Despite no public support, strong resistance from neighborhood residents, and reservations from its Architectural Review and Planning Commissioners, the Pleasant Hill City Council has approved a plan to allow a massive hotel development project adjacent to a residential neighborhood on Ellinwood Way, on the 2.4-acre site of the former Chevy’s restaurant.
At its June 16, 2014 meeting Council members approved the plan to rezone the area for 4-story, 50-foot tall Hilton Homewood Suites project that significantly exceeds the legal building height and density allowed by the City’s General Plan and zoning ordinance.
The Hilton hotel development project is about the same height as the entry portal of the new Dick’s Sporting Goods store and will tower over the adjacent office buildings and homes. Remarkably, the Hilton project exceeds the City’s maximum allowable density by more than double.
Neighborhood Residents Don’t Oppose Hotel Per Se
Most Ellinwood residents don’t object to a hotel, since they currently coexist peacefully with a nearby two-story Marriott Residence Inn that complies with zoning rules. Rather, residents are concerned the presence of a large, bulky hotel building located a mere 100 feet from homes will reduce property values and add noise, traffic and crime to the area.
City Woos Hotel Developers – And Rolls Out the Red Carpet
The City’s Economic Development Manager, Kelly Calhoun, says the Hilton hotel development project was initiated by the City. Vacant properties don’t generate tax revenues. So last year, when restaurants reportedly failed to show interest in the former Chevy’s location, city officials began to woo hotel developers.
The hotel development project took area residents by surprise. The public first had an opportunity to learn of the project at the beginning of March, when the Architectural Review Commission reviewed the developer’s rezoning request.
In mid-March, the Planning Commission held a study session at which City staff stated the project would be subject to California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The purpose of CEQA review is to identify and, if feasible, mitigate a project’s significant environmental impacts. Curiously, the City later determined the project was exempt from time-consuming CEQA compliance.
At the end of March the City’s Economic Development Committee received a briefing from the developer, William Herrick. Thereafter Herrick’s rezoning request appeared on the Planning Commission’s agenda in early May and was approved by the City Council on June 16th.
Project Approval at Warp Speed
With the hotel development project fast-tracked it continues to move at breakneck speed through the final review stages with city commissions. The Architectural Review Commission has scheduled two meetings, June 26th and July 10th, to review specific project plans and recommend refinements.
Notably, even before securing Council approval, the developer took steps to acquire the property and says he expects to close escrow shortly. What promises were made by the City that prompted the developer to move forward to acquire property subject to height and density limits far below those planned?
Sign Language Speaks Volumes
During the June 16th City Council meeting, chumminess between some public officials and the developer was clear. The staff and some City Council members were friendly with the Hilton developer and architect, as they cozily kibitzed during meeting breaks.
As the developer exited the room following City Council approval on June 16th, he pointed at Mayor Tim Flaherty from across the room, grinned broadly and gave a “thumbs up” sign. In reply, the Mayor nodded and smiled. At that moment, residents realized the fix was in from the start.
Free Pass = Future Precedent
To get around its zoning laws, the City used the “Planned Unit Development Districts” mechanism – known as “PUDs.” PUDs are intended for large parcels that encompass multiple projects that typically combine a mix of uses. The Pleasant Hill Crossroads shopping center, where Kohl’s and Dick’s Sporting Goods stores are located, is an example of a PUD.
Creation of a PUD District allows flexibility to plan and develop uses and structures in a unified manner. A PUD must be consistent with a city’s General Plan and benefit the whole community rather than an individual property owner.
The Hilton project is significant because it may be the first time Pleasant Hill has approved the creation of a PUD for a single commercial project on a small parcel with a single developer.
Staff advised the City Council that creating a PUD “gives you full discretion over the project in every possible aspect.” Thus, instead of adhering to the 35-foot height limit, the City Council allowed the hotel’s height to reach 50 feet. And instead of adhering to density limits required for commercial retail and office zones, the City Council allowed more than twice the density levels permitted by the City’s General Plan, Zoning Ordinance and Municipal Code.
With Council approval of the Hilton rezoning/concept plan, it appears the City considers PUDs as “free passes” that allow developers to ignore zoning rules altogether, as long as the project offers “compensating benefits” to the community. This practice undermines the integrity of local land use decisions, defeats the purpose of the General Plan and creates incentives for government to pick winners and losers.
The Hunger [for Tax Revenue] Games
With the addition of the Hilton, Pleasant Hill will have 7 hotels and, in a tie with the City of Concord, will have the highest number of hotels of any city in the county. Pleasant Hill expects the Hilton to generate hotel tax revenues of up to $430,000 each year.
The Hilton project ordinance approved by the City Council says:
The [Planned Unit Development] PUD will include compensating benefits including resulting in increased funding for various City services through receiving hotel related transient occupancy taxes. In addition, the PUD development provisions will allow project effects to be minimized by concentrating the building footprint and reducing freeway noise to residences in the area [emphasis added].
Apparently it’s now Pleasant Hill policy that zoning rules needn’t apply when constructing tax-generating sound walls that benefit the community as a whole. Got it. Now, can the City show how much more effective a 50-foot sound wall is compared to one 35-foot?
The distorted interpretation of zoning restrictions applied to this project sets a precedent that may stimulate additional development that disrupts the quiet, low-rise, small town atmosphere cherished by Pleasant Hill residents. When tax revenue becomes the dominant focus of community land use decisions, quality of life declines.
Loss of Public Faith
Today public faith in government is at a record low, with good reason. Poor voter turnout and widespread disinterest in civic affairs is a natural response to the reality that politics is dirty business and, in local government, land use is among the dirtiest of all.
Rationalizations and distorted interpretations of land use laws can’t erase decisions that are plainly wrong. Such lawlessness spun as “economic development” comes at the expense of residents who must live with the impacts of elected officials’ decisions for generations to come.
If only elected officials were as responsive to residents as they are to developers, the world would be a better place. For Pleasant Hill residents, voting in this November’s City Council election might be a good place to start.