The proposal to build a huge StorQuest storage facility on the Ernie Jr.’s site in Eagle Rock is now on the agenda of the City Planning Commission for Thursday, Oct. 11 – a month later than previously planned. It was replaced on the agenda by another issue.
The extra time provides the public a chance to absorb the recent twists and turns in the StorQuest saga and to weigh in on the issue with the City Planning Department. The public has a role to play because the storage facility would require giving the developer zoning exemptions to build much bigger, higher and closer to housing than is allowed under the zoning law for Eagle Rock.
Here’s some background, plus the latest developments: In public meetings and letters in early 2018, Eagle Rockers overwhelmingly opposed a storage-facility on the Ernie Jr.’s site. On Feb. 5, the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council (ERNC) sent a letter to the City Planning Department saying “NO” to StorQuest’s proposal.
But in a letter to City Planning dated Aug. 19, the ERNC watered down that “NO.” The letter started out saying “no” as before, but then added a long discussion of the storage facility in Glassell Park, calling it “an example of how incompatible Planning philosophies of community-first vs. profit-at-all-costs can co-exist.” The implication is that a storage facility in Eagle Rock could be acceptable if it included ample community space as was done in Glassell Park.
Here’s some backstory to the ERNC’s Aug. 19 letter:
At the monthly meeting of the ERNC on Aug. 6, attended by the Boulevard Sentinel, the ERNC released a draft of a letter that called the Glassell Park facility a model for a potential “path forward” [emphasis in original] to building a storage facility for Eagle Rock.
The Boulevard Sentinel challenged that wording, saying it provided a roadmap to approving a facility that the community had opposed. In the end, 11 members of the ERNC voted to approve the draft.
In the days that followed, however, the ERNC revised the draft it had approved on Aug 6. The final version, dated Aug. 19, kept in the discussion about the storage facility in Glassell Park, but removed the wording about it being a potential path forward. At the meeting of the ERNC where the Aug. 19th letter was approved, David Greene, a Board Member of the ERNC and its Immediate Past President, said that including the information about the Glassell Park facility in the revised letter was a way to provide information about board members’ broader thinking on the project.
That doesn’t answer a more basic question: Why didn’t the ERNC just say “NO” to the proposed facility and leave it at that, as it had done back on Feb. 5?
Lisa Kable-Blanchard, president of the ERNC, said it was important to show that the ERNC had been open to alternatives because neighborhood councils get “steamrolled” if they are seen as saying no to everything.
There are two problems with that explanation. One, the Aug. 19 letter does not take the idea of a storage facility-plus-community space off the table. Rather, including it in the letter weakens the intensity of the opposition as originally expressed back in February.
Two, if the ERNC’s goal was to show that it is open to real-estate development, it could simply have noted the thumbs up it has given to other projects. For example, it gave the nod to building a behemoth building on the Pillarhenge site in Eagle Rock and to turning the Bekins Estate into a priests’ retreat. (The latter project didn’t happen, but not because the ERNC stood in the way.)
The Email Trail
Another possible explanation for ERNC’s watered down “no” on the storage facility could be that they were swayed by StorQuest.
An email exchange between the staff of Councilmember José Huizar and Mee Semcken, the developer’s politically-connected consultant, shows at least two meetings arranged by Mr. Huizar’s office between Ms. Semcken and ERNC members, one in March and one in July. The emails also indicate that the meetings were structured to avoid official public notice.
The Boulevard Sentinel obtained the emails from Mr. Huizar’s office through a California Public Records Act request. (Mr. Huizar’s office withheld an unknown number of communications from the document release to the Sentinel, citing a “deliberative process” exemption to the law.)
Among the emails that were provided is an exchange that starts on Jan. 24, 2018, when Ms. Semcken wrote to Kevin Ocubillo on Mr. Huizar’s staff, saying that the ERNC meeting the previous evening to discuss the storage facility had been a “feeding frenzy” and asking to meet with him.
Further emails indicate that the meeting took place on the morning of Feb. 6, which turned out to be the day after the ERNC filed its original letter with City Planning saying “NO” to the storage facility. In a follow up email sent the afternoon of Feb. 6, Ms. Semcken told Mr. Ocubillo that said she had asked the City Planning Department to delay a hearing on the storage facility “to allow us sufficient time to work with the ERNC.” In that email, she also asked for help from Mr. Huizar’s office in arranging meetings with “4-5 members of the ERNC.”
The next day, Ms. Semcken wrote that “we probably should not meet with more than 2-3 [ERNC members] so that these are not ‘official’ meetings that need to be noticed.” She named David Greene and Becky Newman, vice president of the ERNC, as “two we should probably be meeting with.”
Mr. Huizar’s office arranged a morning meeting on Mar. 2 between Ms. Semcken, Mr. Greene and Ms. Kable-Blanchard, the ERNC president. That afternoon, Ms. Semcken sent an email to Mr. Ocubillo thanking him for the meeting and saying that she was “happy to end the week on a positive note.”
The Boulevard Sentinel emailed Mr. Greene and Ms. Kable-Blanchard asking about the meeting. Ms. Kable-Blanchard replied that “nothing was said by her or David Greene to Ms. Semcken other than a reiteration of the opposition of the ERNC to the project and Ms. Semcken offered no new information.”
Councilmember Huizar will have the final say on whether or how the storage facility will happen. That’s because the City Council would have to approve the necessary zoning exemptions and the wishes of the local councilmember carry the most weight in those decisions.
In July, when the Boulevard Sentinel asked Mr. Huizar’s spokesperson about the councilmember’s thinking on the storage facility, the email reply was that “We are in support of having community space involved in the final project, as the neighborhood has requested.” On Aug. 21, in a cover letter to the documents released to the Boulevard Sentinel under the Public Records Act request, the spokesperson wrote that “ultimately, our support or opposition will be critically influenced by local stakeholders’ input and satisfaction or dissatisfaction with a project.”
So, what does the neighborhood really want? No storage facility? A storage facility with some public-use space?
To weigh in, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where Does TERA Stand on the Storage Facility?
The Eagle Rock Association (TERA), a private improvement group, also recently shifted its position on the storage facility, as follows: On Jan. 26, TERA sent a letter to City Planning opposing the storage facility. The letter was clear that TERA did not object to having a storage facility on the site, but rather objected to the fact that the process up to that point had not allowed for community input and that StorQuest’s proposal did not include enough public enhancements to justify the zoning exemptions that would be needed to allow for the building’s bulk, height and location.
On Aug. 2, TERA went from its qualified ‘no’ to a definite ‘yes,’ saying in a letter to City Planning that the developer had given assurances it would make changes that TERA wanted to see, including architecture that fit better with Eagle Rock than the developer had originally proposed, community-use space in the facility and other concessions, including better lighting, landscaping, a mural, a commemorative plaque, and money to help pay for “Welcome to Eagle Rock” monument signage.
As of press time, none of the specs on the proposal available at City Planning indicated that any meaningful changes had been made to the facility’s interior. But new renderings of the exterior have been filed. Here they are:
Bill Hendrickson, MBA, publisher of the Boulevard Sentinel, has extensive small business management, marketing and sales experience in corporate finance and real estate development and plays a not terrible game of golf.