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Proposed commercial development for downtown Norco gets slapped down

Norco Valley Square would bring much-needed residential units, and possibly a hotel, to the city that takes great pride in its rural atmosphere. But some residents don’t like that idea, and the planning commission agrees with them. An appeal to the city council has been filed.

A 19-acre commercial and residential development proposed for downtown Norco has lost its first round with the city.

In a 3-1 vote, the planning commission May 12 declined to approve Norco Valley Square, a mixed-use multifamily and commercial development – including a possible hotel – that would be built and owned by Frontier Communities in Ontario.

Following a three-hour public hearing, Commissioners Phil Jaffarian, Patricia Hedges and Janette DeLap voted against the proposal, while Commissioner Mark Askey cast the one vote in its favor. Commissioner Danny Azevedo was absent.

But in rejecting Norco Valley Square, the commission was reaffirming the motto of the town that calls itself Horsetown USA: City Living in a Rural Atmosphere.

As proposed, Norco Valley Square would be built on a mostly undeveloped site at the southwest corner of Third Street and Hamner Avenue. The project would consist of 320 affordable residential units, a four-story, 120-room hotel, food garden, outdoor entertainment-recreation area and an equestrian trail.

The residential units would be one, two and three-bedroom. No singe-family homes are planned.

Frontier Communities, which proposed the project two years ago, has put forward a second plan, in which the hotel would be dropped and the residential units raised to 395.

Despite the presence of the auto mall, the area is zoned for some residential development, specifically 20-30 units per acre, which the city considers high density.

In addition to creating a “mixed-use, small-town village experience” that will compliment Norco’s love of horses, Norco Valley Square will promote other modes of transportation – horseback riding, bicycle riding and walking – while helping the city diversify its economy, according to an environmental impact report prepared by Norco’s planning department.

Plans call for the hotel to be 50 feet high, which will require a variance,  –  the project’s proposed land uses “are consistent with the existing general plan and zoning designations,” according to a staff report.

Andrew Wennerstrom, Frontier’s planning director, emphasized those points during his presentation to the commission, while calling the proposed project site ideal for a development like Norco Valley Square.

“A site like this, 19 vacant acres in the core of the Inland Empire, is a very rare thing,” Wennerstrom told the commission. “When we first approached this site it was almost shocking. We wondered how something like that could even be there.”

Frontier Communities has spent much of the past year meeting with Norco residents and hearing their concerns about the project, a task more difficult than it would usually be because of the COVID-19 quarantine, Wennerstrom said.

The hotel generated the most concern among residents, which is why Frontier Communities crafted a second proposal with more residential units but no hotel.

“A lot of people were glad when we did that,” Wennerstrom said. “The hotel was by far the most unpopular part of the project, and we heard the public loud and clear. We were willing to sacrifice [the hotel] in order to make the project better, and the feedback we’ve gotten from that has been very positive.”

Norco Valley Square will generate about $17 million in fees annually for Norco, and it will help the city build the residential units it’s required to build under California’s  Regional Housing Needs Assessment: 454 units, priced for various income levels, between this year and 2029.

The state legislature approved that program – which specifies how many residential units each city must build – because not enough houses are being built in California.

“We’ve tried to be as collaborative as we can be,” Wennestrom said. “We did an an environmental impact report that took 18 months, and we set up a website. We believe it’s a project that’s unique to Norco, and that it will attract commerce and entrepreneurs.”

But the commission said no, citing concerns about the traffic and noise that would be created by the project, mostly by its nighttime entertainment and public gathering area.

“We’re taking a lot of people and we’re putting them in a very small space,” DeLap said shortly before casting one of the three dissenting votes. “I admit the apartments aren’t that big, but traffic is still one of my big concerns, because we’d be putting something very large in a small area.”

Hedges agreed, saying the project would add traffic to a section of Hamner Avenue that is already congested, especially during school hours.

“We’re talking about adding 800 cars, maybe a thousand cars and it’s not going to work,” Hedges said. “I like the project, I like the architecture and the different concepts, but I just don’t think it belongs there. It’s good sense. Logistically, it just doesn’t fit.”

Frontier is asking for too many variances, meaning things the city wouldn’t allow in other areas, according to DeLap.

“I’m concerned about all of things that don’t meet the city’s regular standards,” DeLap said. “It seems like we’re allowing a lot of things to go by that we otherwise wouldn’t. We’re making changes that will only make it more dense.”

Paul Olds, who lives on Paddock Lane next to the development, called the project “a huge negative” not only for his neighborhood and the entire city.

“There will be a loss of privacy,” said Olds, one of about 20 people who spoke against the project. “There’s a walkway that will no be covered, and anyone using it will be able to look directly into the backdoor of my house. If any of you were going to have a four-story building next to your property, this would be a dead issue. It’s the wrong [project] for that location.”

Frontier Communities has asked that Norco Valley Square be referred to the city council, which will have final say regarding the project, said Tim Nguyen, the company’s director.

No hearing date has been set, and changes to the proposal, if any, have not been determined.

“I’ve talked to about 100 people, walked them through the project, and I’ve gotten nothing but positive feedback,” Nguyen said. “They believe it’s the best they can get on that site, and we believe it’s the right project for Norco.”

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