By David Schwartz
It started as a pipe dream a series of lakes and streams to transform the old downtown and solve a host of water woes.
Nine years later, it may become one of the largest redevelopment projects in San Bernardino Valley history.
Called variously Vision 20/20, Downtown Revitalization and most famously, Lakes and Streams, today it carries a more modest moniker: North Lake Project Area.
Despite the name changes, the project still represents a glimmer of hope for many who have watched downtown age and crumble.
As designed, the project would clear a square stretching three-quarters of a mile long on each side. It would demolish 437 houses, six churches and about 30 businesses north of downtown and east of Interstate 215.
In the neighborhood's place, the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District would build a 44.5-acre reservoir. The rest of the land would be turned into parkland and developed with 72 houses and 12 acres of shops.
The lake, proponents say, would help ease the problem of high groundwater and speed up decontamination of a water supply for nearly 1million people. By selling the water, officials expect to recoup some of the lake's cost.
Critics doubt it will meet grandiose expectations. And for all its promises, the North Lake Project Area would cost taxpayers more than $150 million and force nearly 1,500 residents from their homes.
"We've been under the ax for seven or eight years,' said Ghassan Abdullah, a 46-year-old physician who lives in the area and takes care of his disabled mother.
Steve Veloz, who lives on G street, has been through relocation before. It was in his sophomore year in high school in the mid-1960s, and the school district cleared out his family's Westside home to make way for Ramona Alessandro Elementary School.
"When you grew up with people you've known since you were a kid, then they bust everyone out of there,' he said. "Then you're living for over 26 years in the area, you establish roots. There are a lot of things here. Sentimental things. I don't want to be moved. To tell you the truth, I don't want to be moved.'
The burly 54-year-old had taken a wood-shingle house built on G Street in the 1930s and stuccoed it, dry-walled it and redesigned it himself.
It's not about the money.
"I'm not going to ever find a house the way my house is,' Veloz said.
Critics argue the project doesn't have to be so large. A proposal in 2003 would have demolished 111 fewer homes than the current plan.
The consultant said the lake needed to be larger and more shallow to address environmental concerns. The final report, though, made no mention of those concerns.
"Did we change the project in an honest and open fashion?' Councilwoman Susan Lien Longville asked. "We didn't. We used a ploy. We used technical issues to eliminate the entire neighborhood.'
Abdullah said, "Displacing 430 households when there are other viable options that haven't been looked at is not the way to get citizens who've been loyal to this city to jump on board.'
The water district says it needs the larger lake to efficiently deliver water.
Water board President C. Patrick Milligan, first elected to the panel in 1964, points to San Bernardino's high groundwater problem. During an earthquake, high groundwater and the sandy soil beneath downtown could create a quicksand-like effect called liquefaction.
An estimated 5.5million acre-feet of water lies beneath San Bernardino, enough to meet the needs of 100,000 families for 55 years without replenishment. The lake, Milligan said, will serve as a hub to sell water to Redlands, Rialto, Colton and Loma Linda. A major step
On April 25, the City Council and the water board agreed to the project's design and certified that it met state environmental laws. Lawsuits filed Friday by residents in the area challenge that assertion.
Approval of the project even with lawsuits looming at the time was a milestone that prompted Milligan to pump his fist and proclaim, "San Bernardino is going to get its lake.'
It didn't come without a fight, though. Protesters packed in, wearing T-shirts that showed Mayor Judith Valles pointing the way out of the neighborhood for broken-looking residents. Yet they were outnumbered by a group of chief executive officers and community leaders who came out to support the project.
An attempt by Lien Longville to get the smaller lake approved failed by one vote.
The project has received its approval and now needs to be built, Milligan said.
"Any people around that think after all these years, all these votes, we're going to resurrect any of these issues, it's never going to happen,' he said. "The time for argument is gone. It has passed. Arguments now are only a matter of history. We're going forward and going to do this project.'
Even longtime opponents are beginning to give up hope.
"I've been fighting this for five years,' said Lucy Romero, whose home that would be demolished is decorated with anti-lakes signs. "But I was at the last meeting. I saw they were for it.'
She has begun to look for a new house.
The water district plans to buy out and compensate residents, renters and business owners in the area. It will pay them enough to find a similar home or apartment nearby, Project Manager John Hoeger said. A downward spin
San Bernardino shares many of the same problems found in urban America.
To understand why bulldozing more than 82.4 acres of houses, businesses and churches appeals to so many is to understand how far the city has fallen.
In the first part of the 20th century, San Bernardino was not just the county seat in name. Route 66 ran through part of the town. Families in dusty desert towns trekked down to Harris' department store to shop in the big city. The railroads from the Pacific Ocean ports carried goods inland, and San Bernardino was a hub.
Perhaps the first blow to the city's future came in 1979, when southbound Interstate 15 split off from Interstate 215 in Devore. The future of retail and housing growth then funneled to Ontario and Rancho Cucamonga, said Nick Cataldo, a local historian.
In 1984, the Kaiser Steel Corp. mill near Fontana closed and 8,800 jobs were lost. Santa Fe Railway's repair shop was moved from San Bernardino to Kansas in 1988, erasing 6,300 jobs. Finally, the city received word in December 1988 that Norton Air Force Base was going to close.
The workers who lived in their small but tidy homes had to look for jobs elsewhere. Investors came in, thinking they were buying low. They rented out the houses, hoping for a quick rebound and a neighborhood on the mend.
Others had the same idea. Entire blocks became rentals. When landlords turned up absent, the area began to deteriorate, said Redlands-based economist John Husing, who studies the Inland Empire.
As jobs and homeowners fled, blight spread. By the mid-1990s, the area north of downtown San Bernardino, on the east side of I-215, had the highest rate of foreclosures in the city.
Like many of the old guard of the city, Edward G. "Duke' Hill was sick of seeing the city deteriorate. A land appraiser, he was active in the community, serving as the president of the San Bernardino Symphony and the Chamber of Commerce.
"It became obvious to me the city had no overall direction, no plan,' Hill said recently.
In 1996, he was headed back from appraising a planned development south of Hesperia, Rancho Las Flores. Nestled in a secluded valley, it is only accessible by a winding road.
He pulled over on his way home and looked out over the valley. He asked himself why people would move to such an inaccessible location and started thinking about solutions for San Bernardino.
Tear up the street grid system. Pump water under the city above ground, flooding the creeks that feed the Santa Ana River. Build some houses and businesses along the banks.
Not long after, he vacationed in Maui. While walking the beach, he spoke into a dictation machine, laying out his vision. That turned into a bound pamphlet titled "San Bernardino: The Future Runs Through It.'
At the same time, Milligan saw that Louis Fletcher, then general manager of the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District, was exploring using San Bernardino's high groundwater for a reservoir in Redlands, Milligan said.
"I said Louis, 'I like that idea,'' Milligan recalled.
But he wanted the reservoir to be in San Bernardino.
"We have high groundwater, we're shipping it down to Orange County for free, why don't we use some of it to improve quality of life?' Fletcher remembers thinking.
So Hill, Fletcher and Milligan began talking to Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, at local chamber of commerce events, to everyone who would listen.
"I think we had a very positive response from everybody,' Fletcher said. "It makes sense. If we have all this water, let's use it, not lose it.'
He had thought everything would go smoothly.
"Everybody would love to have the lake, Warm Creek flowing again, pathways, bikeways,' Fletcher said.
That was nine years ago.
Larger lake in
To move the project forward, the City Council and water board hired RBF Consulting in Ontario to prepare the environmental impact report for the project.
The smaller version of the lake, the one that integrated the old housing with the new housing and met the water district's needs, was supposed to be the project's scope.
On June 18, 2003, about six months after being hired, Kevin Thomas, the environmental services manager for RBF, said the lake needed to be more shallow, according to minutes of the San Bernardino Regional Water Resources Authority, which was formed by the City Council and the water board. In order to store enough water, it also had to be wider.
Thomas said RBF's research found problems with the high groundwater level, water fluctuation and clay importation, making the larger option a necessary project, according to the minutes .
The lake expanded from 34 acres to 44.5 acres. Now, 437 homes would be demolished.
When the final environmental report was released, the technical concerns raised by RBF Consulting nine months before were gone. Instead, the smaller project was discounted because it wouldn't provide enough redevelopment opportunities.
At the April 25 joint meeting of the City Council and the water board t o certify the environmental document, Lien Longville made a fiery but ultimately unsuccessful speech advocating a smaller lake.
Valles said she was grandstanding. Milligan accused Lien Longville of bringing up her concerns at the last minute.
Residents, though, said they felt like they had a new ally.
"Getting 83 acres, when the whole project is for a 40-acre lake, and you're going to sell the land back to private developers?' asked Abdullah. "It's cheating the citizens of the city. I would think if you're going to do a project of this size, you'd impact the least amount of people.'
Valles said the decision to go with the larger lake was to meet the needs of the water district.
"This is a better choice of the two,' Milligan said. "I do not believe it was an effective reservoir. I never, ever had much enthusiasm for the smaller lake.'
Sherrie Gundlach, business development coordinator for RBF Consulting, referred questions to the water district.
To Milligan, it's not a lake. It's a reservoir. He has always maintained that the redevelopment opportunities are only a side benefit to the water issues that the project would solve.
Rain and melted snow rush down the slopes from the mountain peaks and into San Bernardino. Water sinks beneath the city into what is called the Bunker Hill Basin.
Dammed off by the San Jacinto Fault, 5.5 million acre-feet of water about the size of Lake Shasta when it's full builds up underneath downtown.
The resulting high groundwater, combined with silty and sandy soil, puts much of downtown San Bernardino at risk during an earthquake.
When the groundwater rises too high, the loose sandy soil becomes saturated. In an earthquake, the grains of sand try to slip together but can't get any traction because they're surrounded by water, according to a report prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey.
The ground that buildings use for support becomes similar to quicksand.
"Essentially, everything underneath the buildings just becomes soft and soupy, almost like Jell-O,' said Katherine Kendrick, a research geologist at the USGS.
Scientists say buildings can sink or tilt over.
"It's most common when you have loose sediments, a high groundwater table and the possibility of an earthquake,' said Sally McGill, a professor of geology at Cal State San Bernardino. "We definitely have all three of those factors in downtown.'
Milligan said, "We need the reservoir-lake so we can pump all the water we need out of the basin to keep this city safe.'
McGill said the high groundwater problem could be solved without the lake project.
"It's important to try to lower the groundwater, but you don't have to link lakes and streams to groundwater,' she said.
McGill doesn't have a position on the project.
"That's a question more for people who know about urban planning,' she said.
Lien Longville, who is also associate director of the Water Resources Institute at Cal State San Bernardino, said the project would have little effect on liquefaction. She called that argument a "scare tactic.'
"It is preposterous,' she said. "It may be a good water project, but it sure as hell is not a public safety project.'
Milligan said the reservoir would allow the water district to sell the high groundwater beneath San Bernardino.
"You can't just forever pump water unless you have somebody to pay the bill,' Milligan said.
He maintains that the lake can only be at its proposed site because of the higher elevation and the location of existing pipes.
"It has to be where it is,' he said. "If moving a half- or quarter-mile would have worked, we would have done it.'
The alternative, he said, was to build a farm of steel tanks to help deliver the water, which would only add to the city's blight.
"The city needs to go to work to plan on how it's going to accept this gift and turn it into a diamond for the community,' he said. "It sure needs one.'
The 3 R's
Residents of the area are skeptical. They have heard the buzzwords before. Renaissance. Revitalization. Rejuvenation.
Projects like Carousel Mall and Seccombe Lake were pitched with the same prospect of saving downtown. Instead, they have come to symbolize the city's decline.
"The idea that they're going to put a lake in here and people are going to flock to San Bernardino is ridiculous,' said Deanna Adams, whose banquet hall, Victory Chapel, would be demolished.
When Valles was asked why the city should have faith that this project will be the forerunner of real change, she said with a laugh, "Because it's me. I don't want to be boastful, but I take a great deal of pride in my integrity.'
Valles said that a better comparison than Seccombe Lake would be The Hub project, where a residential community was uprooted. It is now a booming commercial area.
Some see this lake as just a test run for the future. If it succeeds, neighborhoods will clamor for their own lakes.
"This is just peanuts,' Hill said. "This is just the beginning.'
The decision-makers have wrestled with conflicting interests, some telling them to build bigger, others to build smaller or not at all.
What they've settled on is a gamble in financial, political and human costs. It's also something that will take years to complete, even under the most optimistic projections.
For all the unknowns, it's what many bank the city's future on.
"The area is lingering and dying,' Valles said. "We need the project to regain our rightful place as the county seat, culturally and economically."
San Bernadino County Sun: www.sbsun.com