Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Happenings: Our Plan's More Masterly Than Yours

NOTE: Yes, it's "Masterly," not "Masterful." The NYT Grammar Blog made the distinction a few weeks ago[1].

Tonight’s City Council meeting was one that reaffirmed a basic fact of life in Santa Clarita: the powers-that-be have a plan, and you best cooperate with it[2]. We examined this principle using the case-study of Mike Redmond and his property development plans. But first…

The meeting started 15 minutes late without so much as an apology to us hapless spectators. Mayor Pro-Tem Marsha McLean delivered the invocation. She recalled watching Channel 20 (why?, one wonders) when a program came on about how difficult daily life is for American soldiers in rugged Afghanistan. McLean was moved to gather donations for the local Prayer Angels and Blue Star Moms, groups that support our troops. Contact information is provided below for those who would like to help out. McLean noted that Blue Star Moms was a group that became especially dear to her while her son served in Iraq.

Santa Clarita’s supply of Boy Scout Troops appears to have been exhausted, so it was McLean—rather than a khaki-clad eleven-year-old—who led the flag salute after the invocation. She wore a stars-and-stripes neckerchief for the occasion.

During the perennially dreaded awards/recognition portion of the evening, Jose Gonzalez of Trek Bikes was recognized for donating a bicycle to the City. Apparently, the “Valencia” model bike has been used by staff when patrolling SCV’s mean, lawless bike trails. Gushed Councilmember Bob Kellar “If you’re into bikes at all, get one of these!” The other members of the City Council were similarly enthusiastic about the donation. At least we now have some idea of how much it costs to get a photo with and promotion from the City Council—about $749.99 (the MSRP of the bike[3]). Santa Clarita’s award-winning Blue Ribbon Task Force was also recognized for providing the community with 10 years of service. The group is committed to keeping teenagers away from drugs and alcohol and gangs and other stupid extracurricular activities. Ferry gave the group high praise for its success with rapid program implementation and for having a profoundly positive impact on SCV’s youth.

Following these presentations, councilmembers gave their individual reports. Words were said—many of them, in fact—to the effect of: blah-de-blah-Chamber of Commerce-blah-de-blah-Ken Striplin has a new son named Nathan-blah-de-blah-business-friendly-blah-de-blah-cross-valley connector-blah-de-blah-blah.

The Joint City Council/Redevelopment Agency convened next, and the handful of proposed actions passed. That is, results from an independent audit were accepted, the streetscape was declared a "benefit" to the Old Town Newhall redevelopment area, and approval was given for doling out $100K in small grants to Newhall businesses.

Then it was time for debate about Mike Redmond’s proposed development project. More accurately, it was SFXS Partners' project as represented by Redmond, but for all intents and purposes, the matter became one in which it was Mike vs. City.

Redmond owns a piece of property located at the corner of Newhall Avenue and Sierra Highway. It's in the neighborhood of Eternal Valley Cemetery, Polynesian Mobile Home Park, a Carl’s Jr., and the 14 freeway. He wants to build five buildings on it to comprise a mixed commercial development--office buildings, hotel, retail. Those familiar with the area know it’s not particularly picturesque. Still, it’s considered to be some sort of a grand gateway to SCV. (Presumably, it is a gateway to those travelling to/from Palmdale on the 14, a demographic we might do best to let just pass on by our Valley.) The City is keenly interested in the area and thus in how Redmond’s property is developed.

Lisa Webber, Santa Clarita's very professional, very articulate planning manager, led the City Council through a presentation on the proposed project and explained why staff were recommending that Redmond’s proposal not be approved. His property is next to one owned by USC, a parcel that cannot be conveniently accessed except by passing through Redmond’s property. These Redmond and USC properties are both long, narrow parcels that collectively form a “quadrant” that warrants its very own master plan, argued Webber. Her words were passive and indirect, but the idea of unrealized potential came through: “It’s been determined that a higher level of planning is warranted at this time,” (i.e., sorry Mike, your project’s not all that what we want).

The second part of the recommended action (after saying no to Redmond’s planned development) was to spend $199,200 of the Newhall Redevelopment Agency’s money to procure the services of Poliquin Kellogg Design Group. According to the agenda[1], PKDG would make a unified “conceptual architectural design and an economic feasibility analysis for the southeast quadrant of the Newhall Gateway area.”

When Redmond had his turn to speak, he seemed worn-out by the whole approval process but still good-natured. He said that he has spent more than 4 years and $500,000 working on plans for the property, which has a creek and other obstacles that make development planning very difficult. A number of supporters came forward during the period for public comments. They expressed hope that the project wouldn’t be delayed any longer and that his plan would make for a nice entry to Newhall on a difficult piece of property. A spokesman from USC, the adjoining property owner, also came forward. He said “The university was gifted this property” (“gifted” is not a verb—something he would know if he went to USC’s brighter and better neighbor, UCLA). Apparently, USC has no carrying costs for the property, so while it’s interested in selling, there's no hurry to do anything. Rather shockingly, he said “We’re just not very focused on Santa Clarita.” In any case, it was clear that USC was willing to sell, but Redmond hadn’t yet given them an offer they were willing to accept. Furthermore, the USC spokesman was generally supportive of Redmond, hoping to cooperate.

All in all, one felt a little sorry for Mike Redmond. He had put a lot of resources into planning out the future of the property, he had worked with Paul Brotzman and others at the City the whole way through, but he was now being told his plans weren’t grand or holistic enough to fulfill the area’s development “potential.” The longer the project was delayed, the longer he had to wait to realize profits from his investment and risk further objections. Though I’d personally prefer to see nothing built on the site, as development will require some destruction of and encroachment on riparian habitats, I did feel bad for him. In the story playing out before Council, Mike was a most sympathetic character and the City Planning Department seemed cold, controlling, and superior.

Mayor Laurene Weste knew Mike personally and was quite friendly and sympathetic to him, as were other members of Council. They didn’t want to deny his plans outright, and it was quickly suggested that they delay formally approving/disapproving them for some time. As to the matter of the conceptual plan and economic feasibility analysis, most everyone was in favor, especially in light of the new “Disney factor”, as Councilmember Laurie Ender called it (i.e., Disney's big new studio complex will be built just a couple miles down the road from the property). Some suggested that the plan, which would take about 4 months to complete, would also benefit Mike Redmond. The availability of professional analyses might make the area more attractive to other potential buyers or developers and provide information needed to maximize development potential.

In the end, two motions passed: one to table the (dis)approval of the Redmond/SFXS development until July, the other to spend $200K on the unified site plan and analysis. Reimbursement for the latter will be sought by whichever party develops the USC property (likely another developer or Redmond's group).

A ten-minute break followed.

The Consent Calendar was considered next, and all items passed with the recommended actions. There was a supportive comment on the item relating to CEMEX mining legislation (Congressman Buck McKeon’s umpteenth attempt to legislatively resolve CEMEX's plan to mine sand and gravel in our river wash), and Marsha McLean also made a comment in support of the League of California Cities ballot measure to keep the State from taking City money.

During Public Participation, Alan Ferdman announced that City Council candidates would be introducing themselves and answering questions at upcoming Canyon Country Advisory Committee Meetings. Johnny Pride, the candidate who appeared on a network TV dating show wearing nothing but speedos, is even scheduled to make an appearance; his planned attire has not yet been announced. Two men from Castaic/Hasley Hills also said that they want to annex into Santa Clarita. We'll think about it.

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