January 21, 2010

Did the City Council handle approval of the Almond Loft project fairly?

Back in November, Walnut Creek City Council members were concerned that there might be an inadequate number of spaces in the proposed nine-unit housing development at the edge of the Almond-Shuey neighborhood. They were so concerned that they all agreed that the project should go back to the Planning Commission. But, according to the Contra Costa Times, developer Galen Grant asked the council to reconsider his project without going back to the commission, and the council Tuesday night voted 4-1 to approve it. Says the Times:

So the council, in essence, agreed to hold a public hearing and make a decision on the project on Tuesday after that hearing. This move confused and angered concerned Almond Shuey neighbors, but the city attorney told the council it was legal. .... Some City Council members said they were uncomfortable with the way the meeting was handled.

And if they were uncomfortable with how the meeting was handled, four of the council members agreed to approve the project because, among other things, they found that the developer had addressed the chief concern of the project: parking. Back in November, council members expressed the desire for the project to have at least 18 spaces instead of the 14 that the developer initially planned to provide.

The project features seven seven single-family detached homes and one duplex, to be built on an oddly shaped half-acre fronting Oakland Boulevard between Almond and Trinity avenues. The developer presented a new plan with 20 parking spaces, "though some of those are achieved through 'tandem' parking, in which the space in the driveway of the garage is considered a space," the Times reports.

Mayor Sue Rainey was the solo vote against the project, echoing concerns among neighbors about the city's need to protect neighborhoods. The neighborhood's "character" was the chief concern among Almond-Shuey residents who opposed the project. Almond and Shuey avenues are lined bungalows built as early as the 1920s, though its outer area is zoned for high density housing. Apartment and condominium complexes front both Oakland Boulevard and Trinity Avenue, which surround the Almond-Shuey neighborhood.

One of the Almond-Shuey neighbors speaking out against the project, including the City Council's handling of Tuesday night's approval, is Tom O'Brien.  He wrote a guest commentary for this blog prior to the council's November 17 meeting. Back then, he expressed concern about "the city's process by which developers and city staff come together to advocate for a project make it difficult for the neighborhoods to get a fair hearing."

He sent in this commentary on Tuesday night's meeting: 

As it turns out, our voices were heard at the November 17th City Council hearing. We raised concerns over a number of issues related to the zoning, parking, driveway access, and trash collection. We requested that the project be returned to the Planning Commission to work out some of the issues we raised.
Somewhat to my surprise (cynic that I am), the Council agreed with us that the parking wasn’t really adequate, and that some of our other issues deserved further review. After a bit of discussion among the Council members, the mayor (at that time Gary Skrel) concluded that it was the consensus of the Council that the project be referred back to the Planning Commission.

Galen Grant, the Almond Lofts developer, privately contacted each of the Council members afterwards, and unbeknownst to us, appeared at the December 15th City Council meeting. During the “Public Communications” portion of that meeting, Mr. Grant told the Council that he had revised his plans to address the Council’s concerns, and requested that the Council’s decision to return the project to the Planning Commission be reconsidered. He asked that the project be heard again at the next (January 19th) City Council meeting.

By law (the “Brown Act”, named for Ralph M., not Edmund “Pat”, or Jerry), the City Council cannot take action on proposals made during “Public Communications.” This is only fair, because the matters raised in “Public Communications” aren’t posted in advance and therefore all of the concerned parties may not be represented.

Of course, fairness isn’t necessarily the City’s top consideration when it comes to pushing development forward.

While the Council couldn’t legally grant the developer’s request and schedule a hearing for the next City Council meeting, the Brown Act does allow the Council to refer a matter to the staff, and to ask the staff to come back with a recommendation at a later meeting. The staff recommendation can then be considered at a properly-noticed public hearing. That’s what Mayor Sue Rainey did – she asked the staff to provide the Council with a recommendation on “if and when” the project might be reheard at a later Council meeting.

The staff placed the do-over hearing for the Almond Lofts on the January 19th City Council agenda, as the developer had requested – not just a consideration of staff's recommendation to rehear the project – but the hearing itself! What ensued can only be described as an Alice-in-Wonderland public hearing (as in the trial of the Knave of Hearts, when the Queen of Hearts shouts "sentence first - verdict afterwards!) The Council held the public hearing, then voted to hold the hearing they had just held, then voted to approve the project based on the hearing they had just voted to hold after they held it.

The lesson to the neighborhoods is clear – even when a public hearing goes your way, as it did for us on November 17th, the outcome only lasts until you leave the Council chamber.


Anonymous said...

One word.......NO

Anonymous said...

Nice analysis. It's only a matter of time before Walnut Creek is nothing but a shopping district surrounded by apartments. I get the distinct feeling that the City Council would love that.

A year or so ago one of them (Rainey?) spoke at the opening ceremony for Little League. She talked about how wonderful it was raising her children in Walnut Creek, how they used to ride their bikes all around town, about the wonderful neighborhoods, blah blah blah. I so wanted to throw my shoe at her.

Anonymous said...

9:23 am

How fuzzy is Ms. Rainey's memory?

Her children were raised in Moraga NOT Walnut Creek. She didn't move to Walnut Creek until after her kids were grown up and out of the house.

Now, is this the kind of person you want guiding the future of our town? Think about it.......

Anonymous said...

9:23, don't forget about office space and of course all the bronze plaques.

Let's get rid of the people and bring back the walnut groves and the walnut processing plant. Remove the parking lots and add a few hitching posts. Remember those days....

THEY ARE OVER! Look around the country it's not just WC.

Ok, I'll go back to my wonderful neighborhood...maybe meet some people downtown for coffee and a walk if the rain stops.

Anonymous said...

9:57 AM

Of course we can't go back to the good old days and quite honestly there is alot about the good old days that we would not find amusing or convenient.

But.......we must be better stewards of what is left of the older parts of town that add so much to our community.

The "tear it down and fill it up with multiples" attitude has got to come to an end, now!

For the council members who don't live in or any where near the older parts of town, seem to feel that their neighborhoods are the only ones worth preserving. Wrong.

Wake up people! It is only going to get worse and pretty soon we will have a totally "plastic" downtown created because our council is "infill" mad. No matter, it doesn't affect their way of life in the end.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

9:50, (9:23 here) I remember the speech but I don't remember for certain if the speaker was Sue Rainey or someone else. I should have been much more clear about that. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

The only surprise on Tuesday night was that the final vote was 4 to 1 as Mayor Rainey voted for maintaining neighborhood character (thanks, Mayor). We all knew it would not go to the Planning Commission despite Skrel saying that was the council consensus in November and we all knew the Council would favor the developer. No news here.

AKA Soccer Mom said...

Dear 11:51,
Thanks for coming to the site and commenting.
One of your comments was "We will remember this come election time."

I did, however, have to remove the rest of the comment, because it was alleging a certain activity by people you could name, and I didn't think that was fair. Your other comment is opinion, and that's fine.

Hope that makes sense.

Anonymous said...

If O'Brien doesn't like the Council then maybe he should put his money where his mouth is and run for office.

It's oh so easy to criticize. Then again, this is protected by the First Amendment. But Obama & Pelosi are likely to change that.

Anonymous said...

Sol Henik tried (school teacher) tried twice to run against this crew. The money developers and others that comes in to support the current council and their hand picked successors is unreal, UNREAL! Mr. Henik actually turned down campaign contributions from a developer as he did not believe in it. This is a classic case study of how the council operates for side deals, name recognition, etc. It is sad but their machine is powerful and they are masters at spinning things come election time. Mr. Henik did well but was unable to match the campaign spending of the current council. They spent $10 to his every $1 to basically cover your mailboxes with false literature. The CC Times didn't endorese Sol as a candidate, yet they never interviewed him, again, they are all together in this. Sad, amazing and true.

Anonymous said...

Tesidents of WC typically want a candidate who has a track record. Silva,Simmons, Skrel, Rajan served on the various commissions before running for city council. I don't give a rats if Henik is a school teacher or not... I want to see a record of his decisions.

As far as big machine politics, that's just a loser's way of rationalizing their failure to get elected.

Anonymous said...

Anon 5:42 PM

Hmmmm. You state that you feel seeing a record of a candidate's decisions are important in electing a member of the city council. Did you honestly know how Silva, Skrel, Simmons and Rajan voted while serving on their various commissions? I seem to remember that Rajan sat at less than 10 Transportation Commission meetings before running for council. How much experience is that and how does that qualify him to sit on the council?

Have you really studied how folks get appointed to the various commissions in Walnut Creek?

Have you noticed how candidates for city council become annointed to run for open seats?

Will you be honest enough to admit that without the blessing of the Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Business Association and incumbent council members no member of the public at large has a chance to win a council seat?

Will you be honest enough to admit that without the developers money no member of the public at large has a chance to win a council seat?

We are not Chicago in the way in which we conduct our political campaigns but we sure as hell are a very close suburb and this I find very disturbing. So should you.

Anonymous said...

Anon 5:41: Obama is President. What experience did he have before serving and what decisions did he make before being elected President do you know of? I'm sure you would know that... right? I guess his track record is why you voted for him?

Anonymous said...

Anon 7:02 he was a senator from Illinois and from the tone of your post I assume you voted for McCain/Palin probably on the superior experience of McCain's running mate.

Anonymous said...

In answer to your question soccer The Almond/Shuey residents played by the rules, the developer and his friends at city hall manipulated the rules and as is often the case in WC, the pro development forces won.

Cindy Silva claims there were 20 letters written in favor of the project....all written by her friends at the chamber no doubt. Since when do we sacrifice the character of this city to massive housing devlopment?... Since Regalia sat on the ABAG Board and Cindy was annointed to replace her.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Anon 8;48,

Thanks for the anonymous libel. Or, your wild accusation has a factual basis you should share it.

AKA Soccer Mom said...

Dear 8:48 p.m.

Thanks for reading this and deciding to comment, but if you are going to make certain accusations here, it would be good if you could, as 8:53 p.m., be able to back those up.

CreekyDiva said...

Is it fair to tell residents one thing in November and then change your mind in December? Probably not.
Does the City Council care? Probably not.

Did the City Council and Planning Staff give the residents of the Almon/Shuey area the same consideration that they gave to the developer? Probably not.

Is the City Council truly concerned about listening AND hearing what local residents have to say about development in their neighborhoods? Probably not.

Is the City Council and Planning Staff on a first-name basis with the local residents as they are with developers who appear before them? Probably not.

Does the Planning Department and City Council have the same amount of compassion for the affected residents as they do for the developers? Probably not.

I could go on and on but it would be pointless as we see over and over again in our town how the legitimate concerns of neighbors are ignored by both the Planning Department and City Council when it comes to developer encroachment into their neighborhood.

"Preserving neighboorhoods", "listening", and "residents first" are just wonderful catch-phrases used during campaigns then quickly forgotten when elected.

The biggest sin of all, however, is the "state made us do it" line that gets hauled out all too often.

Anonymous said...

Cindy Silva misspoke (intentional?) at the City Council meeting about 20 letters from Almond Shuey residents in support of the project. Actually there was a last minute petition from Almond Shuey residents in support of the project. The petition was initiated by Almond Shuey resident Steve Reiser. Mr. Reiser is a real estate agent and potential city council candidate. Will his Oakhurst Properties be the listing agent for Almond Lofts? Will he run for council when there is a vacancy ? (He expressed interest in 2008 but stepped back when Simmons and Rajan decided to run.) Or is he angling for a commission appointment similar to the one given to Kristina Lawson, now on the Planning Commission, after she also stepped back to allow Simmons and Rajan to run almost unopposed, she of the Regalia law firm of the spouse of the former council member Gwen Regalia). Was the petition one to express neighborhood opinion or support a future business or political deal? All perfectly legal, especially in a "one party" city.

Anonymous said...

As a longtime resident, I liked the Council's decision. Small housing units close to BART are a good solution to housing needs for young people getting their first place.

Based on the discussions here, it appears that some people prefer to keep the vacant lots out of spite.

Anonymous said...

Thanks 11:30 am for the inside track on "politics as usual" in Walnut Creek. I wondered about those 20 people who Cindy mentioned. She never refers to letters against development...she is transparent in her efforts to promote developers.

Anonymous said...

ANON 12:57 pm

You make a great assumption when you state that small housing units close to BART will be purchased by young people. Or, maybe you know something the rest of us don't....
will it be a requirement that all new, smallish housing units anywhere near the BART station will have to be purchased by younf, first-time buyers? Let's go one step further in ths fantasy and not allow these buyers to have a private vehicle as they won't be in need of private transportation.

No one wants to see unsitely empty lots all around town....they just wish to see reasonable develoment of these lots that fit in with the character and density of the existing neighborhood.

Do you suppose that the mood of the city council would have been different if this development had occured in their neighborhoods?

Anonymous said...

Anon 5:07,
I thought that was one type of buyer that might fit in well, given the proximity of the proposed housing units to downtown and BART. That doesn't seem like a fantasy to me at all. You seem very bitter.
Anon 12:57

Anonymous said...

An overdeveloped project close to a council member's home would not make it through the front door at city hall.

Anonymous said...

Anon 12:57 pm

Not bitter, just very wary of any development decisions that are made by the City Council under the guidance of the Planning Department. The dog bites you once, you are a fool if you do not keep your eye on the dog at later encounters. When the dog continues to bite, then you have a real problem.

There are 600 proposed living units in the works for the BART station.....why is it necessary to promote further encroachment into the neighborhood with overbuilt development?

It is a fantasy (and very scary too) to have government
"engineering" where we are to live, what type of housing we are to buy, how many cars we are allowed to have etc. There has to be a point when the people rise up and say "NO MORE"!

If this Council continues it's path to "progress", we are all doomed.

Anon 5:07

Steve Reiser said...

Anon 11:31am, or should I just address you as T.O.? I’m not quite sure why you can’t drop your anonymity. I find it amusing that you claim to know so much about me – and everything seems to have some sort of cynical connection or conspiracy. Your facts are pretty accurate – your conspiratorial connections are flat-out wrong. Remember me T.O.? The guy who successfully organized the neighborhood during the general planning process to develop an overlay zone which protected the Almond-Shuey’s borders with height & setback restrictions?

Yes, I am a Realtor and yes, I considered running for the council. At the time, I was the incoming President of the Contra Costa Association of Realtors and decided against such a run because of time-commitment concerns. I assure you I am not ‘angling’ for a commission appointment. I have had no discussions of listing opportunities with this new project – but must disclose (again) that I AM a Realtor and make a living selling homes, so I would welcome the opportunity to sell them! :) However, as you know there are other Realtors in our neighborhood and other highly-qualified companies and individuals in Walnut Creek who would do just fine.

In my capacity at the Contra Costa Association of Realtors, I interact in quite a bit of Government Affairs. As an association represented at the local, state & national levels, one of our jobs is to advocate for the protection of private property rights. Over the past few years since I’ve been involved, I have met with virtually every elected official in our 11 city jurisdiction in an effort to proactively reach out, so when “hot issues” come up, we can have civil discourse as we advocate for private property rights. I have stood before many a city council to speak against such things as property transfer taxes, costly point-of-sale ordinances, business license taxes and other items that burden homeowners or the transfer of private property. I say this to illustrate that I have a bit of experience dealing with these guys and I actually think our council members do a pretty darn good job. There is a reason that Walnut Creek is considered the crown jewel of Contra Costa County and I don’t think it’s by accident.

Yes, it was me who organized a last-minute petition with 20 signatures. By the way, had I done that more than 48 hours before the meeting, I could have had 5-10 times as many signatures – I assure you that this is the majority opinion of the neighborhood. It is fairly common to come out and speak publicly in opposition to something, but when one is neutral or in favor of a position, people rarely take the time to show up. Everyone I asked about the project was either neutral or in favor of it – they were happy to sign a petition in support.

Guess what? If you buy, rent or live in a downtown neighborhood, you have to deal with the consequences of downtown living. Disclosure laws are such that if you buy here today, you would need to sign a document acknowledging items such as BART, freeway, traffic and potential development. It cracks me up when someone moves to or lives in downtown Walnut Creek, then complains about traffic and noise. It goes with the territory.

The reason I put the petition together was not for personal gain, nor attention. I put it together because I personally believe that this is a smart project and ideal for that lot.

Oakland Blvd has unfortunately taken on somewhat of a hodge-podge element of urban blight; empty offices, run-down homes and apartment buildings, a new pot club, weekly abortion picketers, and of course the big (eyesore) empty lot in question which is often used to park trucks and trailers.

This new development was reduced from 12 (attached) to 9 (detached, bungalow-style) units, consistent with the style of our neighborhood. Seven of these units front Oakland Blvd (with Oakland Blvd addresses) and will add an attractive element to a street sorely in need of it. Only two units will have an Almond Avenue address.

Anonymous said...

Steve....a developer often comes in with a project that will not be acceptable then when he "scales it down", he looks like the good guy. As you know, Sue Rainey still feels the project is too big as do neighbors and members of the community. Just because their address is Oakland Blvd. doesn't negate their density and the impact on a neighborhood.

Anonymous said...

11:09 AM

You are being far to generous to developers in Walnut Creek when you say "a developer often comes in with a project that will not be acceptable then when he "scales it down", he looks like the good guy". Just looking back within the past ten years, you should change "often" to "always" as that is how things work at City Hall. Developers pretty much know going in with plans just where their settlement point is and work from there. The planning staff, at the direction of the Council, serve the needs of the developer and bend over backwards to shepherd their projects through the process. Once in awhile a lonely council member will hold back but he/she always does so with the knowledge that 4 votes will go the other way. This is how the system works and will continue as this way everyone comes out eventually looking like the "good guys".

Anonymous said...

Mr Reiser.... anon 11:31 here
You address me as "T.O.". Terrell Owens, former 49er? I am not any "T.O." However I do opt to be anon in case I want to buy a "bungalow".

Steve Reiser said...

Hi Anon 11:31. My apologies for mistaking you for (not former Niner) T.O. - and my apologies to T.O. as well. You do, however, sing from the same hymnal. If you know so much about me, why not either identify yourself or contact me personally? I would welcome the discourse. What does your desire to live here have anything to do with your anonymity? Take care.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Reiser,

Non T.O. or any of the others who have posted on this subject but do wish to remain Anon. It may bug you that obviously many wish to remain Anon. and everyone has thei own reasons. Mine is I don't wish to be identified forever in this town by opinions I may have on one particular subject.

You have nothing to hide and alot to gain by having your name out in front. How's business?

obiwan said...

Hey Steve – the other T.O. here. Love the “sing from the same hymnal remark” – I’ll have to remember that for the next time the real estate and Chamber of Commerce group sends their heavyweights to a public hearing to support a dinky little project that has a big impact on the character of OUR neighborhood but will go unnoticed by most City residents unless they happen to be cruising Oakland Boulevard looking for the marijuana dispensary.

I can understand why Ron Brown, Executive Director of Save Mt. Diablo, who spoke in favor of the project Tuesday night, would favor infill development over urban sprawl. But come on – we’re not talking the Mercer of the BART Transit Village here – we’re talking 9 units. I stated publicly that I was OK with a PD zone – it was just a matter of whether better parking and access (not to mention saving a tree!) could be achieved if one or two units were eliminated. Mayor Rainey didn’t consider that such a radical idea.

You are my neighbor and I know you favor this kind of development. I have no problem with you going around the neighborhood trying to gather signatures on a petition supporting your viewpoint. I do have a bit of a problem with Council member Silva saying that she received “20 letters” in support of the project, when it was just a petition signed by 20 people (some owners, some renters) who didn’t bother to come to the hearing. We all know about petitions. Remember Neiman Marcus?

Signing a petition doesn’t mean that a person has followed the evolution of the project or even knows what the current plans look like – it just means that the spiel delivered by the petition gatherer sounded good to them – so they signed. I read about the 7 wonderful things the developer has done for the neighborhood according to your petition. I would have been inclined to sign it too if I hadn’t been aware that the revised plans still included a parking lot in the front yard and a view of garage doors and building backsides from our neighborhood street. The Oakland Boulevard side of the project will lend a little character to that hodge-podge of a street and that’s great. But it’s the Almond Avenue side, in OUR neighborhood, that I think could have been done better.

And then, there was the public hearing that the Council voted to hear after they heard it, on a project they voted to approve after they voted to hear the hearing they already heard. Is your idea of fairness anything that achieves the desired results?

Maybe we will continue to disagree on this project. Maybe on some other issues we can once again work together. (By the way – before you “organized” the neighborhood during the General Plan process – I seem to remember being the one who attended all the early GP drafting sessions and distributed flyers in the neighborhood raising the alarm when the recognition the Almond/Shuey had received in the 1999 GP was REMOVED from the original GP 2025 draft.)

Anonymous said...

Am I surprised? Not one bit.

Anonymous said...

this is great entertainment... no wonder why the CC Times is going out of biz! Can I please get Cindy Silva to chime in on this blog? I'm sure she just steams from reading these entries. Why are you such a debbie downer all the time? Huh Cindy?

Anonymous said...

Good discussion. Thanks Soccer Mom for providing a forum for those of us who are frustrated by the tactics of city hall and friends. It is reassuring to know that there are residents who fight to maintain the character of their neighborhoods...even follow the General Plan process as the city attempted to negate the significance of a neighborhood like Almond/Shuey.