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Redlands on the cusp of a renaissance, mayor says

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The Grand, a multifamily complex proposed at the former site of McEwen Furniture Galleries

The Grand is proposed at the site of McEwen’s Furniture Gallery.

The issue of high-density transit villages will be decided by Redlands voters on the March 3 election, the presidential primary.

The proposal would allow buildings as tall as five stories within a half mile of the three train stations planned for the Redlands Passenger Rail Project. The villages would be friendly to pedestrians, bicyclists and rail passengers, but not so much to automobiles. The Planning Commission recently rejected a fast-food restaurant’s proposed drive-thru because that wouldn’t fit with the goals of Specific Plan 45.

That plan includes the concept of Santa Fe Trail, which would provide urban trails for walkers and bikers to travel safely from Ersi to State Street.

The San Bernardino County Transportation Authority and its partners will break ground on the $355.4 million project on Friday, July 19.

Up to the voters

Earlier this month, the Redlands City Council voted to place a measure on the ballot asking voters to approve plans surrounding the three Redlands stations on the 9-mile extension of Metrolink from the Santa Fe Depot in San Bernardino to the University of Redlands. The other Redlands stations are at the Redlands depot and Esri.

Plans were established in last year’s new general plan.

“Imagine, if you will, neighborhoods where residents could walk or cycle to local shops, where employees live a short walk from work or could catch a train to downtown LA or the beach, or where visitors could enjoy the retail and entertainment of our historic downtown, attend the symphony at the U of R or see a performance at the bowl, all within a short walk of a train station,” Redlands Mayor Paul Foster said at last Friday’s State of the Community address sponsored by the Redlands Chamber of Commerce at the Orton Center at the University of Redlands. “That is what is envisioned by the transit villages.”

Esri, one of Redlands’ largest employers, is a key factor in developing a new downtown. The world leader in geographic information systems hires 500 to 700 net employees a year.

“They are telling us their employees and potential employees love Redlands,” Foster said. “They love the open space. They love the parks. They love what they hear about the schools. They love that we save citrus and all of our beautiful historic homes. They love the cultural amenities with the bowl and the university.

“But what they are missing is a vibrant, urban downtown and a walkable, bikeable community where they can get to things without a vehicle. They want to get to the restaurants and entertainment. And they want to get to the dry cleaner and the pharmacy. And they want to do it within walking distance or biking distance of their work and homes. This is the future. These young people are our future.”

Former site of Safety Hall

The site of Redlands’ Safety Hall could remain little more than a pile of dirt, according to Mayor Paul Foster

City Center, a multifamily complex proposed at the former site of Safety Hall, would include two restaraunts

City Center is proposed at the site of the former Safety Hall.

Two projects have emerged to potentially make the happen. One is at the site of the old Safety Hall at Brookside Avenue and Eureka Street, which was declared unsafe a decade ago and later torn town. No formal proposal has been submitted, but the owner plans two restaurants and a multifamily housing component, Foster said.

McEwen’s Furniture Galleries

McEwen’s Furniture Galleries opened in 1929 and officially closed in 2009, but liquidation sales continue.

The other a multifamily development proposed for the old McEwen’s furniture site at Redlands Boulevard and Eureka Street. These projects would add about 300 housing units plus restaurants and retail.

Redlands Mall

The Redlands Mall was built in 1977 on the site of the La Posada hotel and closed in 2010.

“Then there’s the mall site,” Foster said with a sigh. “I wish I had some good news about the Redlands Mall. I don’t.”

The current owner is flipping the project and the prospective new owners have already made it clear they cannot develop the mall site without multifamily housing.

“That’s been true with every developer that’s come through,” he said. “They all tell us the same thing.”

No place to go but up

Three growth-control measures approved by Redlands voters more than two decades ago — Measures U and N and Proposition R — stand in the way.

“Among other things, these pieces of legislation placed limits on the number of units that could be built each year and the density per acre that would be allowed on a piece of property,” Foster said. “The measures were successful in controlling residential growth. Unfortunately, they also had some unintended consequences of making potential businesses feel unwelcome here.”

The threat of urban sprawl expressed by resident in the 1970s and ’80s is no longer possible, the mayor said. If all the land that’s zoned for residential development in at the density established by the growth-control measures, there would be room for about 2,000 more single-family homes until the city is built out.

“So, how do we support this new vision of a vibrant, urban core, with retail, entertainment and residents living within walking distance or biking distance of all of it?” Foster asked. “The voters approved the slow-growth legislation and it’s the voters who will need to decide whether to change it.”

The measure on the March 3 ballot would ask voters to exempt the property within a half mile of the three train stations from the limits.

“Height has been a question,” Foster said. “The height of buildings is not governed by those provisions. It will be governed in our case by the specific plan we adopt. And will probably range from three to five stories.”

Tall buildings are nothing new to Redlands, the mayor argued as he displayed photos from the late 1800s and early 1900s.

La Posada hotel

The La Posada Hotel was torn down in 1973 to make room for the mall, which is dormant for a decade except for CVS.

“We were once resplendent with three-, four-, five- and five-plus-story buildings in the downtown area,” Foster said. “Even the iconic Casa Loma Hotel and the La Posada that people still lament losing were four and five stories, with their parapets and their towers. Putting up four- and five-story buildings isn’t new. It doesn’t change the character of our town. In fact, it honors our heritage.”

As Foster argued last month at an East Valley Association of Realtors meeting, without these changes the old Safety Hall site will remain a big pile of dirt, McEwen’s will remain a perpetual liquidation sale and the mall will be a symbol of missed opportunity in the heart of the city.

“Those projects aren’t going to move forward if voters don’t approve the exemption for the transit villages,” Foster said. “And from my perspective, that’s not OK.

“I had somebody recently say to me about the mall, ‘Well, we’ve grown used to it.’ That’s really sad. I don’t think we should accept that. We should keep trying to find a way to turn it into something that will be a benefit for our community.”

Confidence is clear  

While the transit villages projects are “tantalizingly on the horizon,” as Foster put it, other new developments demonstrate the confidence the business community has in Redlands’ future.

Property One LLC, a company associated with Esri, is renovating the historic Santa Fe Depot. The Packinghouse District, home of Sprouts, is expanding on the south side of Stuart Avenue west of Eureka Street. And the historic packinghouse near the Studio Movie Grill and the depot is being transformed into the Redlands Public Market , which will bring in  entrepreneurial businesses, independent food operators, local farmers and home-grown restaurateurs.  

The city is nearing an agreement to have Property One build a parking structure that will have up to 400 spaces.

The company and the city own the stretch of land north of car dealerships on Redlands Boulevard, which will become a promenade with a series of retail buildings and a pathway with palm trees down the middle that will extend on either side of the rail lines and provide a pedestrian crossover.

The city’s contribution would be its property, which has been appraised at $1.8 million. Foster said 200 spaces in the parking structure would be for rail passengers and the rest would be open to the public.

“Downtown Redlands is on the cusp of a renaissance,” Foster concluded.

“We’ve seen it in the energy surrounding the projects we’ve discussed here. We’ve seen it in the revitalization of our downtown.

“And, perhaps most importantly, we are seeing it in the enthusiasm of the people who are choosing to invest not just their money, but their ingenuity and their futures to Redlands.”

Groundbreaking  for Redlands Passenger Rail Project

n 10 a.m. Friday, July 19, Santa Fe Depot, Third Street and Stuart Avenue.