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Angelo’s & Vinci’s: will the city demolish it to provide parking for it?

Matthew Leslie

 

Anyone who attended the joint Fullerton City Council and Planning Commission Study Session on the Fox Block Tuesday night might be tempted to believe that time is cyclical, or in Nietzsche’s concept of the Eternal Return (“I’ll have to sit through the Ice Capades again,” joked Woody Allen). Didn’t we all, at some time in the not too distant past, watch Pelican-Laing’s Dick Hamm pitch his mundane ideas for developing some city-owned property or other, like Amerige Court? And didn’t we all see “architectural” renderings depicting some sort of contest to see how many boxy stucco structures could be crammed into the block surround the Fullerton’s historic Fox Theater just a few years ago?

Yes, we did, but then Dick Hamm and Pelican-Laing were hired last year to pitch ideas for what to do with the so-called Fox Block, currently stranded in post Redevlopment limbo, and Tuesday night we all got to see and hear their best efforts, which were less than inspiring, to say the least.

Despite the mind numbing sense of deja vu, the evening was somehow still full of surprises. Pelican-Laing had four proposals in their report, presented by the perpetually tanned Mr. Hamm, and two of them included buying and demolishing Angelo’s & Vinci’s Ristorante. Yes, you read that last sentence correctly. Half of Dick Hamm’s four proposed scenarios for development on the Fox Block site were at least partially predicated on buying and leveling the restaurant whose parking agreement with the city is given as the very reason for building anything on the site in the first place.

Before we decide just how far off into the clouds this effort has ascended, let’s quickly review the four possible development options, as presented by Mr. Hamm:

  1. A parking structure on the big rectangular part of the L-shaped parking lot south of Ellis Place.
  1. A parking structure plus a mixed use, two and one half-storey development on the triangular parking lot north of the A & V’s, and a two-storey office building, residential, and/or mixed use building on the Chapman/Pomona corner site.
  1. A parking structure, residential condos, and a retail courtyard on Harbor, with possible development on the triangle and Pomona sites.
  1. A parking structure, an eight screen movie theater with retail on Harbor.

Even Mr. Hamm and Pelican-Laing’s report make it clear that they do not favor # 4, the movie theater proposal, but # 3 was taken seriously by the some of the elected and appointed officials that night, leaving stunned audience members to speculate about the real motives behind the whole effort to develop around the Fox Fullerton in the first place.

We also had to wonder why, if Angelo’s & Vinci’s was fair game for a purchase to make room for development, the recently renovated McDonald’s was not. After all, just a few years ago the city was seriously contemplating spending $ 6 million to move the fast food restaurant from its present location, inconveniently in the middle of the southern boundary of the site, to a more development-friendly location on the southeast corner of Chapman and Pomona. No one had a ready answer to that question.

Although the proceedings were characterized as a Study Session, the city planning staff nonetheless sought guidance from the council about which scenarios to seriously consider. Mayor Whitaker conducted an informal straw poll of the five council members and the six present members of the Planning Commission. Even a straw poll, however, seemed out of order for an item designated “Receive and File.”

1934cornerview

The Firestone building next to the Fox Theater circa 1930’s. Things change, but they don’t have to be made worse.

Matthew Leslie

On June 21 the Fullerton City Council voted 4 to 1, Bruce Whitaker dissenting, to award an exclusive negotiating agreement with Dick Hamm’s Pelican Communities to develop a plan for the Fox Block. The so-called Fox Block concept has been around for several years, dating back to the days of Fullerton’s Redevelopment Agency. Although Redevelopment has gone away (for now), there is still money set aside for the project. The stated rationale for the project is an agreement between Cynthia Peck, owner of the adjacent Angelo’s and Vinci’s Restaurant and the RDA (now the city’s “Successor Agency”) to provide adequate parking for the theater when and if it ever opens so the restaurant will not be left without convenient spaces for its patron’s vehicles.

Six members of the public spoke out against entering into an exclusive agreement with Pelican, citing such concerns as:

  • Pelican’s inability to build anything on the Amerige Court site they were supposed to develop nearly ten years ago,
  • Their record of insensitivity to historic resources
  • The lack of transparency in the process because the decision to prepare the original Request for Proposals was made by the Fullerton City Council in a Closed Session meeting in 2015.
  • The vagueness of the staff report, in general

Only one member of the public spoke in favor of the agreement, Leland Wilson, who was a member of the three person board who rated the applicants for Fullerton’s Community Development staff, who ultimately made the recommendation to the Fullerton City Council last week.  Leland Wilson is President of the Fullerton Historic Theater Foundation, overseeing the restoration and eventual operation of the Fox Theater itself. He has also filed papers this year to run for Fullerton City Council, an office he held for a single term between 2002 and 2006.

One speaker who expressed concerns about Pelican’s lack of sensitivity for historic resources was Jane Reifer, who was herself a principal figure in saving the Fox Theater from destruction. Several years ago it was Jane Reifer who pointed out that Pelican’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) of the Amerige Court site downtown characterized several 1920’s era historic structures as “inconsequential 1960’s style” buildings.

Community Development Director Karen Haluza vouched for Pelican’s record of sensitivity to historic resources in their recent Tustin project, Prospect Village. Here is an image of it, you be the judge.

Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 9.15.40 PM copy

Watch out Fullerton, this is what Pelican built in historic Downtown Tustin.

Perhaps Ms. Haluza was referring to the scale of the new buildings, but, comically, or tragically, if you value historic buildings, one was actually torn down to clear the site for Prospect Village. Here is a quote from an OC Register article published at the time of its groundbreaking:

Old Town merchants and developers from Pelican, Tustin LLC, were on hand Monday for the groundbreaking for the long-awaited Prospect Village, a 13-building retail and residential complex to be built at the northwest corner of Main Street and Prospect Avenue.

They gathered next to the remaining two buildings of the historic Utt Juice Company, which will be razed to make way for the new project with 40,000-square feet of new retail space.

Only one speaker, council candidate Joe Imbriano, asserted that the Fox Theater itself was in danger of being eventually torn down. Director Haluza properly assured him that there were no plans for razing the structure, of course, but the larger point of what kind of structure could be appropriate to build next to the Fox was left for later consideration. Commenter Roy Zartman, a local sound engineer with decades of professional experience, cautioned the council that unless “forty foot” equipment trucks can ultimately access the rear of the Fox, no large touring acts would be able to play at the venue.

Most disturbing was Pelican’s Dick Hamm expressing admiration for what we’ll charitably call the “restoration” of the Firestone Building on Chapman Ave., adjoining the Fox Theater. The Firestone is certainly a functional space for its current tenant, Dripp coffee shop, but no one could seriously say that the building much resembles one that had been restored with historical accuracy, with its metal mullioned windows and lego brick-looking roof. If this is what Dick Hamm and our planning staff admire, watch out…

Firestone Today

The Firestone Building. (Image borrowed without permission from Roadside Architecture.com).

As developers do, Mr. Hamm expressed great enthusiasm for building of the site, but one has to wonder why there were so few responses to the Request for Qualifications issued by the city. Director Haluza spoke of evaluating just four, and though she repeatedly noted that Pelican had scored something like 95 out of 100 possible points in the evaluating process that involved Mr. Wilson, it does seem curious that if it is a site with such potential, no more than four responses were evidently received. Is it even realistic to think that adequate parking can be provided on the site without building a structure that is radically out of scale with the neighborhood to the north? As Leland Wilson himself wrote in an email announcing his 2016 council candidacy: “I believe we can ask for better projects that fit Fullerton’s character. Putting 6 stories next to single story homes is just plain wrong.”

One issue that went entirely unaddressed at the public hearing was the potential conflict of interest presented by having Leland Wilson, a declared candidate for Fullerton City Council, participate in the evaluation process that included Pelican, a developer who contributed no fewer than $ 1,500.00 to Mr. Wilson’s unsuccessful re-election campaign in 2006. Although the evaluation process began prior to Mr. Wilson’s March 10 announcement of his candidacy, “Follow-up” interviews are identified as having taken place that same month on the city’s Fox Block web page. The Rag will be very attentive to Mr. Wilson’s campaign filings to see if Pelican is as generous to him in this year’s election as they were in the past.

Leland Wilson Pelican Donaton 2006

$ 1,000.00 from Pelican for Leland Wilson’s failed 2006 campaign…


Wilson Pelican Donation II

…and another $ 500.00 from Pelican for Leland Wilson, for a total of $ 1,500.00.

 

And while we’re on the subject, we ought to consider who else’s political campaigns have been the beneficiaries of Pelican’s largesse. I’ve reproduced all the filings I could find from the city’s website, recording the following contributions to current members of the Fullerton City Council who voted in favor of entering into the exclusive agreement with Pelican last Tuesday:

Mayor Jennifer Fitzgerald received $ 500.00 from Pelican in 2012; Mayor Pro Tem Jan Flory received two separate $ 250.00 contributions, one in 2012, another in 2013, for a total of $ 500.00.

Fitzgerald Pelican Donation 2012

$ 500.00 from Pelican for Jennifer Fitzgerald’s 2012 campaign.


Flory Pelican Donation 2012

$ 250.00 from Pelican for Jan Flory’s 2012 campaign…


Flory Pelican Donation 2012 2

…and $ 250.00 more from Pelican for Jan Flory in 2013, even though she is not running for re-election.

Fox Block Arail

Look out Fox Theater,  you’re surrounded!

Matthew Leslie

Many years ago Fullerton’s city planners cooked up an amorphous project called the Fox Block to surround the historic Fox Theater on the Northeast corner of Harbor Blvd. and Chapman Ave. The original idea, it seems, was for the now defunct Redevelopment Agency to (what else?) subsidize a developer’s downtown project to help, somehow, make the Fox Theater’s eventual operation as an arts and entertainment venue possible.

But there were several problems…

First, rather than augment the silent film era theater, the succession of proposals for the mixed use development got larger and larger until they looked like they would suffocate the theater instead. Neighbors to the north were horrified to find out that a multistory parking structure would be built right across the street from their homes.

Fox Block Paseo

The last effort…can you find the Fox Theater in there anywhere?

 

Second, each set of renderings was comically worse than its predecessor. The final set of drawings threw in everything but the kitchen sink, picturing a fustercluck of bland, mismatched architectural clichés piled atop one another like God had regurgitated an office park on Downtown Fullerton. Whoever designed it got a C- in postmodernism.

Fox Block Fustercluck

Paseo to Hell

 

Third, it became clear that the development was not going to do anything at all to raise money to fund the restoration of the (still closed) Fox Theater. It was just another giveaway of public land to a developer to build a particularly bad eyesore near one of the city’s landmark corners.

The project finally tanked back in 2009 when the Fullerton City Council caved to public pressure and common sense (except for dear old Don Bankhead, who held out until the bitter end) and axed a deal that would have paid millions of dollars to the nearby McDonald’s to be torn down and moved several hundred feet Eastward, where the city had purchased several modest craftsman homes and flattened them to expand a parking lot for the future Fox Block. It was just too much, even for Dick Jones, and, in many ways, signaled the end of the grand era of Redevelopment Agency boondoggles.

Fox Block McDonalds

The infamous McDonald’s move, too much even for Dick Jones.

 

And now, out of nowhere, it’s back, as Regular Business Item # 1 on the agenda of the Fullerton City Council’s June 21 meeting. City planning staff are recommending that the Fullerton City Council “enter into an Exclusive Negotiating Agreement with Pelican Communities, Inc. for the Fox Block Development Project properties.” Yes, you read that right, Pelican, the same tired developer who has been granted something like seven extensions to develop the equally ill-conceived Amerige Court, also on taxpayer owned properties in downtown Fullerton.

According to the staff report, last May the City Council, in closed session, voted to issue a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) to develop the collection of six properties around the theater. Of the “several” responses received, Pelican rated the highest. Say what? The same people who haven’t been able to do anything at all with the Amerige Court area for about a decade? One has to wonder what the submissions from the other guys looked like…

Amerige-Court-North-Elevation

Amerige Court, still not built, but that’s a good thing…

 

The agreement calls for a period of one year, with two optional 45 day extensions, within which the city will negotiate only with Pelican to see what they can do. Let’s look at the bright side, maybe they’ll do nothing at all, which might be the best we can hope for.

Fox Block Agenda

One year of talking, and then an extension…and then…

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