The Fullerton Rail District: Bushala & Zenger’s new paradigm for development.


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I know, let’s start here – let’s start with what USUALLY happens, what generally happens.  What generally happens, that is, in contemporary Orange County when a city council – usually elected with developer dollars – decides they want to build up, become a bigger city, join the “modern world,” add to their tax base or whatever and give the go-ahead to more residential and mixed-use building.

Steve Sheldon's notorious Elan Apartments at Beach and Ellis, "accidentally" enabled by Huntington Beach's "Beach-Edinger Specific Plan."

Steve Sheldon’s notorious Elan Apartments at Beach and Ellis, “accidentally” enabled by Huntington Beach’s “Beach-Edinger Specific Plan.”

What usually happens, as in Huntington Beach recently, is that, freed from many of the usual regulations, often answerable not to elected councilmembers but pliable staff and completely insulated from public input, developers will maximize number of units, build up and out as far as they can get away with – up to the sky!  out to the street! – and leave the negative externalities of their projects to the rest of us.  Negative externalities meaning traffic, parking (which they’ll provide as little of as they can get away with), pollution, strain on the infrastructure from plumbing to schools, and general unquantifiable eyesore.

More fruits of Huntington Beach's 2012 "plan," at Gothard and Edinger.

More fruits of Huntington Beach’s 2012 “plan,” at Gothard and Edinger.

Residents of Fullerton have been all too aware of this phenomenon, living under an excessively developer-friendly council until the Bushala-funded recall of 2012.  When they gradually became aware, over the last few years, of their town’s “Downtown Core and Corridor Specific Plan” (DCCSP, funded by a million-dollar grant from the state’s Strategic Growth Council) alarm bells went off, as they foresaw more of the same, on a larger scale.   Warned the “Fullerton Rag” last year…

Outdoing HB - The "Thing That Ate Fullerton," at Cedar and Highland, greenlighted by Fullerton's old guard.

Outdoing HB – The “Thing That Ate Fullerton,” at Cedar and Highland, greenlighted by Fullerton’s old guard.

  • The DCCSP would be the largest Specific Plan in the city’s history.
  • Most people living in the more urban parts of Fullerton are near areas that will see a radical change in zoning if the plan is passed, with multi-story mixed used developments being allowed near single family residential streets.
  • Although the plan promises “Increased Attractiveness” and “Improved Public Spaces,” there is no funding in place for either of these nebulous amenities, only an invitation for developers to build higher density housing
  • The amount of parking required to be provided by developers can be radically reduced, even though there are no plans or funding in place for any alternative modes of transportation.
  • Increased vehicular traffic will inevitably affect major thoroughfares and the adjacent neighborhoods.
  • If the plan is approved, building projects in the designated areas would not need approval by the City Council or even the Planning Commission. Instead, only city staff would need to sign off on developments.
What-in-the-name-of-Dick-Jones HAPPENED TO THE WINDOWS?

What-in-the-name-of-Dick-Jones HAPPENED TO THE WINDOWS?

 As community activist Judith Kaluzny pointed out at the time, this places a HUGE chunk of Fullerton at the mercies of the same “civil servants” who “brought Fullerton 58 liquor licenses in its downtown, which by state law standards should have five licenses, and at a maintenance cost to taxpayers (over and above sales tax receipts) of $1.6 million a year…” leading to the Boschian hellscape of debauchery and police beatings that we all know:

Harbor and Commonwealth on a Friday night.  Click for larger image.

Harbor and Commonwealth on a Friday night. Click for larger image.

Green activist and frequent council candidate Jane Rands caught wind of the DCCSP in 2011, long before anyone else, and began to speak out;  eventually the group “Friends For a Livable Fullerton” re-formed, and by the time of the 2014 council election the plan was so toxic that even the candidates who’d received thousand-dollar donations from the Building Industry Association began to distance themselves from it.  Since then the plan has sort of sat in limbo, but eventually – as in now – it’s become necessary for council and the planning commission to do SOMETHING to justify the $1 million of state money they spent developing it.

Enter Bushala, Zenger and the Fullerton Rail District.

Visionaries at work:  Zenger and Bushala.

Visionaries at work: Zenger and Bushala. Telltale signs of the author in the middle.

Readers of this blog who’ve been around any amount of time are familiar with these two cats.   Tony Bushala, the millionaire Fullerton developer and lover of historic buildings who has already preserved several of them in his hometown; the champion of Kelly Thomas who almost single-handedly drew international attention to the homeless young man’s brutal murder by Fullerton cops; the blogger and activist, now retired from politics, who brought down a corrupt and callous council majority, who coined the term “repuglicans,” and whose brilliant and scabrous Friends For Fullerton’s Future still lives on in archives from 2008-13.

And David Zenger, one of our most prolific and incisive commenters, the impressionist painter and OC Planning Commissioner for eight years, who was fired from his job as senior aide to Supervisor Shawn Nelson for excessive honesty and the occasional (alleged) F-Bomb droppage (but read some of what David saw and fought against during his time at the county and tell me YOU wouldn’t have dropped the occasional alleged F-Bomb.)

I’ll let Dave tell the story from here, I’m getting carpal tunnel…

At the railroad .,., , ready to FIGHT for Fullerton's quality of life.

At the old “Union-Pacific right-of-way” over Harbor, ready to FIGHT for Fullerton’s quality of life.

Tony and I realized a long time ago that a lot – if not most – standard design that is imposed on people lacks any kind of basic environmental sustainability – despite recent lip service to the notion. The concepts of using natural ventilation instead of hermetically sealed living and office compartments seems to have escaped the building industry.  Reclaiming gray water and capturing storm run off? No – too expensive and too annoying. Low tech societies in arid climates have been capturing rain water and storing it in cisterns for millennia. Why aren’t we? Well, the answer is that most developers want to descend on a town, build overbearing eyesores, maximize their profits, and then hit the road. The formula is all too familiar: scrape, overbuild, and a quick exit, stage left.

The disused Union Pacific Park.

The contaminated, closed Union Pacific Park, waiting to be brought back to life.

We see the situation differently: The use of renewable resources, the conservation of energy and the utilization of alternative energy sources are imperative for a future in which developers and governments recognize that traditional growth cannot be sustained indefinitely. We also appreciate planning and architecture that is diverse, that has a human scale, and that invites human interaction and sociability.

For years Tony had a vision for developing an area south of the tracks in central Fullerton – a somewhat marginal industrial area that has a lot of potential for historic preservation, re-use of existing building materials, and the development of a sustainable, mixed use environment that supports artisanal use and artistic entrepreneurship and that is integrated into the existing city fabric. Tony and his family own quite a bit of property in the area and have an interest in what will happen there. Because of the historic railroad use and the historic, rail serviced packing houses in the area, we call our collective ideas the Fullerton Rail District.

The historic "Elephant Packing House," preserved by Tony Bushala.

The historic “Elephant Packing House,” preserved by Tony Bushala (along with several other great old Fullerton buildings.)

Our idea is inherently different from the massive, high-density apartment blocks that are popping up everywhere; projects that maximize developer’s profits but that give virtually nothing back to the community – except more traffic and the cliff dwelling aesthetic. We are proposing real live-work space, small and affordable shops and studios, ownership opportunitites as well as community open spaces in the form of useful micro plazas. This is a long-haul plan that will be built out over a long time.

The other key part of our plan is the City-owned property that runs the length of the area – the old Union Pacific right-of-way. In fact it runs right down the middle of the area we are talking about. Our idea is to make this the new “Main Street,” a multi-use street that would improve, rather than inhibit circulation as so many recent projects have done.

We saw the Downtown Core and Corridor Specific Plan as a potential vehicle for pursuing our vision in this area since it had been included in one of the focus areas. The Specific Plan had been paid for by a grant from the Strategic Growth Council and we figured our broad concept was a natural fit with the stated aims of the Council.

PlaqueSo we approached the City with the recommendation that it pursue a request for qualifications (RFQ) to develop the City property in the context of the area – in other words, solicit the best qualified people to bring the best ideas and let the City decide what it might want to do in a true marketplace of ideas. This was the genesis of the agenda item approved May 19th – authorization for planning staff to create an RFQ. The City’s plan is to bring the final RFQ document back to the Council for approval and dissemination in August at the same time it considers the focus area in the Specific Plan that includes the area.

Tony has lived in Fullerton for over 47 years. I lived there from 1986 through 2004. We both have a history of community involvement there; we know the town and we have an interest in doing something positive – building a legacy project for both of us, something that will become a new paradigm for suburban renewal in California.

See the Fullerton Rail District website.


About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist/composer in Orange County, and official troubador of both Anaheim and Huntington Beach (the two ends of the Santa Ana Aquifer.) Performs regularly both solo, and with his savage-jazz quintet The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at vernpnelson@gmail.com, or 714-235-VERN.