Mayor Schwab and the ‘bridge to nowhere’

City Council tackles Southwest plan on eventful swearing-in night

Around 9:30 Tuesday night (Dec. 2), at the first meeting of the newly constituted Chico City Council, Chico State professor Mark Stemen stepped up to the lectern to talk about the Southwest Chico Neighborhood Plan.

“Mayor Schwab,” he began. “That sounds good—I like that!”

He wasn’t alone. A who’s who of Chico progressives had packed the council chamber two hours earlier to witness the swearing in of Jim Walker, Andy Holcombe and Ann Schwab along with the solitary conservative, Larry Wahl. They cheered loudly when Schwab became the unanimous choice to succeed Holcombe as mayor, and she beamed when he handed her the gavel.

“When I moved to Chico in 1975,” she said afterward, “I never, ever expected I’d be mayor of Chico, and now that it’s happened, I’m so proud, and humbled, too.”

Schwab, who wore her mother’s high school ring, was especially pleased by one attendee: “my best friend, Ed"—Chico Velo founder Ed McLaughlin, paralyzed a year ago in a cycling accident.

Holcombe, in his “last act as quasi-mayor,” then nominated Tom Nickell to replace Schwab as vice mayor. He, too, got unanimous support, and as applause resumed, the first-term councilman sat back and took it all in.

Next came the night’s second tribute, the new mayor honoring the old. The first was more emotional, as members of the standing-room-only crowd wearing “You’re gonna miss me” T-shirts gave a rousing sendoff to Steve Bertagna, a former mayor (1998-2000) who decided not to seek a fourth term on the council.

“It has been an absolute hoot to be a City Council member for the city of Chico, and I’ve enjoyed it every step of the way,” he told the audience after receiving an official proclamation.

“I feel absolutely confident that the city is in good hands—not necessarily with this group all the time,” he quipped, referring to the council majority, “but with Dave Burkland as city manager; John Rucker, who’s been appointed assistant city manager; and [General Services Director] Dennis Beardsley … they have all the tools in place.”

Pomp and circumstance aside, the first agenda for Mayor Schwab and rookie Councilman Walker had some meaty items, most notably consideration of the Southwest Chico plan.

The document—some four years in the making—sets a vision for the 624-acre area bounded by (roughly speaking) Ninth Street to the north, the railroad tracks to the west, Comanche Creek to the south and Mulberry/Fair streets to the east. Within those boundaries sit the Barber Neighborhood and the Diamond Match property; just outside the lines is the Hegan Lane Business Park, whose owner and tenants nonetheless got consulted about the plan and swayed the deliberation Tuesday night.

Referenced multiple times was a letter by Jeff Collins, president of Cascade Orthopedic Supply, that listed six other business owners as supporters.

“Provisions for the secondary access to the Hegan Lane region affect public health and safety, traffic congestion, air quality, economic development and other matters of significant public interest,” the letter begins. “While controversial, it is entirely likely that a comprehensive and objective General Plan analysis would determine that the extension of East Park Avenue to Otterson Drive serves the greater public interest.”

Separating those thoroughfares is Comanche Creek. So, once again, Measure A—the referendum for a roadway and bridge—returned to public discourse.

Michael Pike, the first of 12 speakers, called “benign words like connectivity, circulation issues” and the like “euphemisms for wanting another bridge to nowhere.” He noted that “Measure A was defeated soundly in 2001” and “the vision of the Southwest Neighborhood Plan calls for open space in that area.”

Pike, Stemen and most of the other speakers supported the plan as written; Collins and Bill Brouhard, a partner of business park owner Doug Guillon, requested modifications on nine of the 105 pages. Wahl concurred and asked, via friendly amendment to Holcombe’s motion to approve the plan, that the letter’s changes be incorporated.

Holcombe declined, agreeing with Senior Planner Shawn Tillman that “wordsmithing” shouldn’t be done without consulting the constituents who helped draft the document.

Colleague Scott Gruendl took a different tack, suggesting a phrase from Tillman that the neighborhood plan “will neither prejudice the general-plan analysis of circulation issues, nor prescribe the manner in which the [city]-owned property along the creek can be used.” That amendment Holcombe did accept, and the motion passed 6-1, with Wahl dissenting.

Funding for redevelopment in the plan area remains open-ended. City staff recommended allocating $3 million of the $6.5 million allocation remaining for neighborhood projects, but Barber Neighborhood Association member Emily Alma told the council that the group was seeking outside funding sources, such as grants.

The council later approved allocating $5,200 from the city’s Community Development Block Grant to help offset the loss of federal funds at the Torres Community Homeless Shelter; forming a citizens committee to prioritize improvements to make the city fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act; authorizing revised contracts with three employee unions; and holding a “state of the city” meeting next September in addition to the event hosted by the Chamber of Commerce in January.

It was a full night for Schwab, as well as for Walker, who felt like a “Johnny come lately” when “the main thing we talked about was this plan that people have been working on for years and I read for the first time in the last 10 days.” Still, as a former park commissioner and CARD board member, “I’ve been dealing with real things on agendas for a long time,” and “I think it went well.”

Final tally
Official results of the Nov. 4 election for Chico City Council (*-incumbent; four seats open):

Andy Holcombe* 16,905 14.97%
Ann Schwab* 16,851 14.92%
Jim Walker 16,574 14.67%
Larry Wahl* 15,755 13.95%
Mark Sorensen 15,317 13.56%
Joe Valente 12,905 11.4%
Ali Sarsour 11,752 10.4%
Cynthia Van Auken 6,600 5.8%