The Pleasant Hill City Council will consider a proposed 4-story, 50-ft. tall Hilton Homewood Suites at Ellinwood at its meeting on June 16, 2014. The city says the project could generate an estimated $450,000 in annual tax revenues to benefit Pleasant Hill. The proposed Hilton Homewood Suites project in Pleasant Hill, California, has generated strong opposition from residents and rekindled community interest in growth control.
The Pleasant Hill City Council meets at 100 Gregory Lane, Pleasant Hill on Monday, June 16, 2014. The meeting begins at 7:30pm. Plan to arrive early. The controversy associated with the Hilton-Ellinwood project is likely to draw a big crowd.
Threatened Neighborhoods: Political Déjà vu
Nearly thirty years ago, a 7-story hotel proposal in Pleasant Hill sparked a political firestorm, changing the course of the city’s history. Then, as now, residents of this quiet bedroom community strenuously opposed the high-rise, high-density development characteristic of neighboring cities.
To 1980’s residents, the high-rise Hyatt hotel proposal, and the adjacent 84-ft Terraces office building already constructed, signaled transformation of quiet suburbia into an urban commercial center – a trend residents decisively rejected.
Today’s Hilton-Ellinwood proposal has revived growth worries among residents who object to the project’s height and its bulky, massive appearance, as well as its traffic, parking, safety and noise impacts. Critics object to the city’s fast-tracking of the project without adequate review of its impacts and its violation of both the letter and spirit of Pleasant Hill’s building height limit initiative passed by voters nearly 30 years ago.
Initiative to Slow Growth, Preserve Neighborhoods
In 1986 Pleasant Hill residents passed Measure B, a growth-control initiative to limit building height to 2½ stories and a maximum 35 ft. Measure B was intended to preserve the city’s small-town charm and protect quiet neighborhoods from large-scale development, as well as to maintain the historic balance among different types and intensities of land uses. The measure did this by restricting the City’s ability to grant General Plan amendments that increase densities or change land use, unless specific conditions are met.
Measure B required the City to “amend the General Plan, the Zoning Ordinances, and City Policies as necessary to conform to the letter, spirit and intent of all [its] provisions.” While Measure B technically expired in 1996, its provisions have been incorporated into Pleasant Hill’s zoning laws and guide new development.
City Politics and “The Spirit of Measure B”
Following passage of Measure B, the slow-growth constituency elected a series of Councilmembers – including Terri Williamson, Kim Brandt and Mac Mace – who played key roles in shaping Pleasant Hill development, including its low-rise downtown retail district. In 2010, Measure B co-author and proponent Terri Williamson resigned from the City Council after serving 27 years, leaving the City Council without its strongest controlled-growth supporter and advocate for the first time since Measure B’s passage.
Williamson confirmed by e-mail that the authors of Measure B intended that the height and story limits would apply to all building projects, including those in “planned unit developments” such as that proposed for the Hilton-Ellinwood parcel. She also said Measure B’s height and story limits were intended to remain in place indefinitely adding,
If [Measure B limits] are seriously violated, it may be time to bring it back to the voters . . . I feel pretty sure it would pass again [since] it got such a high affirmative vote . . . .
Over the years the city has made exceptions to Measure B height limits to conform to the height of adjacent buildings or unique topography. But the “spirit of Measure B” has been a consistent factor in the city’s land use policies, decisions and, notably, its elections. Successful City Council candidates must at least pay lip service to the promise to “maintain Pleasant Hill’s small-town charm,” lest they run afoul of residents that steadfastly defend quiet suburbia from rezoning to increase density or change land use.
Developer Gets Profits. City Gets Tax Revenues. And Residents Get . . . the Shaft?
William Herrick of Herrick Properties, a Carlsbad-based group of family-owned companies that build and manage California hotels, owns the 2.43 acre parcel at the former site of the one-story Chevy’s restaurant on Ellinwood Drive. Herrick seeks to rezone the site from retail-business use to a “planned unit district” (PUD), in order to build a hotel that is exempt from the height and density limits established by Measure B.
Specifically, the rezoning would allow the proposed hotel height to be 50 ft. (vs. 35 ft.), 4 stories (vs. 2.5) and have density more than twice allowed by the city’s zoning rules (increase in floor-area ratio from 0.4 to 0.9). As proposed, the 50 ft. Hilton hotel would be substantially taller than any other building in the area.
Ellinwood homeowners have submitted a petition containing over 100 signatures of residents that oppose the Hilton project due to anticipated adverse impacts on property values and increased noise, crime and traffic. Pleasant Hill has six hotels, including a Ramada Extended Stay hotel near the proposed Hilton site, which makes an additional hotel unnecessary, residents say. In addition, homes in the quiet, park-like Ellinwood area are accessed by a two-lane road with no on-street parking, prompting concerns the proposed Hilton would worsen traffic congestion and parking shortages.
When the original concept plan for the Ellinwood Ranch area was developed, there was no consideration of locating a hotel there. Instead, compatible uses — such as restaurants, which would be conveniently within walking distance for area residents — were envisioned.
Departure from Measure B Growth Limits
The main objection to rezoning is that it represents a fundamental departure from the way Pleasant Hill has handled PUDs since Measure B’s passage in 1986. Project critics say Council approval of the Hilton rezoning application would be a radical break from the city’s past practice and policy.
Traditionally any deviation from zoning standards – including Measure B’s height limits – was justified based on the unique topography or compatibility with the height of buildings in the immediate area. Thus far the city’s architectural review and planning commissions have not sought to identify special site characteristics or other factors to justify departure from city zoning rules, nor does the staff report before the City Council do so.
City Council approval of the rezoning request would establish a specific zone with development standards unique to the property. Following rezoning approval, the developer would submit detailed development plans for final approval by the city’s architectural review and planning commissions.
Growth Limits Have Worked: The Proof is All Around Us
Today the potential for another voter growth limitation initiative looms over Pleasant Hill. Now more than ever, residents cherish the low-rise suburban look and feel of Pleasant Hill precisely because it’s more liveable and attractive than that of adjacent cities. When neighborhoods are threatened anywhere in Pleasant Hill, residents throughout the city feel defensive and their support for protections from unrestrained growth and urbanization increases.
Growth limits didn’t ruin Pleasant Hill, as its opponents argued “back in the day.” Measure B proved workable, as evidenced by the economic vitality and commercial success of today’s Pleasant Hill.
History has proven that successful development can occur without bending to the will of developers by compromising zoning standards. And history has also shown that vigorous efforts to preserve and protect neighborhoods boosts Pleasant Hill’s appeal and enhances residential property values.
Do Pleasant Hill residents want a high-rise Hilton, visible from the freeway and towering over its surroundings, serving as its most visible landmark to passersby? Do Ellinwood residents want their quiet neighborhood devalued and disrupted by a development that is incompatible with the area? No and no.