Get CP&DR
  • Become a subscriber
    Get access to all CP&DR premium articles including the past article archives.
Connect with CP&DR

facebook twitter

Follow us on Facebook and Twitter

Articles by Category
Solimar Research

Planning's Good, Bad And Ugly Updated

Nov 1, 2006

Hundreds upon hundreds of real estate developments, planning efforts, economic development projects and related matters have received coverage in the pages of CP&DR during the past 20 years. We present here an update on some of the most important, and some of the weirder, stories from that period — while keeping in mind that most of these stories still have not ended.

 

Bolsa Chica

One of the longest running land use battles in Southern California — the fate of the Bolsa Chica wetlands in Huntington Beach — opened a new phase in August when ocean water flowed freely into the wetlands for the first time in 107 years.

Hunters diked the marshland in 1899 to gain better access to the thousands of migratory birds that used the area as a feeding ground. Oil drilling followed after World War II. By the 1960s, the oil was beginning to run out, and developers set their sights on ambitious waterfront housing. In 1985, the Orange County Board of Supervisors approved a plan for 5,700 homes, a marina, shops and an oceanfront hotel.

But litigation by the environmental group Amigos de Bolsa Chica succeeded in stopping those and subsequent development plans. Under an agreement worked out in 2002, most of the wetlands are now restored, and development of 349 homes is being allowed on 68 acres of a mesa above it. Grading work on the mesa has begun, said Alexia Swanepoel, executive director of Amigos de Bolsa Chica.

The wetlands area is now owned by the state, which acquired 300 acres in 1973, and nearly 900 acres in 1997. The tidal inlet that opened during August allows ocean water to flow through a 360-foot-wide channel. The water flowed following an extensive, $147 million clean up and dredging of the property. More than half of the cost was borne by the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which paid mitigation fees in order to expand their facilities. Many oil wells were removed, while others will remain until they are tapped out.

Bolsa Chica was once considered one of the world's greatest natural habitats for wildlife and game birds. Bird life is again increasing, Swanepoel said, and future studies will track what could be an important environmental turnaround.

 

Celebrity City

The low rolling hills between Redding and Red Bluff vaguely resemble the Ozark Mountains. During the 1990s, dreamers thought they could make the area into a West Coast version of Branson, Missouri, the Ozark Mountain town that has grown into a thriving country music destination resort.

The proposed Celebrity City project envisioned performance centers with tens of thousands of seats, 20,000 hotel rooms, thousands of housing units and extensive retail centers on approximately 3,200 acres just west of Interstate 5. Eager for economic development, supervisors in rural Tehama County approved general plan amendments and rezoning for the project in 1994. The promoters, however, never lined up funding. They later floated the idea of building a large racetrack on the property. That idea also fizzled.

Then Del Webb arrived. The development company and Pulte Homes proposed to build one of Del Webb's well-known planned communities for senior citizens on the Celebrity City property. Sun City Tehama would have about 3,500 units for people at least 55 years of age, 250 non-age-restricted houses, a 44-acre commercial center and the usual Del Webb amenities, such as a golf course, community center and walking paths.

Tehama County supervisors approved the Del Webb project in October. However, Caltrans has threatened to file a lawsuit, arguing that the county is not requiring Del Webb to pay its fair share for widening I-5 between Redding and Red Bluff to six lanes.

 

Yerba Buena redevelopment

A once forlorn section of San Francisco's downtown is one of the city's most visited and vibrant areas today. Yerba Buena Center, located just south of the city's Financial District, is an example of what redevelopment can do for a city — given enough time and investment dollars.

Created shortly after World War II in an area of seedy hotels, the redevelopment project area is now San Francisco's premier museum district, and is home to the city's convention center, new hotels and office buildings. However, it took years of planning and litigation before redevelopment occurred.

"It really is quite brilliant," said Jim Chappell, president of SPUR (San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association), an urban planning advocacy organization. Redevelopment of the area has, he said, "totally changed that part of the city, and created a tremendous number of jobs."

The newest piece of the Yerba Buena Center Redevelopment District is the expanded San Francisco Centre, which opened in September. It is home to the second largest Bloomingdale's in the nation, as well as other shops, office space and entertainment venues. San Francisco Centre, which was added to the redevelopment district in 1999, features a restored Emporium department store built after the 1906 earthquake. San Francisco Centre's expansion links the Union Square shopping and theatre district to the north with Yerba Buena's South of Market attractions.

One of the biggest attractions in the redevelopment project area is Yerba Buena Gardens itself, a city park on a roof above the George Moscone Convention Center. Nearby are a children's entertainment area, restored buildings, the Metreon shopping and entertainment complex, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The Contemporary Jewish Museum recently broke ground in the area and upon completion will join the Museum of the African Diaspora, which opened in 2005. Fundraising continues on efforts to build a Mexican museum in the area.

 

Sierra Nevada Forest Plan

The Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment, also known as "the framework" for management of federal lands in the mountain range, was developed by the Clinton administration and adopted in early 2001. The plan was in effect from 2001 until 2004, according to Earthjustice attorney Greg Loarie, who represents environmental groups challenging the current plan.

The Bush Administration created its own plan upon taking office, and it went into effect in 2004. The Bush administration's Sierra Nevada plan is being challenged in federal court, where a ruling is still awaited. Environmentalists and Attorney General Bill Lockyer challenged the plan in February 2005, the latest volley in a long-running effort to come up with a management plan governing 11.5 million federal acres in the Sierra Nevada.

The Clinton-era plan established a protected network of old forest areas to maintain suitable habitat for old-growth-dependent species, such as the California spotted owl. The plan put large trees off limits to logging, but provided for logging of 191 million board feet of timber in each of its first five years.

The revised framework, released in January 2004 by the U.S. Forest Service, called for more than doubling the amount of timber being cut, to an estimated 450 million board feet a year. It eliminated protected old forest areas and allowed larger trees to be cut under the idea that the harvesting of big trees would prevent catastrophic wildfires.

Legal arguments regarding the resort plan were heard in June by U.S. District Court Judge Morrison England, Jr. A broad coalition of environmental groups brought the challenge, according to Loarie. The court may hold additional hearings on that case, or hold additional hearings on other lawsuits brought over the plan, he said. Whatever the ruling, it is sure to be appealed because the stakes are so high, Loarie said.

 

Mammoth Lakes redevelopment

In 1997, the Town of Mammoth Lakes adopted a redevelopment plan for 1,100 acres, about one-quarter of the funky ski town on the eastern side of the Sierra. Redevelopment boosters expected the plan would help turn around the fortunes of the town, which struggled while business at Mammoth Mountain ski area declined.

Local landowners, though, complained that redevelopment would primarily benefit Intrawest Corporation, a Canadian company that builds and operates upscale ski resorts. Intrawest had recently purchased a one-third interest in Mammoth Mountain and had acquired about 250 acres in town.

Indeed, Intrawest soon proposed to develop more than 2,000 mostly upper-end housing units and a new town center. Meanwhile, though, local opponents were making history in court. In July 2000, the Third District Court of Appeal threw out the Mammoth Lakes redevelopment plan because it included non-blighted and undeveloped territory for which private development was already proposed.

"The facts of this case exemplify the misuse of redevelopment power the Legislature sought to curb," Justice George Nicholson wrote at the time.

The decision was the third in a string of four important cases (the others involved Murrieta, Diamond Bar and Upland) in which appellate courts narrowly interpreted 1993 redevelopment reforms. The Mammoth Lakes case has been cited numerous times in court and during legislative hearings, said attorney Murray Kane, of Kane Ballmer & Berkman, who won the case for the group Friends of Mammoth.

"The courts are throwing the bad apples out. They have shown that the Legislature was serious when it tightened up the definition of blight," Kane said.

Invalidation of the redevelopment plan, however, appears to have done little to slow development in Mammoth Lakes — which suggests that the opponents were correct, but that they are losing the larger battle anyway. In 2005, hotel mogul Barry Sternlicht purchased the ski resort with plans to take it upscale.

"We have a lot going on here," said Community Development Director Mark Wardlaw, who arrived in town in 2005. "We're pretty much focused on our destination resort development."

Two upscale condo-hotels are under construction, and there are proposals to expand the village core, develop a new lodge at the base of the ski mountain, build a condo-hotel and retail project elsewhere in town, and even to develop 25 acres of affordable housing. There's also a proposed master plan amendment to allow between 900 and 1,200 housing units of various types in the town's Snow Creek area.

Meanwhile, a plan to expand the airport to accommodate large jetliners was grounded in 2003 when a federal court ruled the environmental review of the project was inadequate.

 

Martis Valley

Development plans for the Martis Valley, just north of Lake Tahoe, seemed to be in high gear during 2003 when the Placer County Board of Supervisors approved a community plan for the 25,000-acre area that called for 6,000 homes, ten to twelve golf courses and upwards of 1 million square feet of commercial space and hotels.

But after environmental groups sued, settlements were reached that allowed smaller-scale development to occur in exchange for preservation of swaths of open space. Those settlements laid the groundwork for more conservation and development agreements and the apparent end of litigation.

Under a settlement announced in March, the largest of the developments, Siller Ranch, was reduced to half its original size. Originally planned for 1,118 housing units with 45 holes of golf, Siller Ranch is now planned to have 653 units with an 18-hole golf course and 120 acres of open space. The settlement was reached between developers DMB/Highlands and the groups Mountain Area Preservation Foundation and Sierra Watch.

"The discussions over Siller Ranch led to a broader collaborative agreement that takes significant steps towards securing a better blueprint for all of Martis Valley," said Tom Mooers, executive director of Sierra Watch.

Mooers was especially pleased with a $72 million funding program created as part of the settlement that will be used to preserve open space and create worker housing in other parts of Martis Valley. The program, funded by a conveyance fee on property sold at Siller Ranch, will raise $18 million for habitat management, $18 million for workforce housing and $36 million for open space protection during the next 25 years.

Under the same settlement, a proposed luxury development at the 280-acre Hopkins Ranch was turned into open space and housing for local workers.

The settlement followed a 2005 decision by a Placer County judge who ruled that the Martis Valley community plan was illegal. That decision was appealed, but in September, environmentalists, developers and the county signed a settlement that ended the litigation. The plan adopted in 2003 will remain in place, but agreements with the individual developers have effectively cut the number of potential housing units in half and reduced other development opportunities.

Among those other agreements are two regarding projects that are now under construction: 1,450 condominium units at the Northstar-At-Tahoe Ski Resort, and the 462-unit Eaglewood project located adjacent to Siller Ranch. At Eaglewood, 306 out of 475 acres were donated as open space, and 56 units there are being built as affordable housing.

The various deals are expected to raise $100 million for land conservation, habitat restoration and affordable housing development over 25 years. Mooers estimated that 5,000 acres of Martis Valley land has received permanent protection through the agreements.

 

Napa economic development

Many California cities have reclaimed their downtowns and made them destinations for visitors and locals. At the close of the 20th Century, downtown Napa appeared poised for a renaissance.

The key development planned in Napa was the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts, also known as Copia. Several other developments also were proposed during an economic boom, designed to turn the mostly blue-collar community into a destination for some of the 5 million visitors a year to Napa Valley. A flood control project would open up the Napa River to the downtown, and visitors would find the following: a new waterfront retail market and spa, a restored 1879 opera house, and a convention center and hotel on the fairgrounds near downtown. Copia was predicted to draw 300,000 visitors a year when it opened in 2001.

That was the vision, anyway. But by 2003, Copia was drawing only 150,000 visitors a year, at which point the center's programming was revamped to place a greater emphasis on wine tasting. Admission fees were reduced earlier this year from $12.50 a person to $5. The fairgrounds project never was built.

Still, things have definitely changed in downtown Napa. New restaurants, wine tasting rooms, stores and day spas have opened.

"We're starting to develop that visitor experience that you used to only get upvalley," said Jennifer LaLiberte, project coordinator for the Napa Community Redevelopment Agency. The restored opera house and a restored mill have been open several years, and they cater to locals and tourists.

During the next 18 months, a pedestrian segment of the flood control project should be completed, as well as a mixed-use retail, residential and office project. Hotels are springing up: the River Terrace Inn opened during 2003 with 108 rooms; a 165-room Westin condo-hotel is due to break ground within walking distance of Copia this fall, and another 500 high-end hotel rooms are expected to be built downtown during the next several years.

Near Copia, a 22,825-square-foot public market has been approved. With shops, food vendors and restaurants, the project will have the same developer and concept as San Francisco's Ferry Building.

 

Newhall Ranch

Plans for the massive Newhall Ranch development in the Santa Clarita Valley of Los Angeles County were first announced in 1994, and first approved by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in 1999. But don't expect the first units — in the 1,400 home Landmark Village — to be built until 2008 or 2009.

After the project's initial approval, the county faced lawsuits that challenged the adequacy of the water supply and raised questions about the project's effect on a federally endangered fish that lives in the nearby Santa Clara River. The project's developer, Newhall Land and Farming Company, was able to buy water from a variety of sources in the region, including private companies. The earlier lawsuits were resolved, and no lawsuits are currently pending, according to Newhall spokeswoman Marlee Lauffer.

The specific plan for the project calls for nearly 21,000 homes, along with business parks and schools in the master-planned community west of Interstate 5. A total of 20,000 jobs are expected to be created in the community's commercial and business projects.

Approximately 6,000 acres of the 12,000-acre Newhall Ranch property are to be dedicated as open space in both Los Angeles County and adjoining Ventura County. A joint powers authority was formed this year to preserve the open space, which will be dedicated over a 20-year span.

But the open space preservation has not received universal kudos from environmentalists who fought the project.

"This area is what they call ‘high country' and is really not buildable anyway," said Lynne Plambeck, of the group Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment. "The flood plain area is not preserved."

 

San Emidio Ranch

The Central Valley was the location of numerous "new town" proposals during the development boom of the late the 1980s. Many of those proposals faded away when the economy soured during the early 1990s, but one of the projects that received approval was also one of the biggest: The 94,000-acre, 25,000-unit San Emidio Ranch project at the valley's southern tip, near the Interstate 5 Grapevine.

The Kern County Board of Supervisors approved the gigantic San Emidio Ranch project over the objections of environmentalists in 1992 during a period when Kern County lacked a planning commission. However, the project never got started. There were financial issues, and then developer Dale Poe died in a car crash. Ultimately, Poe's children kept a slice of the land while the Wildlands Conservancy acquired 97,000 acres of the 109,000-acre ranch.

The conservancy, a private nonprofit organization, has established Wind Wolves Preserve on its portion of the property, which stretches from the valley floor high into the Tehachapi Mountains. The preserve provides wildlife and native plant habitat with minimal public access.

Meanwhile, Kern County continues to receive periodic inquiries about the new town specific plan, said Ted James, the county planning director. "I know there have been efforts to buy that up," he said.

However, the specific plan is 14 years old. It would need significant updating and a fresh environmental review, James said. The source of water for the new town project was always an issue and would likely be an even bigger issue nowadays, he added.

 

Diablo Grande

This master-planned resort and second-home development was in the news over the summer when a large wildfire burned nearby. But Diablo Grande, a development on 30,000 acres in western Stanislaus County, escaped unscathed because firebreaks held back the blaze.

Originally proposed during the late 1980s, Diablo Grande has taken shape over the past twelve years west of Interstate 5. First, two golf courses that are considered among Northern California's best were built in the mid-1990s. A winery soon followed.

First approved by the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors in the fall of 1993, Diablo Grande development was slowed by lawsuits over endangered species and water. The project was the subject of the landmark 1996 decision Stanislaus Natural Heritage Project v. County of Stanislaus, 48 Cal.App.3d 182, in which the court ruled that analysis of a long-term water supply may not be postponed until after project approval.

Eventually, a water supply for the former grazing lands was secured when the water district formed for Diablo Grande arranged a water transfer with the Kern County Water Agency, according to Curtis Creel, manger of water resources for the Kern County agency. As for rare species, a federal judge in 2004 ruled against environmentalists, who had contested federal permits related to rare species. Those permits allow construction of the project's first phase of 2,000 houses and commercial development while developers acquire and protect habitat on the property and nearby to protect the endangered California red-legged frog and San Joaquin kit fox. Currently, 12,000 acres are saved in permanent conservation areas.

At this point, infrastructure for the new community still needs to be built, according to Kirk Ford, Stanislaus County deputy planning director. But, gradually, a community is taking shape in the foothills of the Diablo Range 20 miles south of Modesto, and eight miles from the city of Patterson. A total of 300 homes have been built since 2003, and another 1,700 homes have been approved on more than 2,000 acres. Also approved are a hotel and conference center, and a commercial center. For now, residents must drive to Patterson for food shopping and other needs.

Diablo Grande's developers, which include Irish pharmaceutical magnate Donald Panoz and Wall Street investment banker J. Morton Davis, plan to build on a total of 8,000 acres, according to Dwain Sanders, vice president of development for Diablo Grande. They will need additional permission from Stanislaus County to build any more homes. Sanders said the company may ask for permission shortly to build on 1,200 acres.

 

Mountain House

Many new towns were proposed in San Joaquin County during the 1990s, but only one was actually built. That exception is Mountain House, located on the outer edge of the San Francisco Bay Area, near the border of Alameda and San Joaquin counties. Although originally approved in 1994, Mountain House construction did not commence until in 2001. The community's first school opened in 2004.

Eventually, Mountain House is planned to generate 22,000 jobs and have a population of 44,000 living in 12 pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. For now, Mountain House is a bedroom community of about 3,500 residents, with most homes occupied by Bay Area workers willing to make a long commute each day. There are only two small businesses in town, although more are planned soon.

About 1,200 homes are currently inhabited. If there are not enough jobs by the time 2,000 homes are occupied, safeguards in the new town's master plan allow the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors to slow residential growth. County Supervisor Leroy Ornellas, who represents the area, expects the Board of Supervisors to conduct a hearing on the area's job-housing imbalance. But Ornellas said he doesn't expect the Board to take any major action, such as halting housing construction.

"I could not imagine we would take an ax to the project," Ornellas said.

Additional jobs may arrive by the end of 2007, after Pegasus Development of Pleasanton builds the first phase of a commercial project, with 65,000 feet of office and 80,000 feet of retail space. The Pegasus project is eventually supposed to be a 1.7-million-square-foot business park. Another project, a satellite campus for San Joaquin Delta College, is also expected to add jobs when it opens during the next few years. Ornellas said the college project was hurt by rising construction costs.

Mountain House is currently overseen by the county Board of Supervisors, but when the development contains 1,000 registered voters, they will have a chance to choose independent directors to run the community service district that provides municipal services there.

 

Belmont Learning Center

It is difficult to conceive of a more troubled public development project than the Belmont Learning Center, located in a rough neighborhood west of downtown Los Angeles. However, the problematic project may finally have a happy — albeit expensive — ending. A new high school could welcome students in less than two years.

Belmont Learning Center was conceived during the late 1980s and early 1990s as a state-of-the-art facility that would decrease the burden on overcrowded Belmont High School. In 1996, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) began construction on a unique project: A year-round school for 5,000 students, about 120 housing units, a retail center anchored by a grocery store, a community center and public recreation facilities. The project was estimated to cost at least $90 million.

By early 1998, the district had eliminated nearly all of the non-school components of the complex project, and the first of what would be many investigations was under way, this one led by a state Assembly committee and focused on conflicts of interest for LAUSD vendors. The following year, LAUSD halted the project because of methane gas on the site, which had been an oil field decades earlier. Then the investigations really got rolling. An internal LAUSD investigation suggested criminal malfeasance. Steve Cooley defeated Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti in a campaign centered largely on Garcetti's handling of a Belmont probe. (In 2003, Cooley announced that he would pursue no criminal charges in the Belmont scandal.) The mainstream and alternative press made Belmont a lead story for months.

Meanwhile, LAUSD abandoned the project altogether — until Roy Romer took over as superintendent. He vowed to complete the school but was soon vexed by the discovery of an earthquake fault directly beneath some of the new buildings. In late 2004, the district tore down the new, never-occupied buildings on top of the earthquake fault.

The demolition of the majority of new buildings on the Belmont site may have been painful, but it was part of an effort to actually complete the project. Now called Vista Hermosa, the new school is planned to house 2,600 high school students. Three existing buildings are being converted into a 2,100-student high school, and a separate 500-student academy is being developed for a total of 102 classrooms, according to LAUSD spokesperson Binti Harvey. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy is building a park that will include a soccer field and picnic area. Project development also includes installation of a methane collection system.

Start to finish, LAUSD may end up spending $300 million on Vista Hermosa, which is on track for completion in the spring of 2008.