development that outlines sound planning. Alhambra’s has policy guidelines for open space, parking, zoning regulations, and density. Unfortunately, in the last few years we have seen a disturbing trend: City leadership has been circumventing the General Plan to further irresponsible residential and commercial development projects by using Specific Plans — detailed land-use and development plans for individual projects in a defined area within the city.

Casita de Zen on 3rd and MainCasita de Zen on Third and Main 
While the city is technically not breaking the law, they are abusing policies by not using the Specific Plan in the way the state intended. According to state law, Specific Plans must be consistent with the General Plan. Specific Plans are created by city staff and developers and approved by City Council after recommendations from the Design Review Board and Planning Commission. Properly used, the Specific Plan is a tool for cities to develop a community and bridge the gap between bland, congested projects and livable, historical neighborhoods. A city could use a Specific Plan to specify architectural design features for a set of commercial developments that complement the city’s history, or to outline open-space requirements and sustainable landscaping features.

An example of a properly used Specific Plan is the 1991 Sante Fe Specific Plan Area (SFSPA), the blueprint for what is now The Alhambra on Mission Road and Fremont Avenue. THE SFSPA specified that the five property owners were to create “a campus-like design motif” using brick pathways and brick buildings in a Classic Georgian design. The plan required that new buildings and structures be linked to existing ones with similar architecture, and it called for landscaped open areas to connect the various areas of the campus. The SFSPA is an example of a Specific Plan that is more in-line with what the state intended: giving a cohesive vision for development of a reasonably large area.

Unfortunately, in many recent cases Alhambra has not used the Specific Plan as a bridge between the General Plan’s outlines for thriving communities and individual developments (see Table 2). Developments like Alhambra Place, Pacific Plaza, Casita de Zen, Main Street Collection, and the Front Porch project in the Midwick Tract have Specific Plans that do not reflect the ideas of the General Plan and are grossly out of alignment with the idea of sound area planning. The city's over-stressed infrastructure, lack of open space, and lack of affordable units represents an irresponsible use of the Specific Plan tool.

The city has been enabling developers of Alhambra’s downtown area, already zoned for high-density development, to further increase density. Specific Plans have been used to build units at a rate more than double what is allowed elsewhere in the city (see Table 1). Alhambra's Central Business District, the area around Garfield Avenue and Main Street, allows for mixed-use developments to have 43 unites/acre, which is already higher than the 24 units/acre allowed for lots less than 20,000 square feet and 30 units/acre for larger lots zoned elsewhere in the city. But Specific Plans have exceeded even this. For example, on Main Street they have allowed up to 80 units per acre for Casita de Zen.

Homes on Carlos Street set to be demolished in the Midwick Specific PlanHomes on Carlos Street set to be demolished in the Midwick Specific Plan. 
The city has also used Specific Plans to quietly rezone areas to fit developers’ needs. In the gated community development in Midwick Tract, developer City Ventures’ Specific Plan calls for rezoning a mixed-density street to high-density. General rezoning has wide implications and requires the city to notify all those affected prior to public hearings. Specific Plans, however, are more geographically focused and require only those living within 300 feet of the development to be notified, a much smaller group of residents and stakeholders. The Specific Plan allows the city to make these changes quietly without input from a wide group of residents who may not want another high-density development in their city. 

More troubling is the use of Specific Plans in other projects to reduce parking and open space requirements, which then creates a precedent for ongoing developments. In the staff analysis for the Alhambra Place Specific Plan, for example, reduced parking is compared to the Alhambra Pacific Plaza development that was approved at less than the required two spaces per unit. Staff use this as justification to continue this practice.  

Table 1.  General Plan zoning ordinance
General Plan Zoning Districts
Maximum Density
R-1, Single Family Residential
5 units/acre

R-2, Limited Multiple Family Residential
12 units/acre

R-3, Multiple Family Residential for lot sizes < 20,000 ft2
24 units/acre

R-3, Multiple Family Residential for lot sizes > 20,000 ft2
30 units/acre

CPD, Commercial Planned Development
30 units/acre
Generally applies to the lots on the north and south side of Main St.
CBD, Central Business District
43 units/acre
Overlay on the CPD bordered by 3rd St. on the west, by Almansor on the east, by Elgin St. on the north, and by Bay State St. on the south.

Table 2. Recent development densities permitted under a Specific Plan.   General Plan zoning restrictions are shown for comparison.
Specific Plans
Density permitted per the Specific Plan
Density restrictions per the Zoning Ordinance
Alhambra Place (old Mervyn's center)
65 units/acre
43 units/acre due to CBD re-zoning
Based on 260 units on a 2.924 acre residential building and its 1.085 acre parking structure
Fifth and Main (old library site)
41 units/acre
30 units/acre

Casita de Zen (NE corner of Third and Main)
80 units/acre
43 unit/acre due to CBD re-zoning
76 units/acre is what is being built.  The Specific Plan allowed for up to 80 units/acre.
Alhambra Pacific Plaza (old Super A market site)
66 units/acre
30 units/acre

Alhambra Walk (south side of Bay State St, east of Garfield, and north of Commonwealth)
48 units/acre
30 units/acre

Many residents including ourselves have expressed their frustration with the large-scale developments to City Council, but negative input from the residents is generally answered by “We are mandated by the state to do this." This is not accurate. Although the state requires the city to incorporate future housing needs in their housing elements and sets numbers of units the city should build each year, the state cannot mandate building, and has no say in the requirements set forth in the General Plan. Using the state housing requirements as an excuse to produce Specific Plans with reduced requirements is disingenuous. And to add insult to injury, the city isn’t addressing the affordable housing needs that are at the root of the state requirement.

Using the Specific Plan to bypass the General Plan results in uncoordinated efforts that seek short-term gains. The resulting hodgepodge, built without proper attention to residents and public infrastructure, means residents will suffer traffic congestion and live in communities that are not aesthetically appealing. Open space goes by the wayside for retail establishments du jour.

Park View Place at 200 North Chapel Avenue.Park View Place at 200 North Chapel

Quality growth includes public open space, provisions promoting walking and biking, inclusive housing stock, and sustainable businesses that offer valuable goods and services while paying livable wages. It should be based on a plan that is beneficial to all Alhambrans. Elected city officials, who swear to serve residents, are ignoring their constituents’ needs and catering to developers’ economic interests.

Alhambra city government must address the concerns of the residents by adhering to the General Plan and using the Specific Plan to enhance the quality of life for all Alhambrans.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Eric Sunada is running for City Council, and Michael Lawrence is his campaign manager. They are also longtime Community Contributors to Alhambra Source. Alhambra Source opinion pieces do not represent the views or opinions of the editorial staff. Alhambra Source does not endorse candidates and invites all candidates to share their opinions.