Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Stalemate on the North Avenue

With the downturn in the economy, the City Council hasn’t had to deal with land use issues much in the last couple of years. On Monday night, we were back in the land use arena – considering how to fund our ongoing effort to create a community plan for the Westside and the North Avenue area. In the end, we decided to focus our efforts – at least for the moment – on a plan for the Westside area that is already in the city limits. And we did not make a final decision about whether to pursue a plan for the North Avenue, or whether to include Canada Larga Canyon in that plan.

Along the way, we looked a little like the Keystone Cops, as we often do on land use issues. The problem is not that we don’t know what we are doing, however. The problem is that the whole Westside/North Avenue area has several moving parts and each of us is assessing those parts differently.

What Monday night revealed was not just a deep division on the council regarding Canada Larga Canyon – we knew that was there – but also uncertainty and a lack of consensus on other issues as well. When the City Council has so many divisions and unknowns, it’s not likely we’re going to operate like a well-oiled machine. We’re more likely to do what we did Monday night, which is to grope, a bit awkwardly, for consensus and see how far we can get.

On one end of the spectrum is revitalization of the Westside area, which everybody wants to promote. On the other end of the spectrum is the deep division over Canada Larga Canyon – a beautiful area just off Highway 33 in the North Avenue area. In between these two extremes we are wrestling with three other things – the possible annexation of existing residential neighborhoods on the North Avenue; the possible redevelopment of the Brooks Institute and old Petrochem USA oil refinery sites; and the uncertainty over the future of the state’s redevelopment law. Most of the North Avenue area is not currently located inside the city limits, and the process of annexation makes it even more complicated.

The high-profile issue you’ll read about in the paper is Canada Larga Canyon. Landowner Buzz Bonsall would like to develop this property with up to 100 executive housing sites, while donating perhaps up to 2,000 acres to a local land conservancy. The council is split 4-3 on this issue, with 4 councilmembers (Weir, Andrews, Monahan, and Tracy) in favor of this and three (Brennan, Morehouse, and myself) against. This is complicated by the fact that Councilmember Monahan, who owns property on Ventura Avenue, has a conflict of interest on most votes on the Westside plan. He cannot vote on any issue except those issues that are related to Canada Larga Canyon. What this means is that the council voted 4-3 to include Canada Larga in the Westside plan (because he can vote on that), but then deadlocks 3-3 on virtually all other votes about the plan because Canada Large is included (because he can’t vote on those). Crazy, I know, but that’s what the Fair Political Practices Commission ruled. (You can read my reasoning for not including Canada Larga in this blog; I still stand by what I said in the blog.)

This is the issue that gets the most publicity, but it’s not the only one at play. Here are the others:

-- The city has for years looked to the Brooks/Petrochem property for possible redevelopment, but that area must be annexed into the city. Brooks Institute is an important economic driver for the city, and the college wants to expand at its current location. Meanwhile, the Petrochem oil refinery property is blighted and cleaning it up makes sense. But the council was cool to the housing-oriented plan for the properties produced by developer Vince Daly; and not all counilmembers believe that possible expansion of Brooks is worth the cost of allowing all the housing and annexing other parts of the North Avenue (see below).

-- Meanwhile, the Local Agency Formation Commission, which oversees annexations, is not likely to permit annexation of any property – Brooks/Petochem or Canada Larga Canyon – without also requiring the city to annex existing residential neighborhoods in the North Avenue. But these properties could be very expensive for the city to serve and a lot of the residents up there don’t want to be annexed. This dampens some councilmembers’ enthusiasm about the whole North Avenue plan.

-- And then there’s Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to eliminate the state’s redevelopment program. Much of the rationale for including the Brooks/Petrochem site in the plan is to generate redevelopment tax dollars that can be used father south in the Westside neighborhoods that really need investment. But Brown’s proposal would eliminate that funding source, making the whole idea much less attractive to many councilmembers..

You can see how all these moving parts make getting four votes for anything pretty tough. It’s all a question of what you are wiling to “pay” and what you get in return, and each councilmember has a different calculus in his or her head.

Most councilmembers would consider some type of North Avenue annexation, but not if it means annexing the residential neighborhoods up there that could be money-losers to the City. Some councilmembers think development of Canada Large might offset the cost, either directly through tax revenue or indirectly by providing housing for executives who might bring businesses to town; others are adamantly opposed to development of Canada Larga under any circumstances. Some councilmembers think redevelopment of Brooks/Petrochem may offset the North Avenue cost, but others are skeptical. The Petrochem developers want to build housing, while the council wants jobs. The prospect of redevelopment funds from the Brooks/Petrochem site could trump everything, but no one knows whether redevelopment will even exist as a legal tool in California three months from now.

But I don’t think it’s worthwhile to hold the Westside plan hostage over these other considerations. After all, residents and property owners there have been waiting for a plan – with a consistent set of development rules – for 15 years. Nor do I think it makes sense to debate these financial pros and cons in a vacuum. That’s why I decided to make a motion Monday night that – as it turned out – broke the deadlock for now. After several 3-3 stalemates (with Monahan sitting it out), I proposed moving forward with the Westside part of the plan while doing a fiscal analysis to determine what costs and revenues we’d get under various scenarios – with Canada Larga, Brooks/Petrochem, North Avenue residential neighborhoods in or out. That motion passed 5-1, with only Councilmember Brennan opposed.

After designating the North Avenue as an expansion area in the General Plan and making it a priority in our Economic Development Strategy, it’s a little embarrassing to appear so disorganized about it now. But there are a wide variety of opinions on the council and a lot of factors at work. We’ll probably never reach unanimity on what to do. But at least the next step will be informed by some real information about what the fiscal consequences of developing various parts of the North Avenue might be.