ALHAMBRA — After a developer recently presented a plan to build a shopping center on Main Street, a lone voice was heard.
"I have a problem," began Barbara Messina, a member of the city's redevelopment agency board. Moments later, at her suggestion, a proposed 43,000-square-foot supermarket in the shopping center was expanded to 48,000 square feet.
Next on the agenda was the redevelopment of a Main Street lot near 5th Street. One developer proposed a seven-story hotel and another wanted to build a restaurant and retail complex. Two board members had given their blessings to the hotel when Messina again spoke up.
"I have a problem," she began. Minutes later, the board voted 2 to 1 to approve the hotel, but the project was rejected because Messina dissented.
Those decisions by the redevelopment agency highlight an unusual situation in which often only three of the five board members can vote on projects because of potential conflicts of interests by the other two members.
In Alhambra, the five City Council members also serve as the city's redevelopment board. Two City Council members--Talmage Burke and Mary Louise Bunker--often must abstain because of their real estate holdings in the city.
3 Votes Needed
And because the board's rules require three affirmative votes on most redevelopment issues, any one of the three still able to vote in essence has veto power.
"It's a shame that city government gets down to veto power," said Dick Nichols, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce.
Messina has exercised that veto power the most often on major projects, such as the Main Street shopping center that city officials say they hope will be the key to revitalizing downtown.
On a 2-1 vote, whoever votes no "is the bad guy," Nichols said. "That's a shame."
'Unfortunate or Fortunate'
Messina conceded: "Lately, I've been the die-hard 'no' vote. It's unfortunate, or fortunate, however you want to look at it, that these decisions need a unanimous vote."
Even when she goes along with the majority, Messina has been able to parlay the potential veto into a powerful tool. On the shopping center project, for example, Messina agreed to select a developer favored by two colleagues only after they agreed, in writing, to a list of conditions that she wanted.
The conditions specified the type of upscale shopping center that she envisioned and required the agency to reimburse Watkins-Garrison, a developer she had favored, for the time and money it spent working on a proposal that did not work out.
"I don't think we've ever done that with any other developer," agency member Michael Blanco said.
A single no vote not only can kill a development proposal, it can lead to delays as the board members search for alternative projects.
"The problem with delays (is) the cost of things generally go up, so everything we do ends up costing more money," Blanco said.
The process is expensive for developers, who spend thousands of dollars on architectural drawings, site plans and environmental reports, said James Holmes, a senior vice president of Far East National Bank.
The threat of a rejection makes it riskier for developers and business owners to attempt projects in the city, Holmes said.
"We have had developers who are now looking elsewhere," he said.
Tempted to Move
Janet Cheng, president of De Beau Investment and Development Inc., wants to stay in Alhambra but said it is getting so difficult getting projects approved that she is tempted to move.
Cheng and her husband, Michael, own the old Woolworth building and had wanted to open an upscale department store there before deciding on a restaurant and sporting goods store instead. She said they gave up the department store idea because the agency took too long to approve the project.
Parker Williams, a former agency and council member who is an investor in the hotel proposal rejected by the board, said the solution to the three-vote requirement is simple.
"In a case where everyone has to agree, they have to come up with a way to agree," Williams said. He said the voting members first have to decide what type of projects they would all like to see developed.
Board Has Final Say
But agency member Boyd Condie said it is not prudent for the board to tell developers exactly what it wants built.
"There are a lot of elements that have to be taken into consideration," he said. Although the board has the final say, it is up to the developer to propose what is economically feasible, he said.
Burke, one of the members who most often must abstain on redevelopment votes, owns two major parcels near redevelopment areas. His home, where four generations of Burkes have lived, is on one parcel. His law office, where he has worked for 40 years, is on the second.
"What am I to do?" asked Burke, who represents the 4th District. "Move to another part of the district?"
Bunker, who owns two apartment buildings three blocks from Main Street, said the state conflict-of-interest guidelines are strictly enforced by City Atty. Leland Dolley.