In 2008, the City of Whittier commissioned the Uptown Specific Plan to address the prevailing issues in Uptown. Much has happened in the decade since the plan was created: the housing market crash and the Great Recession, the rise of mobile technology and rideshare applications like Uber and Lyft, the advent of automated driving technology, and the end of the California Redevelopment Agency (CRA), which had previously provided Whittier with funds for redeveloping blighted areas like Uptown.
The City Council has approximately $13 million in leftover redevelopment funds. Instead of spending redevelopment funds on improving the Uptown streetscape, the City Council waited until now to use the funds. (This is the equivalent of waiting through down times to buy a house, only to buy at the next market high). It is spending almost all of its funding on a parking lot. (Estimates for the costs of the lot have already ballooned from $9 million to $10.5 million.) The city could have fixed Uptown twice over with the funds it has been sitting on and has earmarked for the new Uptown parking lot.
Some have argued forcefully that the Uptown Specific Plan demands that this parking lot, on Comstock behind Mimo’s Cafe, be built. Showing its age, the plan calls for lots at eight different sites throughout Uptown. While eight parking lots might have made sense in 2008, existing trends tell us that we should be investing in walkability, which studies have shown increases profits in retail areas.
Some new parking is certainly necessary, but the key question is when. The Uptown Specific Plan calls for phased implementation and prioritizes improvements to storefronts and building facades, outdoor seating, signage, and sidewalk repair. The plan calls for the construction of parking lots 10-20 years after the initiation of improvements to Uptown Whittier, and following the rehabilitation of the mostly empty lot on Bright. Furthermore, the Uptown Specific Plan calls for the first parking lot to be on the old Alpha Beta site, not the location the Whittier City Council has unilaterally chosen.
So why such a hurry to build the parking lot? The City of Whittier does not require lobbyists to publicly disclose their clients or lobbying activities, and the Whittier City Council has shown itself ready and willing to prioritize massive projects (e.g., Nelles, Matrix Oil, trash) with minimal transparency and against the stated wishes of Whittier residents.
Uptown holds boundless promise, and in recent years it has grown in spite of, not because of, the City Council’s actions. Like many of us, I want Uptown to become a true regional gem and Southern California destination. In order to accomplish that, we should be frank about the challenges Uptown faces -- graffiti, crime, crumbling infrastructure -- and how we can overcome them. We should not rely on the decade-old, dated Uptown Specific Plan, or the City Council’s misguided interpretation. Instead, the City Council should have a public hearing where residents can discuss whether they agree that the parking lot is a good idea, or really just another boondoggle to please developers. This is what we mean by government acting in a transparent, accountable manner.