All eyes were on the city staffers at the last Planning Commission meeting on August 7, 2023 as residents of Alhambra complained that the commission has acted in the interests of large developers rather than those of the community.
By Melissa Michelson
During public comment, residents expressed having no confidence in the City Staff because of language in the 2021-2029 Housing Element that solely favors “The Villages” investors, Wayne Ratkovich and Elite International Investment. Since 2017, “The Villages” has been one of Alhambra’s most controversial developments. Slated at 790 mostly-market rate units, the development got rejected by the Planning Commission and City Council in 2020 and 2021 respectively.
The developers sued the City last year and lost their lawsuit, but soon after re-submitted an application with the City to build The Villages under a state-wide loophole called “Builder’s Remedy.” In the meantime, the Planning Commission had been deliberating Alhambra’s zoning code and corresponding Housing Element.
Residents speak up
Speaking over Zoom, Alhambra resident Cliff Bender took issue with a repeated phrase that had not been brought up in any prior planning commission meeting and would benefit The Villages site. The new language “Urban residential uses in a Professional Office zone if included on a site with a minimum size of 30 acres” grants “special privileges and advantages” to one, and only one, parcel and owner in the city: The Villages.
The only property in Alhambra that is over 30 acres is The Villages, which was granted a spot-zoning change from Industrial to Professional Office in the early 2000s.
Bender also took issue with the language referring to a new process for approving developments: a Minor Use Permit instead of the current Conditional Use Permit, which brings items to the Commission for consideration when there are exceptions to city code.
“[A Minor Use Permit would give] complete authority to staff to evaluate these exceptions and grant approval.” He said this new type of permit reflects the preference of nine individuals representing real estate and developers’ interests who were granted one-hour private telephone interviews several years ago about what they would like to see changed in Alhambra’s 30-year-old zoning code to “streamline the project application and approval process to the point of eliminating public input and citizen oversight of the process (the Planning Commission) as much as possible and leave approval of a project entirely to staff. (See Alhambra City Hall’s Marching Orders).
“A great many of us, especially some long-time Alhambra residents, simply do not have confidence in staff to make these decisions. …there has been a history of projects being recommended for approval in Alhambra simply on the basis of what a developer has claimed to be true. No detailed review by staff, no verification of claims or facts, no challenging of assumptions- only a superficial review to make sure that all the required boxes on the forms have been checked.”
Former member of the Planning Commission Dr. Ranajit Sahu questioned why the Residential Planned Development (RPD) process had been removed altogether. “The record simply does not at all justify the elimination of the RPD, period. It misleads by stating that the California Department of Housing and CommunityDevelopment (HCD) identified it as a “considerable constraint” when there is absolutely no indication of such “identification” by the HCD in any of the four HCD’s own comment letters received on the Housing Element.”
He also pointed out an “inaccuracy” in the Housing Element that “The Villages” units are allegedly required to meet state RHNA mandates to build a certain number of units in Alhambra.
Mike Lawrence, 35-year resident of Alhambra, questioned how the City Staff could include the statement “There Are No Environmental Constraints on Any Parcels in Alhambra” in the Housing Element draft. “After decades of data and recent evidence submitted to this Planning Commission, I cannot even begin to understand how staff could present such a blatantly false statement.”
Public Hearing continues August 21
The public hearing on the Housing Element continues on Monday August 21, after which the public hearing on Zoning Code update is slated to begin.
> Participate in or download the videos of the meetings here: cityofalhambra.org/AgendaCenter/Planning-Commission-10.
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