Updated Downtown Plans To Streamline Development Could Also Threaten the Public’s Voice

A group of “interested downtown stakeholders” met twice with the city in February and March to help shape updates to Redding’s Downtown Specific Plan. The changes could expand the area considered downtown and allow development to be approved by city staff without public hearing or comment. During a recent meeting in which the Planning Commission discussed whether to endorse the plan updates, so many commissioners had conflicts of interest that one commissioner with downtown real estate investments was asked to vote anyway.

On Tuesday, the Redding City Council will hold another public hearing about a proposed update to the Downtown Specific Plan, a legal document that outlines what kinds of development can occur in parts of Redding’s downtown core. Changes could expand the downtown area covered by the plan and reduce the public’s voice in certain kinds of development. Proposed changes were developed by staff after an October 2019 request by the City Council to look at upgrades to the plan.

“Interested downtown stakeholders” included in city meetings to provide early feedback on the Downtown Specific Plan update

In February, city staff sent an email to “interested downtown stakeholders” to review possible changes to the plan and provide input. Two meetings with that group, which included investors, developers, realtors, and individuals representing organizations like Viva Downtown, the Chamber of Commerce, and The McConnell Foundation, led to amendments to the proposed downtown plan in response to their concerns and suggestions.The meetings were held to gather the concerns of those within the Existing Downtown Area and proposed Downtown Boundary Area, Lily Toy, Redding’s Planning Manager says. No representatives for downtown residents were included.

That’s a problem for Kathryn McDonald, a resident of the Garden Tract, an area of downtown that is likely to be impacted by proposed changes. McDonald, whose home is close to Sequoia Middle School and features a backyard flush with greenery and flowers, learned of the planned changes to the downtown through a public notice sent by the city via mail on October 15. She became concerned when she realized that the proposed changes would allow seven-story buildings to be developed directly behind her home.

Bruce Ross, District Director for Brian Dahle and a resident of the Garden Tract, says he reached out to Toy to ask for a neighborhood meeting, not because he objects to proposed changes, but to ensure that community members had a voice in the process. As a result of that meeting, and the perspectives of community members, proposed changes to the plan now limit the height of buildings next to residences to around three stories high. Ross says he’s glad that Garden Tract residents were able to have a voice in the process before it was too late.

It’s that public voice that could be reduced as the Council looks for ways to streamline development in an effort to continue to revitalize Redding’s downtown. In lieu of a process that requires public hearing and comment, the Council could vote to allow the city’s Director of Development Services to sign off on development without public comment, in collaboration with other staff members. After a series of recent staffing changes, City Manager Barry Tippin currently serves as the Director of Development Services. Should the downtown plan update allow for the “director” level of site development approval, Tippin or his replacement would be in a position to approve a significant amount of development in the core of downtown with no public input.

Highlights in red indicate McConnell-owned properties east of Sequoia Street in the Butte Street corridor

That could be particularly important given an area of expansion proposed in the update that would connect the downtown core to the Redding riverfront area. 

That area, known as the Butte Street corridor, extends east past Sequoia Street. Properties on the end of the corridor face the Civic grounds, which are currently being considered for redevelopment under a proposal by the D&D Group, a consortium including developers — Populous and  K2 Development Companies — and nonprofits — The McConnell Foundation and Turtle Bay Exploration Park.

Representatives from both McConnell and K2 were among those included by the city as “interested downtown stakeholders” in the early Downtown Specific Plan update process. McConnell also owns three of the parcels directly facing the Civic grounds in the Butte Street corridor. Those properties could be developed without public hearing or comment under possible changes to the downtown plan.

Conflict of Interests Abound Among Planning Commissioners

During the October 27 meeting of the Redding Planning Commission, with the proposed changes to the Downtown Specific Plan on the agenda, four members of the seven-member Planning Commission had to recuse due to conflicts of interest. That left the Commission without a quorum, and led City Attorney Barry DeWalt to restore a quorum using a state-mandated process that involved randomly drawing one of the names of the four commissioners with known conflicts to participate. DeWalt said this was the first time in his professional career with the city he had ever had to do that. 

The random name drawn was that of Luke Miner, a local angel investor and developer who owns properties within the proposed area of updates. Miner was also one of the 20 individuals included in early “interested stakeholder” meetings regarding proposed plan changes. Calling for streamlined development processes, Miner reminded the Planning Commission that a director-level approval process, while not requiring public hearing or comment, does require a number of city staff members to review and sign off on proposed development. Changing development requirements would reduce barriers, Miner said, and do so in a way that continues to stimulate the kind of growth Redding’s downtown has seen in recent years.

Planning Commissioner Cameron Middleton agreed with Miner’s focus on reducing barriers to development, but said he worried that by allowing so much development without public hearing “we’re essentially telling the public that they no longer have a voice in their downtown … I don’t want the public to lose their voice in downtown.”

Instead, Middleton suggested keeping a permitting process for some development that requires at least one public hearing for planned development projects. “On the majority if not all of these (development projects),” Middleton said, “I do at least believe with the downtown being as important as it is that we still need a public hearing on these uses and that at least people are able to come forward and express any concerns.”

After significant discussion, the Planning Commission voted to recommend that the city continue to require a level of approval involving public hearing for much of the proposed development downtown. They also recommended against including in the downtown plan the part of the east end of the Butte corridor extending past Sequoia Street. Toy says city staff supports the Planning Commission’s recommendations and has “redlined” proposed updates to include those recommendations.

The Planning Commission is advisory in nature, meaning it can only provide recommendations and has no control over the ultimate decisions of the Redding City Council. The council will hold a second public hearing on December 7 at 6 pm and are scheduled to vote on proposed updates to the plan on December 21. You can attend these meetings in person and contact the Council here

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