Introduction to the Whittier Conservancy’s Suggested Alternatives to the Proposed Nelles Project.
The City of Whittier will soon be making some important decisions about the future of the Nelles property. The Whittier Conservancy is advocating for the preservation and adaptive reuse of the remarkable, but seldom-seen, historic resources on the property, and we are working to play a constructive role in the process. To that end, we are making a set of three proposals.
These proposals are the result of months of discussions with many stakeholders, including the state, the prospective developer, city officials, interested citizens, and organizations throughout Whittier. They were developed in consultation with an expert in retail architectural design and with others in our organization who possess more than a passing knowledge of land use and planning. A great deal of care and thought went into their creation.
Also, it’s important to note that although our organization has a special focus on historic preservation, our interests do not stop there. Like you, we live here, and we want to see progress in a range of areas including economic development, infrastructure improvement, the arts, sustainability, open space, recreation, education, services to seniors, and all of the other aspects of quality by which any community is measured.
Often there is the view that when the interests of various stakeholders differ, as they certainly do in a project like this, some interests must be subjugated to others. In contrast, we take the view that if you think creatively, there are ways to meet everyone’s interests and find those elusive win-win solutions.
Sometimes finding creative solutions just requires a change of perspective. What if, for example, the historic resources at Nelles were viewed not as an obstacle to be overcome, but as an opportunity to be exploited in ways that better meet the community’s economic, social, recreational and cultural needs?
That is what we have done here. Our proposals call for some modest changes to the proposed project that, taken together or separately, will better serve the community’s interests.
Our proposals are made in the context of the public Environmental Impact Report process, according to requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act. As such, they are presented as project alternatives that will reduce significant project impacts while meeting or furthering the stated project goals.
Please take a look at our proposals and the graphic exhibits that illustrate them. We urge you to support our efforts to customize development plans to better meet the needs of our citizens and maintain our unique sense of place by respecting the important role that Nelles has played in the history of our city and the history of juvenile reform.
Alternatives to the Proposed Project
Modified Commercial Concept
The Whittier Conservancy believes that the redevelopment of the Nelles property presents an opportunity to create a unique dining/entertainment/shopping destination unlike anything in Whittier or the surrounding region. Further, we believe that this can best be accomplished by preserving and adaptively reusing some of the remarkable historic structures that are already there.
Our concept achieves more of the stated objectives of the project (see Summary below) while substantially reducing impacts by retaining and rehabilitating a majority of the historic resources in place. Further, it does not promote isolated, unrelated uses, but a synergy wherein the historic resources contribute to a special and singular visitor experience. Other concepts that accomplish those goals should be sought and considered as well, to provide a full range of preservation options.
The market analysis in 11-17 of the Draft EIR states the following with regard to Whittier’s commercial market: “Local brokers report that Whittier is saturated with neighborhood-serving retail, while a significant number of mall and lifestyle center environments a short drive from Whittier absorb demand for destination retail.”
It further states that “Whittier retail rents are consistent with the Market Area average, but Whittier restaurant and bar rents outperform it.” As an example, the assessment cites Uptown Whittier as an emerging area destination for dining and nightlife, where customers are drawn by “the walkable environment and historic buildings.”
Our project alternative seeks to capitalize on these trends through a modest modification of the commercial focus of the Lincoln Specific Plan away from “neighborhood-serving retail” and more toward destination dining and entertainment, featuring the kind of unique, walkable, historic environment with which Whittier is already becoming associated regionally.
Our commercial concept has all of the features contained in the Lincoln Specific Plan, including comparable square footage, but is designed to be more engaging and economically productive. Features include a vibrant dining and entertainment plaza and amphitheater, an exclusive special event court, handy junior box stores, shops on the boulevard, attractive transportation frontage, and a distinctive corner at Whittier Blvd. and Sorenson. Exhibits of this concept are attached, along with one of the Lincoln Specific Plan for comparison purposes.
• Dining and Entertainment Plaza: The dining and entertainment plaza features an outdoor amphitheater for live music and other performances and for screening major sporting events. The plaza is shaded by a distinctive and iconic sail/awning structure, and includes a water feature and children's activity area.
The former Gymnasium, Auditorium and Maintenance Garage border the plaza, along with two new structures that would mimic and complement the architectural features of the historic buildings.
Potential uses include a sports bar and restaurant, brewery and beer garden, specialty food hall similar to the Packing House in Anaheim, supper club, dance/karaoke club, a multi-theatre movie complex (think Whittier Village Cinemas West, offering more screens and movie choices for Whittier residents), wine tasting, and possibly establishments like the Old Spaghetti Factory, Yard House, BJ’s or Lucille’s.
Outdoor dining, beer and wine gardens extend into the plaza from the adjacent buildings, illuminated at night by strings of lights. The plaza could also feature boutique kiosks or carts and a grassy open area for picnicking or children’s play (professional babysitting services could be offered). Ambient music would add to the lively atmosphere.
• Special Event Court: The special event court utilizes the former Administration Building, Superintendent’s Residence, Assistant Superintendent’s Residence (moved from its current location) and possible complementary infill. It would serve as a comprehensive event facility for weddings, quinceaneras, retirement parties, and other celebrations, providing full-service arrangements for such events.
The Administration Building functions as a one-stop event center, featuring event planning services, caterer, bridal gown and tux shop, decorator, day spa/ hair salon, florist, jeweler etc. Rehearsal dinners and smaller events could be held in the building’s lovely reception hall.
Landscaped garden event sites utilizing some of the mature trees would be available behind the Superintendent’s Residence and/or in the courtyard between the buildings. Receptions could be held in trellised or tented areas in the courtyard, at the nearby Chapels, or at facilities in the Dining and Entertainment Plaza.
The Superintendent’s Residence could serve as a B and B for the bride and groom, featuring a reception area and robing rooms for the wedding party. The Assistant Superintendent’s Residence could function as an intimate fine-dining restaurant, tea room, or as an additional B and B for wedding party members. Alternatively, either building could house additional event service businesses.
• Junior Boxes: Prominent junior box stores also attract attention from Whittier Boulevard.
• Boulevard Shops: Shops and restaurants along Whittier Boulevard are separated by landscaped openings, framing views of the junior boxes, Special Event Court, and Dining and Entertainment Plaza.
• Transportation Frontage: Attractive transportation frontage on Whittier Boulevard provides transit stops and access for vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians. A welcoming entry road winds its way past the impressive front of the former Administration Building and into the residential part of the development, while a pedestrian gateway guides visitors through the Special Event Court to the interior of the project.
• Distinctive Corner Features: Flanking commercial structures, monumentation and signage at the corner of Sorenson and Whittier Boulevard make an especially grand and inviting architectural statement.
The Lincoln Specific Plan separates the Administration Building and the Superintendent’s Residence with a road that runs behind the Administration Building. Our modified concept reroutes that road to the FRONT of the Administration Building, thus showcasing what is arguably the most dramatic and iconic facade representing the history of the property. The result is that the area identified as “Heritage Court” in the Lincoln Specific Plan is actually a more cohesive courtyard and retains the important historic context that the two buildings have always had.
Our concept also seeks to address the fact that the Lincoln Specific Plan places a new structure directly in front of the Administration Building, further hiding it from view. Our plan relocates the square footage occupied by that proposed structure to retain the visual prominence of the Administration Building and to maintain a continuity between the two adjoining historic commercial clusters we are proposing.
In addition, we seek to coordinate the above concept with needs identified by the Whittier arts community. We support their proposal that a consortium of Whittier arts organizations lease and manage the Chapels as a live music performance and arts education facility, one that could also be rented for private events.
The two adjoining chapels, one intimate and one large, with their shared foyer, would offer beautiful locations for indoor weddings and ceremonies of different sizes, serviced by businesses in the Special Event Court. The current large classroom wing of the building would similarly be appropriate for catered receptions. This lease/management arrangement could work whether the Chapels were privately owned, or preferably, city-owned. Art-in-public-places funds could even support these uses.
The above concept has a number of environmental advantages. It unifies uses for six of the historic structures, creating in the process a more viable historic district. In doing so, it strengthens the opportunity to take advantage of national historic tax credits that are available for rehabilitation projects that serve commercial purposes. Further, it saves money and time for the applicant and reduces environmental impacts by requiring less grading than the current plan.
Our proposal also better meets four of the stated objectives of the Lincoln Specific Plan, while detracting from none:
Generate net revenue for the City of Whittier General Fund: Our Modified Commercial Concept creates two vibrant historic commercial areas designed to form a regional retail destination with the potential to generate more economic activity than the proposed, more conventional, commercial configuration.
Create public space amenities within the commercial area: As currently presented, the Lincoln Specific Plan does not meet this objective. Our concept creates a plaza and courtyard that will serve as gathering places, not only for people from within the project, but for people in surrounding neighborhoods and beyond.
Provide for diversity in architectural design along with traditional design elements reflecting some of the characteristics of older, established Whittier: Our proposal better preserves Whittier’s historic architecture by preserving more of the site’s historic buildings. It reuses existing building materials in an even more sustainable way by leaving them on the buildings.
Create connectivity between land uses: Our concept connects commercial uses to each other and to the Chapels, further integrating the historic resources as a focal point for the development. Some Special Event customers will rent the Chapels, and concert attendees at the the Chapels are likely customers for the Dining and Entertainment Plaza before and after events.
Continuum of Care Project Alternative
Despite the fact that many prominent citizens in Whittier have identified the need for a senior continuum of care facility in Whittier, and the city recently conducted a market study confirming the viability of such a facility, no project alternative was presented in the Draft EIR to fill that need. The Whittier Conservancy believes that such an alternative should be studied.
A senior continuum of care facility would offer independent living and active adult residences that are integrated with Assisted Living and Skilled Nursing services for seniors. There is currently no facility in Whittier fitting that description, and long-time residents are leaving town to find one. Development of the Nelles property offers an opportunity to take advantage of a booming market driven by aging Boomers and their even more vintage parents.
The inclusion of such a facility would better meet plan objectives to “Provide for a range of housing types and opportunities to address a variety of lifestyles, life stages and economic segments of the marketplace.”
Such an alternative also promises to substantially mitigate several of the impacts identified in the DEIR, since residents of such facilities have fewer cars, or have stopped driving altogether, resulting in more internal capture and reduced traffic.
In such a context, the historic Infirmary could be adapted to function successfully as a skilled nursing component.
Increased Density and Open Space Project Alternative
The Whittier Conservancy believes that a project alternative featuring increased density and more open space should also be considered. As indicated in the Draft EIR, the city open space requirement for a project this size is 7.3 acres. Currently, the Lincoln Specific Plan only provides 4.6 acres of open space, even when the preserved Chapels are counted toward open space requirements.
This is insufficient to Whittier’s current and future needs, as the 0-14 age group comes to dominate Whittier demographics. This development needs more play areas, and the environmental advantages of providing more open space should be considered.
Doing so also offers the opportunity to preserve more of the current landscape features, including mature trees on the property. Revenues to the city would be the same, but the status of the historic landmark would be more intact.
In addition, the pedestrian trail, as currently configured, is little more than an enhanced sidewalk, entering the property in two places, tracking two internal streets and ending at a locked gate adjacent to the PIH property.
We contend that a trail worthy of the designation should be a landscaped path that winds its way throughout the property, forming a loose loop that connects the various internal neighborhoods and commercial components.
An alternative like this would better meet plan objectives by truly creating “connectivity between land uses,” providing “recreational amenities within walking distance of residential neighborhoods,” and more fully promoting the “healthy lifestyles” promised in Lincoln marketing materials.