Are Claremont’s commissions an effective system?

A resignation letter from a member of the architectural commission has sparked a conversation about the role commissions play in Claremont.

Marta Perlas noted in her letter, drafted November 6, that “determinations of approval” are made before the commission can vote on a project, thereby making her position “superfluous.”

“I joined the Architectural Commission with much enthusiasm and the idea that my contributions could make a difference in preserving and adding to Claremont’s rich architectural and cultural legacy,” she wrote in the letter. “However, the Community Development Department and Planning Department both prioritize development over quality, thereby reducing the role of the AC to a minimum.”

When reached by the COURIER in a phone interview, Ms. Perlas shied away from singling out the planning and community development departments, noting that it is a more “complex issue” than one that can be blamed solely on certain city entities. But Ms. Perlas maintained she felt diminished in her role as a commissioner.

“I came into the commission thinking it was possible to keep Claremont being what it is, which is a very beautiful city, and there a plenty of good examples of good architecture,” she said. “And after two years, I approved projects that I absolutely did not approve of.”

Those projects included the Serrano II housing development and the upcoming Hampton Inn, which was vociferously opposed by commissioners like Ms. Perlas and Mark Schoeman but were eventually pushed through and approved.

“I could have voted no, but at that point I felt that voting yes or no made no difference,” she said.

Mr. Schoeman maintained that there isn’t a system in place in Claremont where development is given favor, but noted there are “loopholes” in the process. Those loopholes, Mr. Schoeman said, involve getting vital components of a development, such as a track map, approved in the planning commission before the developer goes to the architectural commission. Once these components are approved, it’s harder for the commission to judge the architectural quality of the project itself.

Mr. Schoeman said the process was “very normal” in other cities.

“By the time we see the project in the architectural commission, a lot of decisions have been made and approved that dictate the outcome of the project,” he said. “It’s hard to look a person in the face that spent $100,000 for a year and say this is too big to be approved.”

Mr. Schoeman called this process the “good enough syndrome,” and likened the solutions—in which the commission may issue a non-recommendation, after which the developer appeals and the project goes before the city council—to putting “lipstick on a pig.”

“So [the commission says], ‘No, this isn’t good enough, and here are the reasons why,’ and [the developers] go right back and say, ‘Well, we’d actually rather have a denial than a continuation,’ so they can go to the city council and plead their case,” he said.

Ms. Perlas said when the city council overrules a negative recommendation from the commission on appeal from a developer, the power of the commission to make decisions gets “diminished.”

She also noted that the council usually looks at the minutes of the commission meeting, rather than having the chair of the commission speak on their behalf, when making a decision.

“I may not like it, but that’s the way the law works, and I have to accept that,” she said. “So I felt like I could not contribute anymore. It’s no one’s fault in particular, it’s just the process.”

On the other side of the coin, Ms. Perlas said, the city can’t be seen as anti-development.

“I think that the city itself is in the same position at times about what to do,” Ms. Perlas said. “If they negate every development then the city will self-kill, not grow or be what it is. I guess I didn’t want to take part in that.”

Mr. Schoeman also put the onus on the community for not speaking out against controversial projects, such as the upcoming Hampton Inn.

“When we are looking at a four-story hotel on the 10 Freeway, not one person spoke up about it for or against, and there were people in the audience,” he said. “They could have said, ‘This is a piece of crap. I can’t believe you would allow this in this city.’”

Sue Schenk, who was an architectural commissioner herself for eight years, noted that the commissions hold a bit of heft in city hierarchies, but need to have more of an equal footing with the city.

“I think [commissions] are very valuable but I think that they need to have more power than they do and I think that staff needs to work with them more,” she said.

That work includes training incoming commissioners to be able to adequately make judgment calls on big projects, such as the myriad components relating to the upcoming Pomona College Museum of Art. She referenced her letter in the COURIER two weeks prior, which outlined the confusion among the commissions in what their jobs actually entail.

She also noted that commissioners who don’t have any skin in the game in regards to upcoming developments should be chosen, noting the lack of architectural commissioners present during the approval of the site map for the relocation of the Renwick House on November 30. Oftentimes, commissioners have recused themselves due to their association with a developer or an applicant.

“The way the commissioners are chosen needs a little work, because not enough attention has been paid to making sure that the majority of the commission can actually vote on things,” she said. “And so when the architectural commission had to discuss the relocation of Renwick House, there were only four people who could discuss it. That’s ridiculous.”

Ms. Perlas noted that she accepted a position on the architectural commission to save Claremont from becoming too much like its neighbor cities in terms of architectural quality. She wanted Claremont, in her words, “to continue to be unique.”

“And I see it going in an opposite direction,” she said.

—Matthew Bramlett

news@claremont-courier.com

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