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Seated at a table between a pair of new businesses in his part of town, San Bernardino City Councilman Henry Nickel describes in detail how proper planning and a little collaboration could have brought an Orange County-feel to the Verdemont Heights neighborhood.
With the right foresight and follow through, he says, the community at the city’s northern foothills could have had robust hiking and walking trails, bike paths, equestrian routes and other recreational attractions.
“We could have been Anaheim Canyon,” Nickel muses, his mind on the affluent residential community one county to the west bathing in green space and home to a popular nature center and an outdoor oasis in Yorba Regional Park.
Instead, Nickel says, as city leaders and city officials clashed over their roles in developing San Bernardino, the former All-America City suffered from decades of poor – and in some cases, little or no – master planning.
“Verdemont could’ve been beautiful,” longtime resident and business owner Barbara Sky said. “It could’ve been fantastic, another rising star for the city, and (elected officials) totally destroyed it.”
With the support of Assemblyman James Ramos, D-Highland, the new state budget allocates $3 million to San Bernardino to amend its general plan, a process that could take up to two years, given the need to conduct extensive public outreach and engage with the development, business and transportation communities, among others.
Councilman Jim Mulvihill, a certified city planner, likened the $3 million to “throwing a lifesaver to a drowning individual.”
“We need the money,” he added. “This is a lifesaver.”
What is a general plan?
California state law requires every city and county adopt a comprehensive general plan to guide future development.
Within that plan, seven intertwining elements must be addressed: land use, housing, urban form and neighborhood design, open space and conservation, economic development, transportation, and infrastructure and public services. Collectively, these areas serve as the foundation for all development decisions.
General plans lay out a city’s long-term goals, short-term objectives and policies to realize the two, and while they look 20 years into the future, it’s best to update them every five to 10 years.
“The point of having a modern, up-to-date general plan is developers look at it,” said Mulvihill, a longtime city planning professor at Cal State San Bernardino. “A city knows what it wants, knows the direction it wants to take. In the planning department, building and safety, people making every day decisions, how do they know in the long run that their decisions are the right ones?
“Are they making ad-hoc decisions day after day after day? A general plan, in this sense, provides what the future will be in this particular timeframe.”
When Norton Air Force Base opened in San Bernardino following World War II, the city had an economic engine providing wealth and prosperity to the surrounding area. In 1977, San Bernardino was named an All-America City for leveraging civic engagement, collaboration, inclusiveness and innovation to successfully address local issues.
Norton’s closure 17 years later, however, stunted the city’s growth.
“When the base was gone, we failed to adjust,” Nickel said. “We got lazy, and as a community, we failed to be focused on the challenge of transitioning to a new model to sustain the city, and we’ve been struggling with it ever since.”
At its core, a city should be safe, sanitary and self-sustaining, the councilman said.
San Bernardino, he added, presently is none of those things, a consequence of human error.
In Fontana, residential and commercial development is booming thanks in part to the city’s general plan, which leaders updated late last year following a three-year information gathering and community outreach process, Mayor Acquanetta Warren said.
“An updated general plan gets developers’ attention,” said Warren, her city rife with new commercial development off the 210 Freeway. “When developers come into your city, the first thing they want to know is what your general plan looks like, that way, they know exactly what they can build or dream of building in your town.”
Unlike Fontana, Ontario, Rancho Cucamonga and other thriving Inland cities, San Bernardino, Nickel said, has been dragged down by years of petty political rivalries and a reluctance to use new technology – such as ESRI’s “Urban” planning tool, used by Pasadena and Redlands, which not only makes city planning more visual and interactive, but also helps residents and policy makers better understand how to optimize key development decisions.
“We’ve had a highly politicized process when it comes to development in the city,” Nickel said. “Other cities around us have very disciplined approaches to planning, and that’s the reason they have high-quality and stable communities with revenues, by and large, to support the services people demand.
“For far too long, we’ve had a very fractured approach to development in this community,” he added, “which has led to the patchwork system we have.”
San Bernardino last updated its general plan about 15 years ago, several years before the economic downturn in 2008 chilled investment and hampered revitalization efforts in the city.
And while that 730-page document looks two decades into the future, the reality is San Bernardino in 2019 looks much different than anticipated in 2005. With crumbling infrastructure, an alarming rate of poverty and a dangerously low rate of home ownership, amending the general plan to reflect the times would goose development and unearth new revenue streams, Nickel said.
Having just erased an $11.2 million deficit, San Bernardino, a city fresh out of bankruptcy, can ill-afford to wait any longer.
“We’re an impoverished community that’s been poorly managed and poorly planned,” Nickel said. “We have to change that.”
‘This requires a cultural change’
On a recent tour of northern San Bernardino, Nickel showed off 80 acres of city-owned nothingness bordered by the 215 Freeway and the vehicles on their way to Barstow and Las Vegas, Nev.
Known as the “Bice property,” the site has been a wasteland for 20 years now, but, with the right planning and investment, could be the next great community hub. Nickel, standing amid overgrown sunflowers and weeds, said he envisions tracts of million-dollar homes in the distance, complemented by food and shopping options that lure motorists from their routes.
A trails system could give residents access to hills and open spaces.
“This place is a gem,” Nickel said. “A diamond here for the city.”
In addition to assisting the development of city-owned land, updating the general plan could help reform San Bernardino’s entitlement process, which would help reduce the number of vacant, blighted, privately-owned properties mucking up residential communities.
Riverside, Nickel said, has a streamlined permitting process where developers can access department officials on the same floor of a single building, reducing entitlement and building permit review times, as well as costs. In San Bernardino, developers must meet department officials in different buildings downtown to complete the process, a tough ask for even the most enthusiastic party.
“This requires a cultural change here,” Nickel said. “We have a siloed culture in the city is what we’re hearing from developers, and I see that. I want to take away excuses from developers. I want nice homes, tax-paying residents who spend money here. I want to work with developers to get things done.”
For all of San Bernardino’s shortcomings as they relate to planning, Nickel points to University Village near Cal State San Bernardino as a beacon of hope for future development, not just in his ward, but around town.
There, at Northpark Boulevard and University Parkway, across the street from a bustling college campus, the village is home to shops and eateries, affordable and student housing, and a new residential complex.
“If we expand this concept,” Nickel said, “it would definitely put the city in a much better position for the future.”