(Update: The Fair Political Practices Commission came to a decision on the allegations made against ex-mayor Keith Bohr. Details below...)
As previously reported, the city planners in Huntington Beach want to redo the city core, and stop all of their residents from taking barrels of money out of HB every time they shop at Westminster Mall or South Coast Plaza. The Beach and Edinger Specific Plan would drastically alter the core of Surf City over at least a 20-year period, mostly through rezoning to include mixed-use residential and commercial property and a higher density. The plan today goes before the City Council for final approval, though not before critics offer their two cents.
The most vociferous criticism comes from Huntington Beach Tomorrow, a grassroots organization that has concerns about what the plan does not cover. Karen Jackel is the president of HB Tomorrow.
"Our concern is that increased density is being proposed without a plan of where these things will go to support that density with relation to traffic and open space and the other components that are needed to add people to the city, fire [services], police, etc.," said Jackel.
Take, for example, low-income housing. The state of California mandates that city planners set aside a certain amount of land for it. Right now, a property located east of Gothard Street and south of McFadden Avenue is the current site proposed for affordable housing.
However, the city Planning Commission approved a plan change to designate the same land as the site for a transportation center. The city therefore must acquire property elsewhere for affordable housing. Land isn't cheap, and HB is broke.
"If we take the low income housing out, it's less likely that we are going to have clerks that can walk to work, and work at Bella Terra, and in the Beach and Edinger corridor," observes Jackle.
This scenario is true for much of the infrastructure that is needed to support the plan. The city knows what needs to be done, but they don't have the money to do it. Nor does the city appear concerned about working out the details before approving the plan.
The message is, if you build it, revenue will come. Hopefully, enough revenue in time to fix the sewers before they reach capacity and flood the streets with poop.
Another example: the plan recommends widening Beach to accommodate the increased traffic. But nothing in the plan addresses how this will be accomplished without moving the bodies buried at the Good Shepherd cemetery at Beach and Talbert.
The Huntington Beach Downtown Residents Association (HBDRA) aren't big fans of the plan either. In fact, HBDRA spokesman Kim Kramer hasn't been happy with the current City Council since the Downtown Specific Plan threatened to develop his neighborhood beyond recognition.
Keith Bohr, a real estate developer, Beach and Edinger Specific Plan booster and current city councilman, was the city's mayor in 2009 when HBDRA fought to keep Surf City development in check.
"You've got people on the City Council that are very pro-development for a variety of reasons," Kramer says. "Keith is a big developer, so it's understandable that he is very pro-development. . . . They're so heavily slanted, it's just difficult to give them any credibility."
In November of 2009, the HBDRA filed complaints against Bohr with the Orange County District Attorney's office and the state's Fair Political Practices Commission. They alleged his City Council vote to change the Downtown Specific Plan presented a conflict of interest and was thus illegal.
Bohr owns Team Companies, Inc., a real estate development company with a downtown office. He denied the allegations, and the complaints are still pending (Update: the Fair Political Practices Commission sent Bohr a letter stating that his vote did not violate the Political Reform Act).
Speaking of the City Council, Joe Shaw, also a member of the HBDRA Executive Committee, is hoping to win a seat there in the November citywide elections. Despite his association's stated problems with Bohr and the controversial building plans, he comes off like another pro-development candidate when talking about the Beach and Edinger Specific Plan.
"I think the plan they're putting together is sound," Shaw says. "I certainly support the idea of it, and we need to clear up some of the blight along Beach [Boulevard], and if this is the way to do it, then the city should certainly do it."
Speaking of blight, Simone Slifman and Stanley Smalewitz from Huntington Beach's economic development staff are both working the Shopping Center Blight Redevelopment study, which overlaps the Beach and Edinger plan.
Eminent domain on the strip malls along Beach that are considered blight could be option, Slifman and Smalewitz tell the Weekly, although the latter insists that they have no intention of forcibly taking anyone's property, even if the possibility of making more money does not incentivize the owners to sell or redevelop their property into a mixed-use, money-making machine. In the end, however, this policy decision is up to the City Council, and they have not excluded it as an option.
Smalewitz insists friendly condemnation is more likely. That process pays the property owner fair market value for their land, while giving them tax breaks to reinvest that money into another business.
Smalewitz thinks the anxieties of concerned citizens like Jackle, who are asking for more planning to deal with the increased density, are unfounded.
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"Numbers without context are scary," he said. "I found in my professional life, the longer you've been in one place, the more any type of change to that place is scary. That ranges from if a new gas station goes in your community, to if the neighbor three doors from you is a murderer.
"It's part of the general condition of man. Like I said, I don't get into those questions anymore."
The City Council has scheduled a public study session today at 4 p.m. The regular meeting and voting on the plan will continue at 6 p.m. in the City Council chambers. Including, of course, timed comments of three minutes or less from the public. Find your seat and get comfortable, because this promises to be a long one.