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If you missed the Thursday, June 2nd four-hour Planning Commission meeting, you missed lots of drama. You might want to watch, and everyone who cares about Sierra Madre, please put July 7, at 7 pm on your calendar. That is the next meeting with New Urban West and the Planning Commission, as they discuss and debate the many facets of what needs to be approved for this project to go through.

This is a Planning Commission we can be proud of. They all asked the hard questions, and discussed NUW’s representative Jonathan Frankel’s responses. Here are the major issues and the Commissioners’ concerns, paraphrasing their comments:

The Specific Plan becomes legally binding once it is approved by City Council. The Planning Commission doesn’t have design review authority, as it did for One Carter (Stonehouse), so they must get it right before the Specific Plan is passed. As it now stands, 4850 sq ft houses can be built on every lot. 76% of these properties could be 2 times what is allowed on any other property in Sierra Madre. All but one is 171% over what is allowable. This seems really egregious. There will be larger houses on smaller lots than in any area of town - and not just a little larger - 2 and 3 thousand square feet larger. These are big houses, crammed together, looking ‘cookie cutter’, as stated by one Commissioner. Now is time to dig a little deeper in terms of how the concepts of bulk and massing will be mitigated.

New Urban West’s calculation of square footage was different from Sierra Madre’s in the General Plan and the zoning codes. At the last meeting, the Commissioners asked representative Frankel to convert their square footage calculation to that of Sierra Madre’s zoning calculation. This resulted in a substantial increase, from 700 to 2600 square feet larger per lot. Interestingly, 2700 sq ft is really 3300 under NUW’s calculations. The difference in square footage is “breathtaking.”

A way to mitigate the cookie cutter image is to have curved streets rather than straight streets. Jameson Court has larger houses, but it is the curved street that sets them apart. Zoning maps are not in a straight line. Why can’t there be double-loaded streets? If it is too steep for that then it is too steep for the grid.

The Commissioners asked to look at other developments where NUW has built, which would be helpful, citing the need for more details. Frankel said they don’t have the exact houses plotted out – “We’ll do this with you,” - whatever that means. Frankel was told that the mitigation of the bulk and massing must be in the Specific Plan, that it is too “foggy” now. Several Commissioners pointed out that this is basic math to convert one from the other.

The Commissioners all agreed that because the Specific Plan is the primary zoning code for the property, it would be irresponsible for the Planning Commission to approve this as is. If they approve it as it now stands, the City Council will wonder why they only did half the job. The Planning Commission has spent a lot of time over the years standardizing these issues so that they can come to a consensus. They are merely asking for that. Once the Specific Plan is approved, it takes precedence over our Municipal zoning codes. The next step after that will be for the design review of the project as a whole, with the Planning Commission limited to two sessions, and City Council limited to two sessions, with one other session if necessary.

New Urban West’s Frankel’s response repeatedly was, “We need to advance the project. Make these as a recommendation. We’re asking for your support with recommendations.” He stated that NUW will not be changing the design of the project to incorporate the Commission’s recommendations, even though he kept suggesting the Commission approve it as is, and offer their recommendations/conditions to the City Council.

He emphasized over and over that this is not an R-1 project. He said, "this is very intentionally not an R-1 project, we are not proposing an R-1 project, we will not be modifying the SP to deliver an R-1 project. That is not going to be possible for us…"

Yet, the terms of the Resolution for the zoning change call for a change from Institutional to "One Family Residential R-1"; the zoning amendment map shows R-1/SP Overlay; and the Development Agreement attached to the agenda also calls for a zoning change from Institutional to "R-1 Single Family Residential."

He mentioned his investors again, as he did at the last meeting, and how this needs to move along. The substitute City lawyer, Matthew Summers, clarified that the Planning Commission was not ready to approve the project that evening. Frankel finally agreed to come back to the July 7 meeting.

That is how you stand up to a bully.

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