Op-Ed: Why we filed a lawsuit against the City of Alhambra

By Grassroots Alhambra

On March 27, 2017, Grassroots Alhambra filed a lawsuit against the city of Alhambra and a developer,the Charles Company.  The suit is centered on the proposed Alhambra Court development that includes a Lowe’s retail home improvement store, two six-story office towers, and a parking structure at 1111 S. Fremont Avenue, north of Mission Road.

There are several reasons for the lawsuit. We assert that the city and developer illegally bypassed environmental and zoning laws that are meant to protect Alhambra as a community. Many projects are built without sufficient consideration for the negative effects that they’ll have relative to the potential benefit. In this case, we wondered how it was possible for a project of this magnitude to be built in one of the most congested and contaminated areas in the San Gabriel Valley without requiring an environmental impact study. Upon closer inspection, the findings were alarming.

For a traffic analysis, the developer used a Lowe’s store in Poway, Calif., a city located in a more rural and less populated region of San Diego County, to estimate traffic impacts. The study was approved by Alhambra’s City Engineer and formed the basis for waiving a more extensive environmental impact study. In response, Grassroots Alhambra commissioned an independent review by Smith Engineering and Management, a licensed and reputable traffic engineering firm. In its review, the firm said, “Choosing the distant and limited-market Poway store as the sole data point for estimating the Project’s trip generation appears to be a clear case of cherry-picking an underperforming store to get a favorable (low) trip generation rate.”

The report went on to say that it was likely that significant traffic impacts were ignored, and that the city should conduct an environmental impact report.

We also found that the site was not zoned for retail development and is restricted to industrial and wholesale trade only. Such zoning protects the immediate environment from adverse effects associated with traffic, which is notoriously high for big-box retail. We traced the basis for this zoning violation to an obscure decision by Alhambra’s personnel director at the time, which was based on the opinion of then-Development Services Director, James Funk. Funk claimed retail home improvement stores were sufficiently similar to wholesale trade and lumberyards, which were permitted uses. This is clearly a stretch that would, at the very least, require substantive measures to alleviate the between 5,000 and 10,000 daily trips generated by big-box home improvement in comparison to the hundreds of trips associated with industrial uses, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. The impacts affect both the nearby community’s well-being and that of the wider population who rely on that area as a transportation thoroughfare.

Grassroots Alhambra made every effort to communicate our concerns and inputs toward a more equitable solution for the community, but neither the city nor the developer were interested in genuine engagement. At the sole community meeting held by the city on December 13, 2016 at the Emery Park Youth Center, the developer, their consultants, a Lowe’s representative and city staff refused to answer the public’s repeated request for an estimate on the number of car trips that would be generated, despite having already completed the traffic study.

On January 6, 2017, members of Grassroots Alhambra met with the City Manager, Director of Development Services, the City Engineer, and city staff.  Our inquiry as to why the public’s repeated requests for traffic estimates were not addressed was met with silence. When we asked the City Engineer for the basis of using a non-standard traffic analysis method that uses a remote store in Poway to draw conclusions in Alhambra, he could not provide any references or quantitative justification for why it was appropriate.  When we pressed for answers, the City Manager intervened and cut-off further questions.  The meeting degenerated, and the city did not respond to our concerns.

At the January 17, 2017 Planning Commission meeting to decide on the project, Grassroots Alhambra provided both written and oral input detailing our findings and the need for a full environmental impact study, which would be done by professionals to more thoroughly detail proper mitigations to alleviate adverse impacts. None of our input was put up for discussion by commissioners or staff. But, incredulously, some commissioners decided to make an ad hoc change to close nearby South Meridian Avenue to through-traffic in the hopes that it would solve the traffic problem.  Agreeing to this one questionable idea without a sound, professionally-provided basis is something the developer agreed to financially support to gain passage. 

Through donations from residents to cover the $940 fee, we filed for an appeal. The City Council served as the quasi-judicial body at the hearing held on February 27, 2017. Again, extensive written and oral input was provided to justify the need for an environmental impact study.  That only one councilperson made even the slightest reference to our findings was a sign that the decision to deny our appeal was fait accompli.

But that one reference from Councilmember Jeff Maloney was just as troubling. His stated reason for denying the appeal was his belief in the validity of the developer-provided traffic analysis.  He claimed that the analysis had been peer reviewed by three separate entities. The problem is that it is not a peer review when two of those entities are on the team that prepared the analysis and the third is the City Engineer. The first entity, Crown City Engineers in Pasadena, is a small firm who was contracted by the developer and deemed it acceptable to use the Poway data without a single reference of justification or precedent.  The second entity, Kimley-Horn and Associates, is a nationwide firm also hired by the developer who referenced the Crown City Engineers’ decision as their sole justification to use the Poway data for their traffic study. The third entity is the City Engineer, Ali Cayir of Transtech Engineers, Inc., who is a city contractor and who was unable to adequately defend his approval of the study in our earlier meeting.  It is inexcusable for Councilman Maloney to claim such a baseless justification.  The only independent peer review was the study commissioned by Grassroots Alhambra.

Upon denial of our appeal, we notified the city and developer of our intention to let the courts decide.  We were then contacted by the developer through their consultant, former Alhambra councilmember Mark Paulson, for a meeting to discuss our issues. Members of Grassroots Alhambra met with Paulson, on March 11, 2017 at his office.  He questioned our motives and asked, “Why would you care since you don’t live in Emery Park?” He also could not understand the purpose of an environmental study and stated that additional impacts would not be a big deal as traffic was already bad. We left the meeting stunned and saddened, realizing the magnitude of the chasm that exists between our mindsets. We filed our lawsuit on March 27, 2017 with the Superior Court of California.

The lawsuit also symbolizes a fight for the long-view. The need to generate tax revenues should never overshadow legal compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act.  It’s also about not allowing the use of developer-hired consultants to produce the official traffic studies and environmental assessments. More equitable development for all can be realized if we can fight against council members enacting “spot zoning” via General Plan amendments, Specific Plans, or specious zoning interpretations on a single piece of property at a developer’s request.

Grassroots Alhambra consists of hundreds of residents who are all volunteers.  We donate our own time and money to our community, and we act for the collective improvement of the region.  This appears incomprehensible to the developer, based on Mr. Paulson’s comments. And it appears equally incomprehensible to the Alhambra Chamber of Commerce, who wrote a piece in their Around Alhambra publication accusing Grassroots Alhambra of being comprised mostly of non-residents and who hired a lawyer who files lawsuits like this for “a quick payoff.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Grassroots Alhambra will never seek nor accept any monetary gain from this lawsuit or any other.

We look upon our members with reverence as they continue to donate countless hours and resources to push for a more just, equitable, and sustainable Alhambra that serves a diverse community.  This is something money can’t buy. Because of that, we wouldn’t bet against us.