The Planning Commission and Alhambra’s development and planning department are in the process of revising the City’s 37-year-old Zoning Code. Residents question who they are representing more: residents or developers.
By Melissa Michelson
Developers asked first, with hour-long private interviews
Consultants Miller Planning Associates presented a “Code Analysis Memo” on December 7, 2020 to the then- Planning Commission. It included “observations and potential strategies for improving regulations to be more conducive and effective in achieving the vision articulated in the General Plan.”
The former director of Alhambra’s Community Development department, Marc Castagnola, said the presentation was “intended to provide the Planning Commission with an overview of the Zoning Code update project as we begin dialogue on topics that will need [to] be addressed throughout this process. This meeting is not intended to solicit public comment at this time…,”
To prepare the 49-page “summary of findings,” in May 2020, the consultants conducted nine one-on-one, in depth interviews – 8 in person and one on the phone – with individual “code users;” defined as, “people who have utilized the Zoning Code in Alhambra and/or have a specific interest in regulations that will implement the new General Plan.” Residents at large were not consulted for the document. The nine individuals’ opinions appear without their names at the end of the 50-page Code Analysis Memo under headings such as “attracting investment,” “flexibility,” “housing,” “parking,” “Main Street Corridor,” “Valley Boulevard,” and “streamlining of processes.” The nine individuals interviewed bemoan “barriers to development.” The Memo reads that “Comments received on the paper [from the nine individuals], from the [December 7 Planning Commission] study session, and further work with City staff will guide preparation of a preliminary outline and initial drafts of regulations.”
A community Zoom meeting did take place with the consultants on January 23, 2021 but 78 attendees shared 1 ½ hours of virtual meeting time. The nine individuals were given private sit-downs sessions.
“The Gang of 9”
The nine developers, investors and regular city council campaign donors who were interviewed are listed on the last page of the consultant’s document. Only two of them live in Alhambra.
A recent Public Records Request with the City of Alhambra reveals that no records or communications exist in Alhambra City Hall that shed light on how these nine men were chosen, who hand-picked them, or why.
- David Luo: A donor to former three-term Alhambra councilman and recent City Council candidate, Stephen Sham, and real estate manager with Cherng Family Trust Real Estate Site Acquisition Committee, which identifies and assists developers in getting necessary approvals for their projects, such as Panda Express.
- John J. Tilley: The owner of Shakey’s Pizza on Valley Blvd. and vocal opponent to Measure V (Alhambra’s campaign finance law).; He is (the owner??) of Grandview Investments. He publicly spoke in favor of the controversial The Villages development project on Jan. 28, 2021.
- Ken Lee: Real estate partner to James Chou of Pacific Plaza. He publicly spoke in favor of The Villages project on Jan. 28, 2021.
- Mark Paulson: Former three-term City Councilman who is now in the real estate business and serves as a paid consultant to developers seeking entitlements for large-scale developments. Paulson’s client, Arman Gabee, is now serving a 4-year jail sentence for bribery. Gabee brothers wanted to build a Lowe’s at Fremont/Mission, which entered into litigation with the community. Paulson’s client Lennar developers razed 268 mature trees on 11 acres at Valley/Marengo’s historic assisted living community to build 124 market-rate condos called “Woodhaven.” When Paulson was on the City Council, 2006 he made the motion to grant a spot-zoning change so that the Ratkovich Company could develop “The Villages,”1061 market-rate condos and apartments with over 4600 parking spaces at Fremont/Mission, which is now in litigation with the City. Paulson was also present at City employment interviews for the hiring of Marc Castagnola.
- Paul Talbot: Former three-term Alhambra Councilman, former Monterey Park City Manager, and co-founder with Mark Paulson of Gateway Consultants, an entitlement consultant business utilized by developers..
- Paul Wondries: large real estate holding of auto dealerships on Main Street Alhambra.
- Stephen Chan: Specializes in land acquisition for local and foreign investors. He has an office on Valley Blvd and worked closely with TAG-2 Medical Group to build the “Woodhaven” market-rate development in Alhambra.
- Ted Slaught: As of 2000, part of Hillcrest Development Partners that owns 8 properties on Main Street in Alhambra. He publicly spoke in favor of The Villages project on Jan. 28, 2021.
- Stephen Sham: Former long-time Alhambra cCouncilman who has received thousands of dollars from developers in campaign contributions over the years, and who recently ran an unsuccessful campaign for re-election to the Alhambra City Council in November 2022.
City Hall Staff – Mouthpiece for Developers
Jump ahead two years, the comments of the Gang of 9 from the Code Analysis Memo are starting to show up as City staff “recommendations” for new zoning regulations. Deputy Director of Community Development Vanessa Reynoso and Principal Planner Paul Lam are in the process of informing and guiding the Planning Commissioners on what to keep and what to revise in Alhambra’s Zoning Code.
For example, at the December 19, 2022 meeting, staff recommended no changes to the current code that allows by-right development (or automatic approval) in three types of zones throughout Alhambra, as reflected in written comments in the Memo.
Another comment from a two-year-old memo reads, “Give more responsibility and power to staff to make more of the routine decisions.” Similarly, Reynoso told the Commission the City should ‘remove impediments for development’ and spoke in favor of Minor Use Permits; she then assured them if they remove public Planning Commission oversight, her department would provide enough oversight.
In their third slide, Reynoso and Lam recommended keeping the current zoning language to allow 30 units of residential in the East Main Commercial zone, which also directly reflects two comments in the Memo.
More Transparency at City Hall
Over 150 people have signed a Change.org petition, “Call for Transparency, Due Diligence and Good Governance in Alhambra City Hall’s Planning Commission” as a result of unclear or deficient answers and documentation from City Staff to Planning Commissioners, lack of transparency on who is informing them and where their recommendations are coming from, and cancellations of public meetings.
After the Planning Commission comes up with a new draft of the Zoning Code, the public will be asked to comment, possibly at the January 17, 2023 Planning Commission meeting. The draft will serve as a recommendation to the City Council.
> A website with links to Zoning Code revision documents and videos is available here.
> The agenda and Zoom link to the next Planning Commission meeting on January 2, 2023 at 7:00 pm available here.
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