Biggest current news is that city council consideration of Paul Petrovich’s Gateway 2 proposal to annex 154 acres directly south of Gateway Center, of which 62 acres would commercially develop as a “program EIR” (Environmental Impact Report, required by state Environmental Quality Act, CEQA), extending specific reviews / approvals within a time-phased build-out of this project — has suddenly been delayed — likely at least until September, as the council will recess during August.

This delay is quite interesting, since planning commission consideration (at a special meeting on July 7) was seemingly correlated with city council consideration on July 19, to potentially approve this project prior to its summer recess.

City hall has moved forward this matter, upon the bare minimum of public notice allowed by state law: 10 days prior to relevant hearings — on this occasion surrounding a national holiday (July 4).

Several complaints about this severely cramped timeline (along with other key issues) were registered during planning commission consideration, yet this panel voted to recommend approval of Gateway 2 with a split vote and an abstention.

But, things have lately gotten off-track, despite the clear intentions and plans of city hall. Until the agenda for this July 19 city council meeting was released on July 15, city hall’s word was: The Gateway 2 item will surely be included.

Indeed, the decision to suddenly inactivate this agenda item was apparently made so very late as to use a strike-over upon the official paperwork, rather than simply omitting this item.

____  Reason(s) For Delay  ____

Officially, the reason for this sudden delay is said (by city manager) to be an inability to prepare the related Development Agreement (DA) between the city and Petrovich, in time for this July 19 council meeting. Of course, at some — barely — earlier time, it obviously was assumed that this DA would be ready to sign.

Saying that this DA isn’t ready to proceed appears similar, in this instance, to admitting that there may not be a council majority in favor of project approval on specific terms presently advanced by Petrovich.

The fact of the suddenness of this delay is the remarkable thing. Why so trouble to move forward, with especially arranged planning commission venue toward a project approval by city council on July 19, unless once fairly supposing such approval by a council majority?

This DA is now unavailable, probably not because it could not be typed-up in sufficient time to make the agenda release deadline of July 15.

At the planning commission meeting of July 7, when confronted with the prospect of a continuance until September (chairperson Dave Sanders expressed this position and it could have garnered at least three votes), Petrovich arose to state that he would much rather the planning commission immediately vote up or down on Gateway 2 – so he could take whatever recommendation was made before the July 19 city council meeting.

Clearly, Petrovich didn’t desire any form of continuance of municipal consideration of Gateway 2 until September, perhaps because the longer the public is aware of what’s impending, the more time to constructively react and organize civic involvement.

To obtain such a result is undoubtedly part of the reason for moving final approval of this project upon the minimum legal timeline around the national independence holiday.

Obstacles of a political nature have apparently arisen, however, related to the basic terms of this DA — once believed to be meaningfully, at least generally secured.

Another durable obstacle has also suddenly appeared, in the form of a CEQA-based demand for a public recirculation of this project proposal: arguing that added analysis and evaluation of “project alternatives” are legally essential, raising various questions about project details and advocating the civic value of properly conducted community planning processes.

Recirculation of the Gateway 2 EIR under CEQA processes would take about 4 months to complete. Litigation may easily take several years.

____  Relevant Political Landscape  ____

Let’s briefly examine the political landscape relevant to upcoming city council action.

Quite likely, Pimentel and Davies are most inclined to approve Gateway 2, which is the basis for Petrovich’s decision to now move ahead in 2011, prior to the 2012 city council election campaign, wherein civic scrutiny and political turbulence regarding this situation will surely increase.

And of course, it’s also important to keep in mind that Gateway 2 is — purely speculative — with no prospective commercial tenants, at all.

Its actual development prior to 2014 is very unlikely; so, why is it now being jammed-through planning commission on a legally minimum timeline, wrapped around a national holiday?

Someone in authority on city council must have directly influenced such conduct. Pimentel and Davies (mayor and vice-mayor) are the likely suspects for so arranging municipal affairs to boost Gateway 2.

The key element of vote-counting in this situation is that interim council member, Tom Stallard, will probably recuse himself from considering the Gateway 2 project on the basis of his extensive real-estate holdings in the downtown area, impacts to which are a prominent bone-of-contention. Stallard and his wife, Meg, have earlier written a response within the project’s EIR process, expressing various relevant concerns.

Stallard’s recusal would compel the council to function with only four voting members. Assuming Pimentel and Davies will eventually support this project, any action to officially approve Gateway 2 will fully depend upon support by either Marble or Dote.

Those two pivotal votes are huge question marks; although, both of these council members have potential reasons for snagging Petrovich’s and city hall’s swiftly moving plans.

Marble has expressed opposition to (and voted to oppose) previous city council actions which have unreasonably favored Petrovich, related to involvement of Woodland Redevelopment Agency with proposals for a downtown cineplex.

So, we know Marble is (at least) independently minded and capable of confronting Petrovich and whatever adverse machinations by city hall are here in sway.

Dote’s previous presence on city council was interrupted in 2004 by the advent of Pimentel — who was strongly supported by Petrovich — who was duly perturbed by uncertainties about Dote’s attitudes toward his plans.

Thus, it’s marvelously ironic that Dote may now ultimately wield the key vote regarding progress for Petrovich’s Gateway 2 project.

____  Options Exist For City Council Action On Gateway 2  ____

Votes by Dote and Marble on this topic may well become directed toward recirculation of this EIR, since there is no imperative for approving this project as a sole / lone course of action. It purely depends upon how relevant (member) motions regarding city council action are made and processed, as well as understood.

Votes by Marble and Dote to demand an EIR recirculation, for example, would not necessarily be made in opposition to a proposed project, per se, but rather in an effort to optimize various conditions for improved city council consideration and action.

There is no compelling reason / justification for simply voting the present project — up or down — at this juncture, with EIR recirculation being easily available (and required) to swiftly serve the civic interest.

As noted in a “memorandum of objections” to municipal approval of Gateway 2, received by city hall related to July 7 planning commission consideration, this significantly revised Gateway 2 proposal has legally triggered CEQA recirculation requirements (state Public Resources Code, section 21092.1, implemented by California Code of Regulations, sections 15088.5 and 15126.6, as interpreted by the California Supreme Court in Laurel Heights Improvement Association v. Regents of University of California (1993) 6 Cal.4th 1112, and Citizens of Goleta Valley v. Board of Supervisors (1988) 197 Cal.App.3d 1167).

This legal claim regarding recirculation of the Gateway 2 proposal is based upon the fact that this revised project has disclosed: “a feasible project alternative or mitigation measure that clearly would lessen the environmental impacts of the project, but which the project proponents decline to adopt.”

“Feasible project alternatives” plainly exist through identifying, examining and evaluating development options, including separating and relocating various project components.

For example, carefully selected, regionally oriented big-box stores may be peripherally sited, yet separated from the project’s other contemplated commercial uses, which would become trans-located to environmentally superior areas, usually municipal in-fill prospects (which abound around this city).

Indeed, Petrovich already owns one quite key parcel within the downtown area (NW corner of Main and East Sts.), which has long been planned to join the Wiseman Building in creating an eastern “Downtown Gateway.”

An example of exploring “feasible project alternatives” within a CEQA recirculation process, would be to direct / incline efforts toward eventually (trans)locating supplemental / accessory commercial uses being contemplated for the Gateway 2 proposal — upon this long-vacant (Petrovich-razed) downtown lot, and/or other commercially zoned property owned by him in the downtown area .

Also, Petrovich indicates that he will delay development of a 40-foot wide sidewalk-adjacent strip between Third and Fourth Streets (alongside the proposed CinemaWest development) – while he attracts relevant retail uses within a Gateway 2?

____  Interim Political Endgame  ____

Thus, according to this political scenario, the city council would become locked in a 2 – 2 voting position, preventing the Gateway 2 project from gaining municipal approval.

In order to move this project forward — at all — Pimentel or Davies (or both) would then be forced to vote in favor of EIR recirculation.

Gravity of a political nature will certainly compel this beneficial result — on the basis of both Dote and Marble holding firm for EIR recirculation.

Other potential twists would be for Petrovich to either decide (himself) to recirculate this EIR, prior to such a city council vote, or to simply relinquish / reshuffle his development plans.

Once a proper EIR recirculation is successfully accomplished, it will then become time for the city council to properly vote on Gateway 2: up or down.