In my years of doing the Vanguard, we have covered a number of lawsuits and their settlements and, in those years, there does not seem to be more uncertainty over the implications of a lawsuit than this one.
Part of the problem here is that the city was not a party to the settlement of this suit. Therefore, normal sources for clarification, either from Assistant City Manager Mike Webb, who heads up the planning department, or from the city council, were largely in the dark on the details of the settlement.
Those in the know – such as Michael Harrington – were not talking.
It is easy to take a cynical view of these matters – after all, the most glaring portion of the settlement was the $75,000 that attorney Don Mooney was set to receive as part of the settlement.
Was this really all about money? The suit originally alleged that the Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) was in violation of CEQA due in part to the insufficiency of the study of traffic impacts to Richards Boulevard. How does this settlement address those issues?
That is the biggest puzzle in this whole settlement. It was never clear that the hotel was going to have a huge impact on traffic on Richards Blvd. Part of the reason is that, while there are existing congestion issues on Richards, the hotel was not generally going to bring in sustained traffic, especially during peak hours.
The settlement does bring in a loaner bike program, a shuttle service, and it establishes a parking fee to encourage people not to bring their cars from the airport. However, one source indicated that the biking program was already required by the city.
In his press release, Mr. Harrington indicates “… the Settlement Agreement reflects that the lawsuit caused Embassy Suites to reduce the visual massing of the buildings, push the buildings to the southern boundary of the property along the freeway so the public’s view from Richards provides for a modified site plan and building design that will be much improved and opened up, and ensures that the project footprint and design will not interfere with or compromise the City and Cal Trans’ ability to re-work the Richards area, including Olive Drive intersection and the I-80/Richards tight diamond.”
But it’s not clear how this is accomplished with what is actually in the settlement agreement. The settlement agreement reduces the number of floors of the building, but not the height. What is even more strange, and no one with knowledge is willing to explain, is how this is accomplished without a reduction in rooms – which Mr. Harrington insists will not occur.
The question, as others posed yesterday, is “what exactly did the settlement change for the traffic situation?”
Alan Pryor, apparently not a party to the lawsuit, but a critic of the project, stated, “Absolutely nothing was changed to improve the traffic. The purported traffic study is still deficient in exactly the same manner and the mitigations are still just as deficient as before.”
He continued, “Think Richards is screwed up now? Just wait until construction on the hotel starts. The average 5 minute wait to get to the downtown will probably explode to 10-15 minutes. It may be faster to go to the malls in Woodland than to try to get downtown through the tunnel and find parking. Wonder what that will do to our downtown merchants and our retail tax revenue?”
Again, let us back up this discussion to the points raised by Michael Harrington and Alan Pryor last fall.
Former City Councilmember Michael Harrington raised the issue of planning process, stating, “I think we have a situation here where the city staff is recommending the use of a ‘neg dec’ to avoid a full CEQA analysis and I think that the facts and law are against that process.”
He added, “I think that the weaknesses in the traffic report and the fact that the historic resources were not really evaluated, I think that that places you out of the ‘neg dec’ status and I believe that if you continue this and look at it some more, you’d have a good project.”
Alan Pryor, continuing on his line from his guest column in the Vanguard, stated, “I think there are many problems with this project that we really have to work through.”
He said, “For one, the traffic analysis was deficient in that it relied on unjustifiably low pre-existing baseline traffic counts taken by humans only over a two-hour period last year. I certainly don’t think you can say that’s representative.”
He further stated that this is compounded by under-counting or underestimating the number of vehicles that would come to the facility during maximum occupancy events. He argued that they did not have near enough parking to handle that.
So again – someone needs to explain on the record how this very modest agreement addresses those concerns. In fact, I think we need to go further than that – why did Michael Harrington have to file a lawsuit to get bikes, a shuttle service, and a fee for parking? It seems like that could have been done in a separate negotiation.
With the bigger issues of the MND and traffic study unresolved, we have to at least consider the possible explanation that this was simply all about money and not at all about good planning – the latter of which has been the central premise of Mr. Harrington’s actions for the last several years.
The ball is in Mr. Harrington’s court, in our view, to explain what the community has gained by all of this. Right now the answer would seem to be not very much.
—David M. Greenwald reporting