On any given day, it's difficult to tell who works for the residents of Chula Vista and who works for private industry. A proposed residential development by CV 42 Investments, LLC, represented by Bill Ostrem, who is also the president of EastLake Development Company, lays bare the diseased underbelly of the problem. The development, approximately 550 homes in the lower Sweetwater Valley, has been christened Riverwalk, but a more appropriate name would be Freewaywalk, because the project's 61 acres of low-lying land are bounded by I-805 and SR54.
In late 2006, Ostrem filed an application with the City of Chula Vista to amend its general plan. Updated a year earlier after months of citizen input, the general plan currently calls for park and open space on the 61 acres. Just under 24 acres are now owned by a KOA campground, 14.9 acres are owned by the City of Chula Vista, and several smaller parcels are privately owned. This is the last significant piece of open space in Chula Vista's northwest section, and the area has long been acknowledged as park deprived. Ostrem's proposal would redesignate the majority of the land to medium- and medium-high-density residential housing, pushing the remaining park acreage out to a narrow strip along the boundaries of the freeways, where the air is bad and the noise deafening.
But the park's design was never intended to meet the residents' needs. It is laid out to enhance the visual gateway to Chula Vista. E-mails obtained through a Public Records Act request demonstrate how a developer shapes public policy and space. For example, on December 14, 2006, Ostrem tries to negotiate the park's acreage into as little as possible: "As we discussed the other day, I continue to go around and around with the staff on the size of the city park. My proposal is to develop a 15 acre park.... Staff is pushing for a 18.5 acre park which would result in no monies from acquisition fees and even require the City to purchase land from us."
Chula Vista's northwest neighborhood has resisted a number of projects, so Ostrem needed someone to do a hard sell. Enter Dan Hom, Chula Vista planning commissioner. Unlike a developer, Hom has often posed as someone who cares about Chula Vista. Appointed to the Planning Commission in 2002, he was defeated in 2004 in his bid for city council and failed in 2005 to get appointed to fill a city council vacancy. Hom is president of Focuscom Inc., a public relations company. In 2006, working for Porter Novelli, he registered as a lobbyist in San Diego to lobby for the toll road industry. This intersects with his previous experience as cochair of Citizens for 125. And the completion of SR125 intersects with Chula Vista's allowing Ostrem to build out EastLake. On April 14, 2006, Ostrem wrote to Mary Ladiana of the Community Development Department about Riverwalk: "I will begin our community outreach efforts. We have putting [sic] together a comprehensive list of groups and individuals we will be contacting." On April 25, Hom resigned from the Planning Commission and put on his new game face and casual threads and began going door to door for Ostrem and Riverwalk.
But even a skilled communications expert like Hom would find it hard to make this project palatable. The lower Sweetwater Valley is compromised by serious environmental problems. In 1994, when the City of Chula Vista put out the "Lower Sweetwater Valley Issue Paper," it conceded that a noise study from as far back as 1989, before the construction of SR54, found noise levels exceeded the City's acceptable standards. Scientific studies link cancer, asthma, emphysema, and cardiovascular diseases to living by a freeway; the residents of Riverwalk and the users of the public park would be inundated with toxins from two freeways. NAFTA has further aggravated traffic problems, increasing diesel soot, tire and brake abrasion particles, and other particulate matter in the air.
Leilani Hines, senior community development specialist, was made the City's project manager. E-mails among City staff are often as revealing in tone as in content. A June 12, 2006 e-mail from advance planning manager Ed Batchelder advises, "Keep watch over how and in what forums to avoid the perception of up-front 'agreements' as to addressing/mitigating issues prior to the process being fully engaged, and analysis being done." And a June 16 e-mail from acting director of community development Ann Hix reads: "After talking to Bill, I got the same impression...he is happy with you and Mary, just unhappy that we don't have the team formed and haven't moved forward with the EIR yet." Is it the City's job to keep Bill happy?
A primary concern about the development is access. From the beginning of the project, City planners pushed for more than one access. Planner Stan Donn writes: "The access issue needs to be addressed as well. Based on the Subdivision Manual, more than 200 units would require 3 points of access." This message is repeated by a number of people. But a single access is cheaper, quicker, and causes less public outcry. Hines, the project manager, in a December 29, 2006 e-mail, pushes back for Ostrem: "We have had some discussions from an Engineering-Traffic view point regarding access both internally and with Bill Ostrem. FYI...It is our understanding that Bill has already had some preliminary discussions with Chief Perry and is making his way towards discussions with Chief Emerson. Bill has suggested that he believes he will get buy in from both Fire and Police regarding one access point." At this time, in December 2006, there are no definitive street layout plans. What would the chiefs be buying into?
Hines crosses the line again for Ostrem's project in trying to obtain additional property for the entrance to Riverwalk. On December 22, 2006, she e-mails the Chula Vista police team member and asks, "Is it possible to see about any police activity for a property located at XXX N Second Avenue? We are looking at this property for inclusion in the Riverwalk project. Someone on our field visit made a comment about activity at this house. I know we have code enforcement issues but as to criminal/police???" While the Redevelopment Agency is supposed to provide assistance to developers, should it be on the lookout for properties to seize or condemn?
Traffic is another concern for residents who live in the area of the proposed development. The surface streets in Chula Vista west of 805 are already overwhelmed. In trying to assess the possible problem, apparently city staff stepped out of line early this year and got rebuked by Ostrem: "...the traffic study is our contract and staff should not be contacting the consultant without talking to us first."
Meanwhile, Dan Hom was out spinning the Riverwalk project to businesses and residents, but what Riverwalk really needed was an infomercial. Joe Little was a member of the Chula Vista Growth Management Oversight Commission until April 5, 2007, when he went to work for Channel 10. Only five days later, Little produced a story on Riverwalk. The star of the piece was Chula Vista's acting director of community development, Ann Hix. Anyone watching this news story would have thought that the project was a done deal and a great boon to the city of Chula Vista. Hix waxed eloquent about the park and the revenues Riverwalk would bring to the city. This was perfect for Dan Hom, because in less than a month he would be able to quote the TV show in a set of talking points he would use to chum the waters.
The first official stop for Ostrem's project is Chula Vista's Redevelopment Advisory Committee (RAC), where projects are reviewed twice. The first review was May 3, 2007. According to the Chula Vista Redevelopment website, the main purpose of the advisory committee is to be "the primary vehicle for public participation in the redevelopment process." Three of the committee members are also on the Chula Vista Chamber of Commerce board of directors: Richard D'Ascoli, Lisa Johnson, and Lisa Cohen. On May 2, 2007, the day before the advisory committee's meeting, Lisa Cohen e-mailed D'Ascoli and Johnson this message: "Please find the attached talking points for tomorrow's RAC meeting. Our Board of Directors supported this wonderful project at our April 27 meeting.... Warm regards, Lisa Cohen." D'Ascoli and Johnson had already taken a position on Ostrem's project. The talking points were prepared by Focuscom. Designed to quell community concern, the talking points read like 101 for developer dummies: "Q: What will be the average cost of a home in this neighborhood, I have heard that this is an affordable 'low income' project?" and "Q: Where will access for the project be, we are concerned with traffic impacts?" And from Joe Little's Channel 10 story: "As quoted by a recent news report, the redevelopment area of the project will generate approximately 60 million dollars in tax increment to the city."
Cohen's e-mail was also sent to other people who will be in a position to vote on the project down the line: Chula Vista Redevelopment Corporation member Chris Lewis, Planning Commissioner Scott Vinson, and councilmembers John McCann and Jerry Rindone. Councilmember Rindone also sits on the chamber of commerce board of directors.
Ostrem is no stranger to general plan amendments. As vice president of J.G. Boswell Company and president of Yokohl Ranch Company, Ostrem is also seeking a general plan amendment in Tulare County, California. Yokohl Ranch will be a massive planned community covering 36,000 acres of ranch land in the Sierra Nevada foothills. EastLake, by comparison, is chump change with only 3200 acres. The vice president of the Yokohl Ranch Company is none other than Chula Vista's own Alex Al-Agha. Al-Agha served as a city engineer and deputy director of engineering for the City of Chula Vista from 2003 until August 2006.
According to an article in Big Builder Online, the Yokohl Ranch project will be taking bids from builders. Ostrem says, "...we've talked to a few of them -- Centex, Lennar, and McMillin, to date -- either because we have crossed paths, or because they have made a call.... We've worked with Ken Baumgartner for years [president of Corky McMillin Companies] and last time I saw Ken he told me that he wanted me to meet his people in the region." How will this huge potential contract affect Lisa Johnson of the Redevelopment Advisory Committee and Chris Lewis of the Chula Vista Redevelopment Corporation, both of whom work for Corky McMillin Companies? Yet another conflict of interest appears possible.
The last stop for the Riverwalk project is the Chula Vista City Council and Mayor Cheryl Cox. Mayor Cox is familiar with this contested piece of land. In 1994, her husband, county supervisor Greg Cox, who was a lobbyist at the time, brought to the City and northwest Chula Vista a proposal to build the Family Fun Center project on the land. Later, residents recall Cheryl Cox, as lobbyist, touting the virtues of the Family Fun Center, replete with water bumper boats, go-karts, miniature golf courses, and a lighted parking lot for 280 vehicles.
Ostrem donated the maximum allowable amount to Cheryl Cox's 2006 mayoral campaign, and the Reader reported that right before the election, on October 13, 2006, Yokohl Ranch gave $4000 to the GOP's Lincoln Club. Four days later, the club paid $7245 for a poll in support of Cheryl Cox for mayor. Perhaps coincidence, perhaps a show of confidence, Ostrem e-mailed community development specialist Hines on November 8, 2006, the day after the election, to advise her that he was applying for the general plan amendment. "Subject: Deposits on the way." In the e-mail he stated: "I meant to tell you that the application with check should be to you today."
Prior to Mayor Cox's election, a U-T editorial posed a question that time will answer: "Certainly, former council members have left office and become paid lobbyists, or 'governmental relations representatives.' But, to go from lobbyist to mayor?"
But there are bigger questions. Can Chula Vista wean itself from its unhealthy dependence on developer dollars? Can projects be made with residents rather than developers in mind? And on any given day, who is working for the citizens of Chula Vista?