• people in boxes on a zoom meeting

      A screengrab of Alhambra City Council meeting on Sept. 30, 2021 (Photo – zoom)

      Wayne Ratkovich made a two-minute appearance at last night’s City Council Zoom meeting before the five councilmembers unanimously voted to deny his application for The Villages, Alhambra’s single largest residential development that would have been built on Fremont Avenue, one of Alhambra’s busiest thoroughfares, and on land that has been designated by the Environmental Protection Agency as “Superfund.” Recent soil samples revealed contamination in every building and site tested.

      By Melissa Michelson

      Like Alhambra’s Planning Commission nearly a year ago, last night the City Council directed staff to draft a formal resolution denying the development, which will be brought back to the next council meeting in a few weeks.

      Early on in the meeting, on behalf of The Ratkovich Company and Elite International Investment, Megan Moloughney, reminded the Council, “We have gone above and beyond” and “voluntarily” did more soil sampling.

      Alhambra community

      Approximately four hours of the six-hour meeting were taken up by the public.  As has been customary since The Villages was first heard at the Planning Commission in July 2020, due to the sheer volume of comments submitted, the City Clerk again relied on a robo-reader to read the public’s comments aloud.  Not one member of the public spoke in favor of the luxury development during the first two hours of robo-reading, and 95% of comments by live participants were opposed.

      The Council votes

      Councilwoman Adele Adrade-Stadler moved to reject the 790-unit development, which would have been in her district, saying the only good thing about it was the developer had come to an agreement with the carpenters union. Her motion was seconded by Mayor Katherine Lee. After an hour of discussion, and shortly before midnight, they were joined by Councilwoman Perez, Councilman Maloney and Councilman Maza, and they rejected the venture.

      Full coverage

      Sean McMorris of San Gabriel told the Council to “Let the developer do what he may after the vote is cast while you sleep well at night knowing you did the right thing by voting this project down. Something will eventually be built on that site, but let it be good for the community, not this shrine to inequality, disregard, and corruption.”

      Lia Gonzalez, 15 years old and resident of Alhambra, attested that when the construction is complete in 10 years, she won’t even be able to afford to live there because of the real estate market’s unaffordability. She shared that her father and grandfather had both died of cancer and had worked at the Exide facility in Vernon, and she’s worried about the Superfund contamination on this site in Alhambra.

      Michael Lawrence of Alhambra pointed out false statements made by the Ratkovich Company, like that The Villages would have been on a transit corridor, that the 5000 daily added cars would have no impact or that the project would have been safe for workers, residents, and families with children.

      “For many years to come, every person who sits in the traffic on Valley, Fremont, Commonwealth and Mission will ask, “Who is responsible for this mess?” That will be your legacy from now and forever,” addressing the City Council.

      Only a handful of comments last night were in favor of the development.

      Long-time former Councilwoman Barbara Messina, who was on the Planning Commission for the 7-3 vote to reject “The Villages” last November, was one of them. “It is your responsibility to weigh the residents and community – you really, really need to weigh it all, and not kow-tow to the small anti-everything minority,” she said.

      Ted Jimenez spoke for the Southwest Carpenters Union and alluded to an agreement the developer had made with the carpenters, but the agreement had not been included in any information packet for the city council or the public to see.

      Most of the comments centered around concerns that have been plaguing residents since The Villages first came before City Hall in December 2019: an increase in traffic congestion, lack of developer accountability for traffic mitigation, size and scale of the development, lack of significant affordable housing, environmental concerns, soil contamination, and corporate greed. “Deep pockets” was mentioned several times last night by different members of the public.

      Cliff Bender, another resident of Alhambra, thanked Elite/The Ratkovich Company: “The results of those [soil sampling] tests have now confirmed that the site is much more hazardous to public health than we had heretofore been led to believe.”

      “By not conducting more rigorous and comprehensive testing of the site until the last minute, and only after essentially being forced to do so, indicates to me that the developer has knowingly been willing to sacrifice the health of future residents and construction workers in exchange for their own added profit. It also persuades me to even further distrust any of their statements and claims regarding the appropriateness and qualifications of the project, as well as any further mitigation measures they may now propose.”

      The Council finally votes

      “Our concerns were proven to be correct,” said Councilwoman Sasha Renee-Perez.

      “Whether this gets built or not, the [soil sampling] research done is significant.”

      It wasn’t until the last meeting on August 10 that the developers agreed to conduct updated soil samplings on their site.

      She also commented on the application process: “The handling of this project didn’t go smoothly” and she wants to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

      She urged her colleagues and the City to investigate and make decisions sooner, but also blamed the developer for taking too long to respond and to provide asked-for information.

      “It’s been frustrating for staff, council and the community and takes a toll on trust.”

      Councilwoman Perez served on the second negotiating committee with the developer for six months, and as mayor earlier this year, demanded the Regional Water Quality Control Board and Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) reassess the site for toxic vapors in the soil, which sparked The Ratkovich Company to eventually re-hire Equipoise to check for soil contamination again.

      Councilman Jeff Maloney, co-participant in the second round of negotiations, disagreed and didn’t take any issue with the comportment of The Ratkovich Company. He also expressed his confidence in the water board.

      He voted to reject The Villages even though he said, “It isn’t easy any more just to say ‘no’ to a development, but also said it would be responsible for the Council to vote this project down.”

      Like Maloney, Councilman Ross Maza stood up for the Ratkovich Company, saying “the developer has gone through a lot of work.”

      He then reminded the public, “I’m not in it for any profit,” likely referring to the public outcry over the past year to the perceived conflict of interest that he as a practicing realtor in the area ostensibly disregards Alhambra’s Code of Ethics adopted in 2002, to “avoid even the appearance of conflict between public duties and personal interests and activities.”

      Soil contamination found

      The results of Equipoise’s soil investigations conducted last month, yielded a 692-page report: in every location that was sampled, there were harmful contaminants in the soil that increase the cancer risk by anywhere between 6 to 1000 times, according to the EPA’s 1-in-a-million cancer safe threshold.

      According to Ranajit Sahu, Planning Commissioner in Alhambra, “For each building or area, the risk calculations show cancer and non-cancer risks for “indoor worker” and “resident.”

      Renee Purdy, an executive officer of the Water Board, however, told the Council last night that the use of institutional controls like deed restrictions, a soil management plan and vapor monitoring would provide the adequate public health protection.

      Several residents questioned why the Water Board had given The Ratkovich Company its stamp of approval in the past with its multiple No Further Requirement (NFR) letters.

      Where does this leave Alhambra?

      Maza brought up scare-tactics several times, and admitted he is afraid of what could happen in Alhambra regarding traffic, affordability and density. “I’d prefer having the same project as opposed to alternatives,” said Maza, “but those alternatives are [real].”

      He then warned, “We’ve seen projects that got streamlined with over-the-counter approvals,” and “I don’t want to shut the door to development and be stagnant for the next 30-40 years.”

      Since January 11, 2021, each time “The Villages” public hearing was open, there have been far more opponents than proponents at Council meetings.  That the City Council would vote in alignment with the majority of the public at large is unusual to Alhambrans.

      “We can do a little better” with the site, said Councilwoman Perez last night. “I don’t know when, but not any time soon. We’ve come a long way, but we’ve not reached the point we need to be for our community to be happy.”

       

      [This article was updated to correct a quote by Councilmember Maloney. Oct. 5, 12:01 am.]


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