Just about a year ago, members of the San Gabriel City Council were boasting that, because of their grasp of municipal issues, they could breeze through one of their twice-a-month meetings in 30 minutes flat, without skipping a single line of the city budget or stumbling over the tiniest item in a city contract. "We do our homework," said Mayor Janis Cohen.
Those days may be gone forever. Recent council meetings have been drawn-out affairs in which disgruntled residents have tangled with city officials about condominium developments and shopping centers.
This once-quiet city of tidy one-family homes and sprawling commercial strips is suddenly in the throes of one of the San Gabriel Valley's hottest anti-growth rebellions.
"Money talks, and it's talking real loud around here right now," longtime San Gabriel resident Virginia Timmons said the other day as she clipped the greenery in front of her house on Walnut Street, expressing a common perception of what is happening to the community.
Old-timers, many of whom have joined a group called Citizens for Responsible Development, paint a bleak picture of recent trends in their city, including "reckless" full-speed-ahead condominium development, traffic jams, overburdened city services and "indifference" to it all on the part of city government.
The citizens group has forced a ballot referendum on a controversial proposal to build a hotel complex on Valley Boulevard, initiated a petition drive for a one-year moratorium on all development and jammed council meetings with hundreds of angry homeowners.
"In just six months, we've developed a membership of 500 people," said John Tapp, a local accountant and one of the group's leaders.
City officials respond ruefully to all of this. They say they have done what they could to control the rush to build in San Gabriel, acknowledging that in some cases they "didn't like what we saw" in the new construction.
But they argue that the protesters' understanding of city problems is often simplistic and laced with racist opposition to new groups moving into town, especially Asians.
"I was pretty overwhelmed by some of the correspondence we've been receiving (about Asians)," said Mayor Cohen. "It was very, very strong stuff."
Three members of the citizens group took a quick tour of the city on Wednesday, shaking their heads at the pace of change and bemoaning what they perceived as the decline of their neighborhoods.
"San Gabriel used to be a dream come true," said Mary Cammarano, who moved to San Gabriel from Buffalo, N.Y., 23 years ago. "It was a place where my kids could ride freely on their bicycles. There was so much room."
She gazed dolorously at Municipal Park, one of the city's two frequently jammed parks. "Last Sunday, we tried to bring the grandchildren here to play," she said. "It was a disaster. We couldn't find any place to park. We went back home to play in the yard."
Added Greg O'Sullivan, a San Gabriel firefighter and chairman of the organization: "There's a lot of cement, a lot of development around here, but no parks for kids."
San Gabriel is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it city of about 33,000, tucked among Alhambra, Rosemead and San Marino. Where Valley Boulevard, one of its prime commercial strips, crosses the southern end of town, San Gabriel is just 15 blocks wide. There is a core of fourth- and fifth-generation Mexican-Americans, a burgeoning Asian population and a majority of Caucasians, including the "upscale" people in spacious homes around the San Gabriel Country Club, near the San Marino city line.
Joked one resident of the southern part of town: "Some of the people up there prefer to think of themselves as 'South San Marinans.' "
The city's main claim to fame is San Gabriel Mission, an imposing historic monument on Mission Drive, with an elegant adobe facade and six church bells, built in 1771 by Father Junipero Serra. The city has mandated "early California" style in other structures along Mission Drive.
According to city officials, the population is probably about 35% Latino now, as much as 15% Asian and the remainder quiet-loving, largely conservative whites, living for the most part in cozy one-family homes. The fastest-growing group, they add, is made up of Asians, who are moving into many of the new multi-unit buildings.
That's the problem, say members of Citizens for Responsible Development. More than 900 apartments or condominiums have been built in the city in the past four years, they say, and the southern part of the city bristles with construction sites, including a 142-unit apartment complex about to go up on the former site of Valley Vista Hospital at the corner of Broadway and Del Mar Avenue.
"This project," contended O'Sullivan, "will have the single greatest impact on the city of any project since horse-and-buggy days."