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Cultural Heritage Board split over construction of downtown hotel

What was intended to be a linear meeting to approve or deny a Certificate of Appropriateness turned into board members voting against a dwindling hourglass. Last Wednesday’s Cultural Heritage Board (CHB) meeting resulted in a 4-4 vote, with one abstaining vote, on the approval of the Certificate of Appropriateness for the construction of the Marriott AC – Residence Inn and the adaptive reuse of the former Central Fire Station.

The abstain vote seemed to be a result of the 3:30 p.m. CHB meeting running into the scheduled 5 p.m. Charter Review Committee meeting. Prior to the board’s final vote, one board member said he would abstain from the vote unless his clarifying question was answered. The question was not addressed and the remainder of the agenda was pushed to next month’s meeting. And, because of the split vote, the motion to approve the Certificate of Appropriateness failed.

Meeting recap

Prior to last week’s CHB meeting, the Planning Commission granted the requests in the project proposal of a conditional use permit and two variances for the project. Heading into the CHB meeting, the city staff recommended the board determine the project exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and approve the Certificate of Appropriateness. The staff’s recommendation was informed in part by 25 community letters in support of the project, 16 letters in opposition and one neutral letter.

However, on the evening before the CHB meeting, an Oakland-based law group submitted a 31-page letter of claims regarding the project’s CEQA findings, which is the topic the abstain vote wished to address before the final vote.

At the beginning of the meeting and on behalf of the project applicantSagecrest Planning and Environmental administered a written and verbal response to the law group’s letter stating, “Upon our review, Sagecrest reiterates that the Class 31 Historical Resources Restoration and Rehabilitation Exemption and Class 32 Infill Development Categorical Exemption remain the appropriate CEQA determination for the proposed project.” 

On top of CEQA, some board members were concerned with the building’s height in relation to surrounding structures. Only one of the multiple immediately surrounding historical structures, the First Congregational Church of Riverside, offered opposition to the project. Like some of the board members, the church was particularly concerned with the building height, stating the proposed eight-story hotel blocks views of the bell tower and could lead to a lack of sun during services. According to city staff, the bell tower is 114 feet and four inches tall, and the proposed structure will be 90 feet and four inches tall.

Board members again expressed their concern about the adjacent structures such as the Mission Inn Hotel & Spa and the Riverside Art Museum (RAM). Yet, RAM Executive Director Drew Oberjurge spoke during public comment to offer the museum’s support of the project, as did multiple local business owners and Nick Adcock on behalf of the Greater Riverside Chambers of Commerce and Downtown Business Council.

After an eclectic board discussion, public comment, appealed motions, a board member seeking clarity and pressure to end the meeting, the board held the final vote on its Certificate of Appropriateness for the project. The abstain vote suggested that if there was time to have his question addressed, then he would have offered a vote.

Despite not passing the CHB, project applicant Andrew Walcker said he will not give up on the downtown project and is moving forward with the appeal process to the city council.

“I’ve worked with the Cultural Heritage Board and other community stakeholders for three years now on this project. We felt like we defended this project and its adherence to the Secretary of Interior’s standards. We look forward to appealing to the city council,” Walcker said in an interview on Monday.

Rushed process?

“This record is an abomination,” Senior Deputy City Attorney Anthony Beaumon said during last week’s CHB meeting.

Beaumon was not alone in his apparent frustration with the meeting. One board member, who also serves as an attorney, expressed concern with the overall process of getting such projects approved in the city, particularly by the CHB. During the meeting, that same board member even suggested the process is broken.

Are rushed meetings and unanswered board member questions a true and fair process for project developers in the city? Does this process appeal to future developers in Riverside?

You can watch the entire April 21 CHB meeting on Riverside TV.