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Planning Commission Conducts Inaugural Comprehensive Review of $1.9 Billion Capital Improvement Program

Published on Friday, March 29, 2024 | 5:55 am

At its Wednesday meeting, the Planning Commission conducted its first-ever comprehensive review of the City’s five-year $1.9 billion Capital Improvement Program.

City staff are making the rounds of City Commissions prior to formal presentation of the Capital Improvement Program to the City Council for a public hearing next month, prior to final adoption in May.

After a two-hour session, the commission unanimously voted to recommend the City Council:

  • spend more now on street maintenance to minimize higher repair costs in the future
  • expand the capture of stormwater run-off to recharge the underground aquifer
  • shift from contentious battles over neighborhood traffic calming measures to a citywide discussion of how to better balance safety and mobility

The Commission split 5-2 after debating two new proposed projects in the Arroyo that highlighted divergent views on the “urbanization” of natural areas.

The Commission heard staff present 117 projects on the “active” list, covering the full range of park, municipal buildings, utility, transportation, streetscape, and other infrastructure plans.

Only $758 million has been previously allocated, leaving nearly $1.2 billion currently unfunded.

In addition, the City lists nearly $400 million in projects that are under study but have no prospect for City funding during the next five years but might be eligible for State or Federal grants. Finally, the Capital Improvement Program does not fully account for at least another $400 million in contemplated projects such as the $200 million estimate for the seismic retrofit of the closed Central Library or a similar estimated cost for deferred maintenance and upgrades for the Rose Bowl.

The Commission first focused on the condition of the City’s streets. Public Works Director Tony Olmos noted that “a lot of our street network is at a point now where if you don’t continue investing, especially investing in the streets in good condition where you’re able to repair them at a cheaper price… then it costs a lot more to fix.” He estimated a price tag of $180 million to fully repair the street network. Recent annual spending on maintenance has been half of what’s needed just to keep the overall condition from worsening.

The Commissioners unanimously approved a motion by recommending the Council “give focused consideration to the long-term cost-effectiveness of the current level of spending on street maintenance to develop a long-term strategy for addressing the long-term deterioration condition of our City streets.” At the suggestion of Commissioner Julianna Delgado, an amendment was incorporated recommending the Council also “explore options to make our streets safer and more environmentally sustainable.”

The Commission then turned to the threat of future droughts in a hotter and drier future due to climate change. While praising several innovative stormwater recapture projects under design or slated for construction, Commissioners called for greater urgency and scope to ensuring that the run-off during wet years be captured rather than allowed to flow to the ocean. The Commission unanimously called on the Council to undertake “a more thorough study of the opportunity for expanded urban stormwater recapture strategic plan, in collaboration with the Metropolitan Water District and surrounding water agencies.”

The Commission also debated the source of recent controversies over the City’s efforts to calm traffic and improve pedestrian and bike safety through “complete street” projects. From the opposition that killed the Orange Grove “road diet” to the backlash against the costly Union Street Cycleway, Commissioner Rick Cole argued for taking “a step back from a project by project approach and consider a much more thorough discussion about a citywide approach to traffic calming.” Commissioner Jennifer Higginbotham cited the outreach and planning efforts by the staff, but acknowledged the need “to engage at a deeper level about the topics of transportation, complete streets, and mobility.” The motion approved by the Commission called on the Council to ask the Transportation Department to “come up with a plan to broaden the conversation about complete streets and active transportation strategies.”

The most spirited debate centered on two new projects proposed for the Arroyo Seco.

A plan to study widening the 16-foot-wide access road to the Casting Pond and Archery Range in the Lower Arroyo drew sharp disagreement.

City staff said that the narrow road posed a potential safety hazard and that additional parking was needed as well. Commissioner Delgado asked about the number of complaints that spurred the call for more parking. The response was 10-15 a year. Commissioner Steve Olivas observed that he visits the area frequently and that “one of the best parts about it is there is not a lot of concrete. The idea of bringing more is not attractive to me.”

Ultimately the Commission concluded that the project was in conflict with the City’s General Plan; was not necessary; and was unlikely to ever be funded for construction given greater priorities across the City.

The vote was 5-2, with commissioners Jennifer Higginbotham and Carol Hunt Hernandez dissenting. They argued that safety and accessibility could be achieved without necessarily adversely affecting the natural environment.

Skepticism toward more concrete in the Arroyo carried over to a proposal to add basketball and pickleball courts near the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center. Commission Chair Mic Hanson raised concerns about the continued erosion of natural areas, leading the Commission to vote by an identical 5-2 vote for a finding of compliance with the General Plan “only if it utilizes existing underutilized concrete or asphalt areas of the Arroyo.”

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