Just about a year ago, members of the San Gabriel City Council were boasting that, because of their grasp of municipal issues, they could breeze through one of their twice-a-month meetings in 30 minutes flat, without skipping a single line of the city budget or stumbling over the tiniest item in a city contract. "We do our homework," said Mayor Janis Cohen.
Those days may be gone forever. Recent council meetings have been drawn-out affairs in which disgruntled residents have tangled with city officials about condominium developments and shopping centers.
This once-quiet city of tidy one-family homes and sprawling commercial strips is suddenly in the throes of one of the San Gabriel Valley's hottest anti-growth rebellions.
"Money talks, and it's talking real loud around here right now," longtime San Gabriel resident Virginia Timmons said the other day as she clipped the greenery in front of her house on Walnut Street, expressing a common perception of what is happening to the community.
Old-timers, many of whom have joined a group called Citizens for Responsible Development, paint a bleak picture of recent trends in their city, including "reckless" full-speed-ahead condominium development, traffic jams, overburdened city services and "indifference" to it all on the part of city government.
The citizens group has forced a ballot referendum on a controversial proposal to build a hotel complex on Valley Boulevard, initiated a petition drive for a one-year moratorium on all development and jammed council meetings with hundreds of angry homeowners.
"In just six months, we've developed a membership of 500 people," said John Tapp, a local accountant and one of the group's leaders.
City officials respond ruefully to all of this. They say they have done what they could to control the rush to build in San Gabriel, acknowledging that in some cases they "didn't like what we saw" in the new construction.
But they argue that the protesters' understanding of city problems is often simplistic and laced with racist opposition to new groups moving into town, especially Asians.
"I was pretty overwhelmed by some of the correspondence we've been receiving (about Asians)," said Mayor Cohen. "It was very, very strong stuff."
Three members of the citizens group took a quick tour of the city on Wednesday, shaking their heads at the pace of change and bemoaning what they perceived as the decline of their neighborhoods.
"San Gabriel used to be a dream come true," said Mary Cammarano, who moved to San Gabriel from Buffalo, N.Y., 23 years ago. "It was a place where my kids could ride freely on their bicycles. There was so much room."
She gazed dolorously at Municipal Park, one of the city's two frequently jammed parks. "Last Sunday, we tried to bring the grandchildren here to play," she said. "It was a disaster. We couldn't find any place to park. We went back home to play in the yard."
Added Greg O'Sullivan, a San Gabriel firefighter and chairman of the organization: "There's a lot of cement, a lot of development around here, but no parks for kids."
San Gabriel is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it city of about 33,000, tucked among Alhambra, Rosemead and San Marino. Where Valley Boulevard, one of its prime commercial strips, crosses the southern end of town, San Gabriel is just 15 blocks wide. There is a core of fourth- and fifth-generation Mexican-Americans, a burgeoning Asian population and a majority of Caucasians, including the "upscale" people in spacious homes around the San Gabriel Country Club, near the San Marino city line.
Joked one resident of the southern part of town: "Some of the people up there prefer to think of themselves as 'South San Marinans.' "
The city's main claim to fame is San Gabriel Mission, an imposing historic monument on Mission Drive, with an elegant adobe facade and six church bells, built in 1771 by Father Junipero Serra. The city has mandated "early California" style in other structures along Mission Drive.
According to city officials, the population is probably about 35% Latino now, as much as 15% Asian and the remainder quiet-loving, largely conservative whites, living for the most part in cozy one-family homes. The fastest-growing group, they add, is made up of Asians, who are moving into many of the new multi-unit buildings.
That's the problem, say members of Citizens for Responsible Development. More than 900 apartments or condominiums have been built in the city in the past four years, they say, and the southern part of the city bristles with construction sites, including a 142-unit apartment complex about to go up on the former site of Valley Vista Hospital at the corner of Broadway and Del Mar Avenue.
"This project," contended O'Sullivan, "will have the single greatest impact on the city of any project since horse-and-buggy days."
For the most part, they say, the new buildings are cheaply constructed, with little attempt at landscaping, and jammed crudely against single-family plots, frequently blocking mountain vistas with 10-foot cinder-block walls.
"There are no common areas, no places for kids to play," said Tapp, pointing at a 34-unit structure on Live Oak Avenue, which he said was built last summer in 39 days. The building is little more than two rows of apartments with a driveway between them.
City Administrator Robert Clute acknowledges that the quality of some new condominiums and apartments has been low. The city responded this year by imposing tight restrictions on multi-unit buildings, including landscaping and setback requirements and limits on the number of units that can be built.
'Wanted to Upgrade'
"We didn't like what we saw, and we wanted to upgrade things," Clute said.
Even the developers acknowledge that some shoddy building has occurred. "People complain about being able to hear somebody upstairs using the bathroom," said David Mi, the architect on the Valley Vista Hospital site. "Some of us agree with them (the critics). We need better-quality projects, more landscaping."
But he said San Gabriel developers are often willing to negotiate for improvements or for lower densities. For example, on his own project, the developer has agreed to assist in widening Broadway near the project and to install new storm drains in the area in exchange for the right to build, he said.
"It's a matter of sitting down and negotiating," Mi said. "Then everybody benefits."
But critics say the new construction represents more than an aesthetic problem. New residents have overburdened city services, they say. According to the San Gabriel Firemen's Assn., fire calls are up 15% in the past year. The citizens group contends that police calls are up even higher, though the Police Department could not confirm this.
"And every September now, there's a scramble for new classrooms and teachers," Tapp said.
San Gabriel School Supt. Gary Goodson said, however, that overcrowding in the district, which has 3,174 elementary and intermediate school students, has not reached critical proportions. "We have a growth trend of about 100 new students a year," he said.
Even the district's most crowded school, William McKinley Elementary, with 619 students, still has room to grow, Goodson said, though the school will probably reach "saturation" next year. In five years, he estimated, the district may need a new building to accommodate the extra children.
Uproar Over Project
Despite all the furor over multi-unit housing developments, it was a commercial project that brought anti-growth sentiment to a head in San Gabriel. When Dr. Alethea Hsu, a Monterey Park physical rehabilitation specialist affiliated with San Gabriel Medical Center, bought the former Edwards Drive-in Theater on Valley Boulevard last year, proposing to build a hotel and restaurant complex on the 11.5-acre site, it touched off an uproar.
At a March City Council meeting, about 150 residents crowded into the small meeting room and bellowed their opposition to the plan. Upset by a flyer that had characterized the proposed hotel as a "150-room motel" planned to accommodate "foreign tour groups," the protesters demanded that the City Council reject the zoning variance that the plan would require.
In an outpouring of feeling, residents spoke of floods of traffic on their streets, multistory construction next door to their homes and the disappearance of the small-town life style to which they had become accustomed.
Symbol for Issue
According to Carl Schiermeyer, a spokesman for Hsu, the project has erroneously become a symbol for the issue of condominium construction. "We were in the wrong place at the wrong time," he said. "If it were a condominium project, I would write R.I.P. (rest in peace) on the plan."
Critics of the plan say it would add immeasurably to traffic congestion on Valley Boulevard without providing a service directly to residents.
"I'm not a no-growth person," said Cammarano, echoing the sentiments of many fellow residents. "I believe in progress. I just want to see development that's, well, classy."
Many argued for a park on the site.
In April, the council unanimously approved the hotel complex, which will include a restaurant and retail space. A major factor in the council's decision, acknowledged Clute, was the city's suddenly bleak financial picture. The closing of a Gemco store last year and the loss of federal revenue sharing funds have combined to take a $600,000-a-year bite out of the city's budget, he said.
"We're facing the first deficit in our history," Clute said.
Although building a park would have required a $15-million bond issue, which voters were unlikely to approve, the hotel proposal will bring an additional $450,000 a year to city coffers, he said.
The citizens group, unwilling to accept defeat, collected more than 2,600 signatures of voters in May and June, calling for a referendum on the project. Now they are seeking to put a one-year cap on virtually all development.
City officials are worried about the legal and fiscal impact of such a moratorium. The U. S. Supreme Court ruled recently that property owners could sue for compensation when government actions or regulations deprive them of reasonable use of their land.
"That's a real hornet's nest," Clute said. "It certainly could have an effect here, one way or the other."
Cohen added that a moratorium could drive investors away from the city. "Real estate people would back away entirely," she said. "There would be virtually no movement in the city."
Support for Complex
Meanwhile, the hotel developer has elicited some support of her own. Petition-gatherers have gotten signatures of support from 280 people in the area around the proposed complex, and 350 people have responded favorably to a mailing, said Schiermeyer.
Tapp, however, advocates a retailing complex for the drive-in site. "All we are saying," he said, "is give people a chance to express themselves (on development in the city). And when they do talk, listen to them."
There are some signs of conciliation between the citizens group and the city government. Responding to protests, the City Council has enacted a 45-day moratorium on motel construction, pressed for a crackdown on shady "acupressure" parlors and has agreed to put out a quarterly newsletter.
"These are great breakthroughs," said Tapp.
City officials acknowledge that construction has created some genuine concerns in San Gabriel. "People are justifiably alarmed," said Clute, who has been city administrator for 13 years. "Their way of life is changing. That frightens people."