Whittier Conservancy sues to stop Nelles development

Whittier will proceed with public hearings on landmark city property despite lawsuit against the state

Whittier city officials will move ahead with public hearings on the development of the landmark former Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional Facility despite a lawsuit filed against the state last week that could stop the sale of the property.  

Following next week’s public hearings, the City Council will deliberate and vote on whether to move forward with plans for a large retail, commercial and residential project on the 74-acre site. The complaint, filed by the Whittier Conservancy in Alameda County Superior Court, isn’t expected to affect the hearings, city officials said.

“We don’t anticipate the filing of that lawsuit to have any impact on our public hearings,” said Nancy Mendez, assistant city manager. “We’ll continue on our process.”

Susan Brandt-Hawley, the conservancy’s attorney, said in the complaint filed June 10 that California violated state laws in extending escrow for the sale of Nelles until 2017, for a total of six years, without environmental review. 

The lawsuit challenges the state’s two-year extension in March of a 2011 agreement to sell the property to Brookfield Residential Properties for $42.5 million, the conservancy said in a statement.

The pending sale “at a 2011 recession-market value is against the interests of the state, provides no affordable housing, and continues demolition by neglect of the abandoned landmark property,” the complaint states.

“The outcome that we would hope for is that they would rescind the extension,” Brandt-Hawley said.

A spokesperson for the Department of General Services, named in the suit, declined to comment stating that they hadn’t yet seen the lawsuit.  

David Bartlett, vice president of land entitlements for Brookfield Residential, also declined to comment on the lawsuit, but cited support from the city’s Planning Commission, which voted last month to recommend that the council approve the proposed plan.

“We believe, as demonstrated by the Planning Commission, there is broad-based public support for this new community that will create thousands of jobs, millions in economic benefits for the city and community and also preserve and restore historic resources,” Bartlett said.

Nelles, which opened in 1891, is a California State Historical Landmark and was the longest-running state school for juvenile offenders in California. A major point of dispute on behalf of the conservancy has been over how many historic buildings on the site should be preserved, with Brookfield proposing preservation of four of the eight buildings.

Since the purchase and sale agreement has been pending, historical resources on the site haven’t been maintained and “continue to deteriorate without environmental review or permits,” according to the complaint. 

“When the State of California and Brookfield agreed to the sale of this historic site four years ago, there was a good faith expectation that the resultant development would benefit the citizens of Whittier,” Ted Snyder, president of the conservancy, said in a statement. “But as the years have gone by and the value of the property has grown tremendously over the 2011 sale price, Brookfield has proposed a project that offers little benefit to the community and would cause significant environmental impacts.”

During the public hearings, which begin Monday, Brookfield and the Whittier Conservancy will each have an hour to speak. When the hearings are complete, the council will deliberate and decide whether to approve the project, which is expected to bring as many as 750 residential units and up to 200,000 square feet of retail, office, restaurant and commercial space.

 “We’re hoping that it’s at the finish line and we’re hoping we can put together a project that will satisfy the needs of the residents of the city of Whittier,” Mayor Fernando Dutra said. “We want to develop a project that is going to be well thought out and that’s going to benefit the entire city.” 

brittny.mejia@latimes.com

Twitter: @Brittny_Mejia

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