Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Happenings: A Sheraton Shame and City Bus Blues

FERRY: “Good evening everyone, how are you?”
IHSCV: “Annoyed that you’re late again and that you put so many public hearings on the agenda.”
FERRY: “…”

On this eighth night of the ninth month of the year 2009, the honorable Mayor Ferry invoked the Santa Clarita City Council Meeting[1] by telling the Japanese fable of “The House of a Thousand Mirrors.” In the story, a happy little dog trotted into the mirrored house wagging his tail. He looked around to see 1000 other little dogs wagging their tails back at him and decided that he would come back to the happy place often. A second little dog entered the same house, but he was ill-tempered. Upon seeing 1000 other little dogs growling back at his own growling face, he decided never to come back. The moral is one well worth remembering: keep dogs away from mirrors and Frank Ferry away from Japanese folklore.

After the flag salute and recognizing Brett Shields for saving some guy’s life (hooray!), City Manager Ken Pulskamp delivered a presentation to the City on the status of the “21-Point Business Plan for Progress”, SCV’s very own little stimulus plan. He claimed that the measures have been very successful, “having significant, positive effects on our local economy.” Tragically, this good news was tempered by the realization that Pulskamp would be going through updates on all 21 points of the plan, though he did so at a fairly brisk pace. Using unusually colorful language, K-Puls went on to say that business owners whom he and staff have interacted with have been “just elated” about the benefits of the various programs.

Updates from the five seated around the dais were given next. Councilmember Laurie Ender praised the recently held SCV Economic Summit as a “mini local think tank.” She also mentioned a memorial that would be held in Newhall for all those killed in the September 11th attacks. Councilmember Bob Kellar didn’t have much to say, so he applauded Pulskamp’s Plan for Progress and said “If you have a choice, shop local.” Councilmember McLean described how she went to a transportation meeting on the evening of her birthday (what a trooper!) and had gotten a big new idea for local public transportation. Mayor Pro-Tem Laurene Weste mentioned the approaching Santa Clara River Rally at the Newhall Community Center. Finally, Mayor Ferry touted recent ribbon cuttings (Magic Mountain Parkway, Old Town Newhall streetscape) and reminded us of various local benefits in need of patronage.

A very short Consent Calendar was passed without comment by Council or public. It really only consisted of approving some public transportation contracts and the results of the vote on restructured stormwater pollution prevention fees (76% of respondents were OK with the change).

Finally, we moved into the much dreaded realm of the public hearing. There were four on the agenda tonight. The first two hearings concerned landscape maintenance districts and sewer connections, respectively, and as might have been predicted, they elicited little interest.

The third public hearing formally opened up annexation talks betwixt the City of Santa Clarita and Crystal Springs. The first speaker from Crystal Springs was a gentleman who gave the impression that he and his neighbors all welcomed annexation, but the lady that followed him was against it, worrying about increased taxes and decreased property rights if her community became part of the City. There was no decisive action taken tonight, and the City will meet with residents to discuss annexation options more exhaustively.

The most contentious public hearing was reserved for last. It concerned an appeal of the Planning Commission’s approval of the proposed Sheraton Hotel. At seven stories, the hotel would tower about 80 feet on the parcel where the Greens currently resides. The appeal of the Planning Commission’s approval was filed by the “Positive Solutions Association” on several grounds. Perhaps most notably, the association found it unacceptable that the developer had been issued a Mitigated Negative Declaration that spares them the scrutiny and expense of a full Environmental Impact Report.

Of course, the reasons to despise the proposed Sheraton Hotel went well beyond the fact that an EIR hadn’t been drafted for the massive project. Renderings show the new hotel will be ferociously unattractive, an even uglier version of the sprawling beige boxes currently found in the heart of town. Residents of the Woodlands community will have open views--for which they paid a premium—marred by the Sheraton, and several homeowners from the area said they worried about their property values if the hotel is indeed built. With only one entry to the hotel, many of the twenty speakers against the project mentioned their worries about increased traffic congestion on already congested McBean Parkway.

An architectural elevation of the proposed Sheraton. Blech.

Then there was the matter of whether there was a need for more rooms in SCV. A woman who works at the nearby Hyatt came forward during public comments to say that she and her coworkers had taken a 20% cut in pay and hours because of low occupancy rates. Hyatt manager Chris Aldieri restated her concerns and said that more banquet space was needed to drive hotel demand in the area, not just more rooms. Unfortunately, the proposed Sheraton would provide only about half of the 13,000-15,000 square feet that Aldieri and others said would be desirable. Though those from the Hyatt were obviously biased towards self-preservation, their point about generally low hotel occupancy rates seemed sincere.

Mayor Ferry asked the much-needed “If there’s no business in the area then why are they going to build a 200-room hotel?” sort of question, but no answer was given. I hope someone will respond to this question the next time the issue is brought up.

Finally, there were some concerns about the Kew Fault and the safety of the site. The fault was discovered during the Northridge earthquake and runs through the Greens property. I don’t know all the technical jargon, but what was essentially the no-build zone around the fault was recently moved 50 feet after some kind of geological reassessment. Conveniently, this move makes the proposed Sheraton possible. Woodland homeowners had been reassured (some said guaranteed) that the fault would prevent any building that might obstruct their views, but things seem to have changed in the applicant's favor. The situation made many at least a little suspicious.

Before all of the comments I’ve summarized were made, Jeff Lambert, the former-boss-who-still-has-friends-in-City-Planning argued for the project on behalf of Brisam Valencia LLC. His higher-pitched, at-times faltering voice was followed by the smooth baritone of Allan Cameron, who spoke on behalf of the appellants. During remarks for the appellants, several concerns about adequate public notice and the availability of requested materials from the City led City Attorney Carl Newton to suggest that the matter be continued to another date. This would give interested parties enough time to gather and review information. The City Council and speakers were all in favor of this, so there wasn’t a lot of debate tonight. Still, the CC had a chance to give some brief comments before more heated discussions that will surely follow. At first blush, it was clear that McLean wanted the developers to really consider the need for more banquet facilities, and Weste asked that the developer give some thought to mitigations for those in the Woodlands homes and to consider increasing banquet space at the hotel or in the immediate area. Kellar said he had some concerns as well, but did not elaborate. At least to me, it seems that the concerns aren't of the magnitude that will lead Councilmembers to vote no on the project. Still, Lambert has drawn his line in the sand saying he simply can't downscale the number of rooms in the project. With limited flexibility to make concessions to the City Council, we'll see how this plays out. I just hope to minimize the amount of time that I have too look at/listen to/think about J. Lambert.

In the end, a motion was made to continue the hearing to an indefinite date and that motion was unanimously approved.

Finally, we moved onto Public Participation. Linda Ejedawe said that she was troubled by safety issues with our city’s new(ish) bus company, MV Transit. Bus drivers, she claimed, were treated poorly and made to work long hours so that they were driving with little sleep. A bus driver named Victor came forward to echo her remarks, saying that 20 bus drivers, many of them experienced, were fired when MV took over driving City buses. He said their motivation was cutting costs, as the company saves $5 an hour when they employ bus drivers with little experience instead of bus drivers with a decade or more of experience. He also found working conditions stressful and generally unpleasant. Both speakers went to speak with City staff after their comments.

Finally, Alan Ferdman spoke up for civilized bikers at Route 56, but didn’t find a sympathetic ear.

Closing fun fact: when it comes to the “Route” in "Route 56", City Manager Ken Pulskamp appears to says “ROWT” instead of “ROOT.”

[1]Here's the agenda for you, dear reader--check out the item on the Sheraton for more renderings and details and such

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