City to look at development proposed for former toxic cleanup site 

Sunridge Project property adjacent to the Santa Clarita Metrolink station in Santa Clarita. 030824. Dan Watson/The Signal

Former Whittaker Bermite site being eyed for thousands of homes, hundreds of acres of park space 

The developer trying to build up about 1,000 acres in the middle of Santa Clarita is asking the City Council to consider a term sheet and a bit of a commitment on the project’s scope for its multimillion-dollar investment in a property that’s been the subject of a decades-long cleanup. 

New Urban West is the developer for the site formerly known as Whittaker-Bermite, which is now being proposed for more than 6,500 homes and hundreds of acres of park space as a new community project called Sunridge. 

The Santa Monica-based developer presented a concept outline Wednesday, during an informal study session, for a project that will eventually go through the city’s planning process, including a Planning Commission and City Council review, city officials said Thursday.  

On Wednesday the discussion was the first part of an attempt by New Urban West, which is looking to build thousands of homes over several years on the centrally located property, to get the city to review to an initial “programmatic” environmental impact report for the project — similar to the “high-level” plan the city is putting together for Centennial with its recently acquired Valencia mall property — and to start the negotiation for broad commitments the city might agree to with the developer prior to its planning process. 

The property is located south of Soledad Canyon Road, east of Railroad Avenue and west of Golden Valley Road, and it’s important to the city not just because of its location, but also its size and significance to the communities that have sprung up around the land. It was known locally for years as the doughnut hole due to its soil contamination by perchlorate and depleted uranium that made it an untouchable plot in the middle of town until the state gave its all-clear.

The property is located south of Soledad Canyon Road, east of Railroad Avenue and west of Golden Valley Road, and it’s important to the city not just because of its location, but also its size and significance to the communities that have sprung up around the land. It was known locally for years as the doughnut hole due to its soil contamination by perchlorate and depleted uranium that made it an untouchable plot in the middle of town until the state gave its all-clear. 

“Based on the size and the scope and the significance of this development project, the council is being asked to come together collectively in order to provide a little bit of direction,” City Manager Ken Striplin said, “hopefully develop some sort of a creative vision for the project that will help the applicant as they move forward with their process.” 

Striplin opened the discussion by sharing about the property’s past, before the applicant talked about its potential for the future, since being cleared by the state for development in 2021. 

The property’s history 

Located near the center of the city, from the 1930s to the 1980s, the property was used for the testing of explosives, activity that ceased in 1987, Striplin said. 

According to The Signal’s archives, the Los Angeles Powder Co. made dynamite there from 1934 to 1936, while Halifax Explosives made fireworks on the same property until 1942. E.P. Halliburton Inc. made oilfield explosives there for a short time, and then the Bermite Powder Co. moved in during the war effort to make flares and explosives throughout the Korean War.  

The Whittaker Corp. used the property from 1967 to 1987 to make gas generators, rockets and Sidewinder missiles.  

Shortly after the site closed, the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control issued a cleanup order for the property. The agency’s website details the subsequent decades-long cleanup. 

In 1995, the Santa Clarita City Council approved the Porta Bella Specific Plan, and the following year, approved a development agreement for the project that stated nothing could be built until the property was clean. However, the development agreement expired prior to the project’s clearance from the DTSC. 

Prior to the Sunridge proposal, the developers behind Porta Bella pitched 2,911 residential units and 2.5 million square feet of commercial space, 406 acres of parks and recreational space and a school site, and extensions of Magic Mountain Parkway, Santa Clarita Parkway and Via Princessa, which are also supposed to be extended according to the city’s general plan. 

Sunridge Project property looking north-west from Golden Valley Road in Santa Clarita. 030824. Dan Watson/The Signal

New plans  

In July 2023, New Urban West submitted a preliminary design concept for the same land, which called for 6,550 residential units, the majority of which are multifamily or apartment units, 3.1 million square feet of commercial space, 430 acres of parks and recreational space and an extension of Via Princessa, Striplin said. 

The preliminary plan also mentioned a wave park and an amphitheater, he added.   

“Notably the Sunridge project would represent a new specific plan, not an amendment to the Porta Bella plan,” Striplin said. There was no mention of Magic Mountain and Santa Clarita parkways’ extension by the developer. 

Jonathan Frankel, representing New Urban West in front of the council, mentioned the developer has history in the area as the builder of the Belcaro senior community in Valencia, and behind the coming MetroWalk project across town. The Trails at Lyons Canyon is a separate project that’s being looked at for an unincorporated area of the west side of the Santa Clarita Valley. 

He said the focus was on the project’s setting and surroundings, highlighting its proximity to existing assets such as public transportation resources. 

The plans for the area now call for six villages, expected to be built in six phases from east to west, with a blend of housing, commercial and recreational uses. 

Part of the outreach New Urban West is doing now is working with the brokerage community to see if there’s a large-scale business operation that could be drawn as a build-to-suit opportunity. The business park portion is proposed to be adjacent to Golden Valley Road, he said, adding it would be hidden somewhat behind a ridgeline there, north of the planned extension of Via Princessa. 

A “village center” to accommodate residents’ needs with a grocery store, restaurants and other retail would be somewhat central in the project. An internal circulation portion, such as the paseos that surround the Valencia mall, would be an integral part of the design, Frankel added. 

There will be three largely residential “villages” he labeled south village, central village and north village, which will be a mix of for-sale and for-rent housing, which Frankel described as “probably a majority for-sale,” referring to condominiums. 

He said three-story townhome units are being seen as the new first-time homebuyer opportunity for most people in California, and that the project will include “some single-family homes” as well, but they would be placed strategically near neighboring single-family home communities for the project like Circle J Ranch. 

There will also be a “transit-oriented development” district in the southeastern portion of the property, which will be “where we expect a little bit higher-density apartment product to be located,” Frankel said, as a mixed-use component with “neighborhood-serving resources” like retail locations. 

Throughout the project included in the “open space” plans are designated natural open space as well as seven “pocket parks and private recreational amenities.” 

The goal, he said, was to put everyone within a 15-minute walk of a park amenity.  

Study session purpose 

The idea behind the presentation was for New Urban West to pitch its outline, get the city’s feedback and then come back with a more specific proposal the City Council would agree to as a sort of “terms sheet,” according to the developer’s terminology.  

Jason Crawford, director of community development for the city of Santa Clarita, said it’s not something the city has done previously. 

“This is an ask for something that the developer had done with other cities, but we have not done,” Crawford wrote Thursday. 

The developer said the term sheet and a programmatic EIR, similar to the scope and level of review the city recently released with its Town Center Specific Plan, are important to the project being able to keep its timeline for development in line with the goals for the plan. 

“And we do think that that would be helpful in terms of next steps to bring back before you, relatively quickly, a more refined project description and what we envision as some sort of term sheet, memorandum of understanding, that you can look on, and based on your feedback, we’re going to incorporate that,” Frankel said, acknowledging that Wednesday is the very first step on a long planning process. “Because again, the last thing that we want to do is haul off and start, spend hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars likely on this project, and then the project description continues to morph and change over time.” 

City Attorney Joe Montes described the concepts to the City Council prior to Mayor Cameron Smyth giving direction to staff. 

“In terms of the term sheet,” Montes said, it would be an agreement that indicates how the applicant will proceed through the entitlement processing, what the public outreach will be and what the hearings will be in front of the council. He added, “It’s not something we’ve done here before.”  

“I think it’s something they’re desirous of just so they understand the path to get through the process and I think that would be entirely in your discretion,” Montes added. “And I think staff will have to take a look at whatever the deal points are that they’re recommending in the (agreement) to determine whether or not staff feels comfortable recommending it to you.” 

He described a program EIR as a 20,000-foot level look at a plan.  

“So you’re looking at the different areas, generally what could be put in those areas, you’re looking at a max development envelope, sort of the worst-case scenarios in terms of impacts, but — what exactly is going to be in there, how many building in the business park, what all of the interior roads are within the business park, the hours of delivery, stuff like that, you may not get into that level at the program-level EIR,” he said. “And then when the applicant comes forward with the phase to deal with the business park, if there are, with particularity, in the refined plan, if there are impacts that haven’t been studied or haven’t been studied efficiently, you do a supplement to the program EIR and you supplement those areas that haven’t been studied.” 

Council discussion  

After the council members asked a number of questions and shared their concerns about the plans, Smyth ultimately agreed to direct staff to discuss what terms might look like. 

“It makes sense to explore the discussion of what that would be, whatever the semantics are, but obviously tread deliberately, because I think we all concur that we don’t want to be committed to something before it’s gone through the whole process,” Smyth said.  

Crawford said Thursday that such an agreement couldn’t obligate the Planning Commission or City Council to refrain from undergoing its review process for a project. 

Frankel said the developer was committed to community engagement and outreach, which is a “core part of the DNA” of New Urban West. 

“What they’re seeking is certainty, on the path and then as you mentioned with the description, trying to create the description of a project that’s not going to change dramatically over time,” Striplin added, acknowledging staff already has received some feedback from council members.  

“I would be concerned, knowing the council’s prerogative on process and development and being very hands-on with a project coming in in one shape or form, and it goes through the public process, through the council process, and it’s very different at the end,” Striplin said, discussing possible concerns with such terms. “I know council member (Laurene) Weste was very specific about some of those things.”  

Weste later said that, being frank, she was just as worried at what staff might do with the terms as she was with the developer, because the project is too important not to get right and be studied by everyone. 

“I want to know. I’m sure everyone up here wants to know, because these are important things,” Weste said of the details and the process.  

“Can’t make mistakes on this one,” she added. “This is what Bill (Miranda) called that hole in the doughnut, and we are filling up the hole now. So I want to do it right.” 

(Click here for The Signal’s coverage of the initial reaction by the City Council and public comments.) 

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