POMONA >> After coming up with a way for developers to sail through the permit process and quickly start construction along some major thoroughfares in the city, some Pomona leaders are questioning whether they’ve made it too easy and are considering ways to add layers of oversight.
The potential move worries those who want to attract new business and development to the city.
Like “specific plans” in Pasadena and Irvine and other cities across Southern California, the Corridors Specific Plan — which covers areas along Garey and Holt avenues and Foothill and Mission boulevards — spells out exactly what the city wants there, down to architecture, landscaping, signage and more.
Because it’s so detailed, builders who design within the guidelines get final approval from the city’s Community Development director, not the seven-member Planning Commission, unless there is an appeal.
“I’m definitely concerned about all the authority resting in one person’s hands,” said Councilwoman Cristina Carrizosa, who was on the City Council when the Corridors Specific Plan adopted in 2014.
At the time, she wasn’t thrilled about the approval process. She still isn’t. It’s not that she doesn’t trust Community Development Director Mark Lazzaretto, but she can’t say the same for anyone else who might replace him in the future, she said at a recent council study session.
Joining the choir
In Councilman Robert Torres, who was elected in November, Carrizosa has found an ally.
Planning along the city’s major corridors “requires more oversight,” he said. “We don’t want to see these projects coming up without council approval.”
In effect, however, because the City Council approved the specific plans, his approvals represent the council, Lazzaretto said at the meeting last week.
According to a city staff report, “The over-arching goal of the (Pomona Corridors Specific Plan) was to attract private investment to the city’s aging commercial strip corridors and to ensure that development was of the highest quality.”
In short, a specific plan gives developers “certainty that if they purchase a property, they can develop it as the plan envisions, and give them certainty that their neighboring properties will be held to a similar standard,” the staff report reads.
A developer’s perspective
The way developer Ed Tessier puts it, the Corridors Specific Plan “creates a level playing field.”
“You know the rules you have to follow,” he said, adding other developers must also abide by those rules. That certainty translates into investment.
“You have more confidence in taking on all the advance expenses” a project requires, said Tessier, who has built projects in downtown Pomona and is a Pomona resident.
A specific plan also lets “you know the empty lot across the street isn’t going to turn into something awful that will undermine your project.”
So anything that threatens to change the rules of the specific plan could discourage development in the city, Tessier said
“Getting rid of a tool that expedites quality projects is very shortsighted,” Tessier said.
The recent impetus
Discussion about the Corridor Specific Plan came up last October when City Council members, including Carrizosa, received calls from worried constituents about a new development at 1680 S. Garey Ave. Half of the development’s apartments will be occupied by low-income families and the other half by former homeless residents.
Planning Commissioners and City Council members had limited information about the project because the proposal had gone through the expedited approval track.
After that experience, the council directed planning staff to take additional steps when such proposals are submitted, including notifying more surrounding neighbors and posting larger signs on site about the pending plans.
A call for change
While none of the council members last week was advocating a wholesale ditching of the document, several said the Corridors Specific Plan needs to be tweaked.
Elizabeth Ontiveros-Cole, also elected in November, sides with Carrizosa, saying she doesn’t like how the Planning Commission is left out of the approval process.
Councilwoman Adriana Robledo wants to extend the time someone can appeal Lazzaretto’s approval.
Carrizosa put a number on it: Instead of 10 days, the public should have 20 in which to appeal an approval.
The Corridors Specific Plan does call for a mixture of uses, including some high-density housing. Councilman Rubio Gonzalez said that element could be questioned if development plans were open to more scrutiny.
The specific plan allows for higher-density, multifamily projects as a way to attract recent college graduates and downsizing empty nesters who want to be close to transportation, shopping, jobs and entertainment, Lazzaretto said.
“Some council members and Planning Commission members are not fans of high density housing,” Gonzalez said, adding that while single-family homes may be preferable, they are not always affordable.
Since its adoption in 2014, the Corridors Specific Plan has ushered in several new housing developments, which Carrizosa finds attractive. However, those with large numbers of housing units could become problematic in the future, she said.
“Density means possibly more crime,” Carrizosa said.
Mayor Tim Sandoval wants to leave things as they are, saying the specific plan is “creating an environment for business that has a clear process” and one that comes with rigorous standards.
Currently, various developers are entertaining 20-30 projects within the Corridors Specific Plan’s geographic boundaries, Lazzaretto said.
Rolling back the process that allows expeditious approval of a development project will have a negative effect, Tessier predicts.
“Doing this would send the wrong message to the development community,” he said.