Rapid new development in master-planned Irvine was the focus of a city council candidate forum Sunday, hosted by the community group Irvine Watchdog and moderated by Voice of OC Publisher Norberto Santana, Jr.

With two city council seats up for election Nov. 6 and no incumbents running, the field is wide open. Of the 12 candidates who have filed to run, eight attended the Sept. 30 forum, held at Irvine High School with dozens of student volunteers.

Asked by Santana about solutions to deal with growing traffic, several candidates said the current pace of city development needs to be slowed or halted.

“The core issue is over development – we need to pump the brakes quite frankly. That will help a lot with traffic,” said John Park, who has a corporate business background nd currently owns an advertising agency. 

Jaci Woods, a realtor and founding member of the city’s community emergency response team, said solving traffic issues is not a matter of widening roads but “halting or almost halting development.”

“You see these new apartment buildings and think, are they low income? No, they’re market rate, and they’re expensive,” Woods said.

Frank McGill, an Air Force veteran and retired urban planner, said he would restrict the issuance of new business permits until the city can “catch our breath and get a handle on traffic” while promoting public and alternative transportation modes.

Several candidates, including University of California, Irvine physics professor Kev Abazajian, suggested investing more in the city’s iShuttle program and synchronizing traffic lights as easy solutions.

Abazajian also suggested “dynamic lanes” where the city could open more lanes coming into the city in the morning and shift street dividers to increase the number of lanes leaving the city in the evening.

Liqing Lee Sun, an attorney and vice president of a medical device company, said the city should invest in better public transportation infrastructure, such as connecting the city’s Metrolink station to business centers, and promoting flexible work hours among local businesses to limit traffic impacts during peak hours.

Architect Gang Chen said traffic problems stem from deviating from the city’s “village” concept where residents have most of their basic needs within a short driving distance, and children can walk or bike to school. He said adding mixed-use developments around UCI would reduce traffic by allowing students to walk to restaurants and stores.

Farrah Khan, executive director of the Newport Mesa Irvine Interfaith Council and a former community services commissioner, said the city should implement the recommendations of a traffic study it commissioned in 2015. “There was a list of recommendations made on how we can improve our traffic and none of them have been worked on,” Khan said.

Two candidates declined to attend, Planning Commissioner Anthony Kuo, who said he would be at a wedding, and retired U.S. Army Captain Mark Newgent, who requested questions in advance as a condition of attending the debate, according to organizer Karen Jaffe. None of the candidates were given the questions in advance.

Newgent later said he didn’t ask for the questions in advance and had other plans that day.

Another candidate, community services commissioner and attorney Lauren Johnson-Norris, pulled out of the event the day before because she said she felt “the questions will not be fair or the process honest,” according to Jaffe.

Carrie O’Malley, a city transportation commissioner and chair of the Irvine Taxpayers’ Association, planned on attending but had a death in the family.

All candidates and their candidate statements can be viewed on the city of Irvine website.

All the candidates in attendance said they haven’t taken any money from corporate political action committees, developers or their lobbyists. They all agreed on the need for more transparency around new developments and several candidates said the current council is beholden to big developers.

Khan, Sun, Chen and Abazajian said the city should change or reexamine the process for selecting city commissioners to favor those with expertise in the area, rather than selecting political appointees.

Both McGill, who said the current council is “in the pocket of big developers,” and Woods called for the creation of citizen advisory committees.

Woods criticized council members for using electronics during council meetings and echoed a suggestion by mayoral candidate Ed Pope to ban electronics entirely during meetings.

Sun proposed requiring council members to respond to public comments at following meetings.

“I think most of us have attended a city council meeting…and you observe council members neglecting the public comments often, and they cite the Brown Act saying they cannot discuss,” said Sun.

Candidates diverged more on the issue of homelessness. As part of a federal lawsuit over the county’s response to homelessness, U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter has threatened to suspend the enforcement of anti-camping laws if cities don’t provide more shelter beds. Earlier this year, county Supervisors rejected a proposal to build an emergency shelter at a 100-acre site at the Great Park in Irvine and at two other sites, after an outpouring of opposition from residents and political leaders.

Asked what they would do if a federal judge mandates Irvine create 50 new shelter beds, some opposed a shelter outright.

Park, David Chey and Chen said the city should fight any court mandate for Irvine to build a shelter with further litigation. Chey describes himself in his candidate statement as a self-employed entrepreneur. 

Woods also said she would “oppose a mandate that would dump 50 people on our streets” although she didn’t clarify whether that means litigation.

Abazajian was the only candidate to explicitly say he supports building some kind of shelter in Irvine, saying the court is “almost certain” to require the city add shelter beds and calling it a “moral duty” for Irvine to provide a short- or long-term shelter.

Irvine should be a leader and show county supervisors “how it’s done,” Khan said, by investing more in the Irvine Land Trust to build affordable housing. Like Abazajian, she said city leaders should come out ahead of the issue and offer solutions rather than waiting for the court to issue an order.

None of the candidates denied the city has a housing affordability problem.

Chen said developers should be “held accountable” for helping to create infrastructure around large housing developments, saying the population of the city has tripled but the number of libraries and schools has largely stayed the same.

The city should increase its requirement for the number of affordable units in new developments, said Park. The city currently requires 15 percent of new units be dedicated to affordable housing.

Sun opposes any kind of subsidies for affordable housing but said he believes the city should push developers to build a variety of new units so residents have choices based on their income.

Khan said the number of families with adult children living at home is indicative of an affordability problem.

“We can build as many multi-million dollar homes as we want, but if we aren’t serving the community, who are we building these homes for?” Khan said.

Irvine Watchdog will post additional information about each candidate, as well as video statements from those who did not attend, on its website, Irvinewatchdog.org. 

Four candidates also are running for mayor: Katherine Daigle, Ed Pope, Don Wagner and Ing Tiong. Mayoral candidates weren’t part of the forum.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

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