Officials, critics weigh in on downtown plan
By Tania Chatila, Staff Writer
Article Launched: 06/02/2008 12:17:13 AM PDT
BALDWIN PARK - It's an ambitious plan to remake the heart of the city.
The proposal calls for redeveloping 125 acres of downtown Baldwin Park into a bustling urban village that could include a new hotel, a charter school and thousands of luxury homes.
City leaders are looking to developer Robert Bisno and his firm, Bisno Development Co. LLC, to make make it a reality.
"When he came in, he really stood out," Baldwin Park Mayor Manuel Lozano said. "He seemed very serious about the project. He provided renderings, came to town, had a staff of about a dozen."
Foes of the project, however, contend that not only is the plan a bad one, but that Bisno is not the right man for the job.
"(The council) is going to sell our city to this developer, who's going to subdivide it and sell it to other developers," said Cruz Baca-Sembello, vice president of the Community Alliance for Redevelopment Accountability.
The Baldwin Park-based group was formed to oppose the project, which could result in the relocation of more than 200 homes and businesses through eminent domain.
City officials say the project will give Baldwin Park a much-needed face-lift - one that would generate more sales-tax revenue, and more importantly, improve the city's image.
And Bisno's more than 30 years experience and countless development projects that have spanned the state prove his credibility, officials said.
City leaders are also impressed with Bisno's proposal to subsidize the entire project without city funds, an important factor in the council's initial decision to negotitate with Bisno, Councilwoman Marlen Garcia said.
"That's the business we're in," said Bisno Development Vice President and Chief Operating Officer John DeClercq. "That's what a real estate developer does."
Critics point to several lawsuits that have been filed against Bisno and a recent near foreclosure of Bisno's Beverly Hills home.
"He's a very smooth crook," said John T. Emanuele, a San Leandro resident who along with about a dozen other plaintiffs sued Bisno in 2007 over a business deal gone sour.
The case went to trial last year and a jury ruled in favor of the investors, said Richard Stratton, Emanuele's attorney.
Bisno tried to appeal the case, Stratton said, but it was denied.
"He admitted in the trial that he (took the money) to cheat the government, to commit tax fraud," Stratton said, "not to fraud the investors."
Emanuele said he and the other partners believe Bisno never intended to pay back the misappropriated funds.
Bisno stands to pay more than $3.5 million in judgements to the remaining investors as a result of the suit, Stratton said.
Bisno declined to comment, referring questions to DeClercq.
"These are not reflective at all," DeClercq said. "These represent a very small percentage of the business activities, involving very few dollars and few hours of (Bisno's) life. These are personal, private issues."
At a recent City Council meeting, members of the community alliance criticized Bisno and the recent near foreclosure of his Beverly Hills home.
A business dispute prompted a former partner of Bisno's to begin the foreclosure process on that home several months ago, said Joel Kozberg, Bisno's attorney in the case.
"There were cross-obligatory questions as to which party, at the end of the day, leaves which party owing more?" he said.
The issue was eventually settled several weeks ago and the foreclosure process halted, according to Kozberg.
But Bisno is still involved in litigation with the North Beverly Park Homeowners Association - a nonprofit organization that enforces the covenants, conditions and restrictions of the North Beverley Park gated community - over a different issue involving the same property.
The association originally sued Bisno and his wife, Jeanette Bisno, several years ago over some unapproved sculptures and the design of the gates on Bisno's property, said Denise Parga, attorney for the association.
The case went to trial in 2004, and the association prevailed, Parga said. Bisno unsuccessfully appealed that case and has since filed a new action challenging the trial judge's competency, Parga said.
Bisno stands to lose in excess of $300,000 in attorney's fees if he loses the case, Parga said.
"Of course these things are of concern to anyone," Lozano said. "We want to make sure when we are dealing with any development company that the developer is up to par."
City officials say they have looked into some of these issues already as well as Bisno's track record in other cities.
Bisno Development has developed projects in dozens of cities around the region, including Santa Monica, Los Angeles and Santa Ana.
The Santa Ana project, dubbed "City Place," is years in the making and about 95 percent complete, Santa Ana City Manager David Ream said.
That multimillion dollar project includes hundreds of residential units, 10,000 square feet of retail space and sits on about 20 acres, Ream said.
"(Bisno) was very positive to work with," he said, "very personable. He's a successful developer. Very hands-on." Ream said the project faced little to no opposition.
Community alliance members say the Santa Ana project is a prime example of Bisno's "game."
"They're trying to steal this city from under us," said Mark Cyr, treasurer of CARA.
Alliance member and local business man Greg Tuttle accused Bisno of taking advantage of city residents for his own gain.
Tuttle has accused Baldwin Park City Council members of "being in bed" with Bisno.
The developer has donated $10,000 to Baldwin Park council members - $5,000 to City Councilman Ricardo Pacheco and $5,000 to Lozano in 2007, records show.
In Santa Ana, state campaign finance documents show Bisno contributed $1,000 to Santa Ana City Council hopeful Nelida Yanez and another $249 to Santa Ana City Councilman Sal Tinajero in 2006.
Records show he also donated $20,000 to Measure D, a campaign in Santa Ana that earlier this year successfully extended term limits for council members from two four-year terms to three four-year terms.
"As far as we are concerned in this city, we don't have anything invested," Baldwin Park Chief Executive Officer Vijay Singhal said. "It's all Bisno."
Singhal said as part of an exclusive negotiating agreement with Bisno, all actions relating to the project are being paid for from a special fund that is replenished by Bisno.
Despite all the issues, Lozano said much of the project's future will depend heavily on the outcome of two state ballot initiatives up for vote Tuesday.
If passed, The Homeowners Protection Act would restrict city agencies from taking residential property through eminent domain and turning it over to private developers, said Kathy Fairbanks, a spokeswoman for Eminent Domain Reform Now, a California advocacy group.
The California Property Owners and Farmland Protection Act would do the same, except for commercial and residential properties, said Douglas Johnson, a fellow with the Rose Institute of State and Local Government.
City officials say they are waiting on those measures to decide how to proceed.
"We've made sure," Singhal said, "throughout this whole process that the city's interests are protected."