continued The San Diego Housing Commission, which helps people obtain affordable housing, doesn't have authority over other agencies, said spokesperson Bobbie Christensen. Nonetheless, the commission is talking with the school district about the potential loss of homes in City Heights. "We're concerned -- especially when there's a housing crisis in San Diego," Christensen said. The commission, responding to an environmental impact report for the proposed Central Area Elementary School, asks the school district to restore some, but not all of the lost housing. In its letter dated August 30, the agency suggests such mitigation occur when the district builds at a site that removes more homes than another site.
Given the absence of state laws requiring the replacement of homes lost to schools, the San Diego Unified School District is unlikely to provide housing in City Heights. "That's not something we can do. I can't ever support that," said John de Beck, a board of education member. "Our job is to house kids in schools. If the kids are in City Heights, we should build schools there. If we displace kids in the process, it's the community's job to house the kids in homes. The housing commission is supposed to ensure that there's affordable housing everywhere, but Mid-City has more than its share of affordable housing." To help conserve space and save money, de Beck recommends building double campuses, or back-to-back schools, that share playgrounds, libraries, cafeterias, and other facilities.
Jay Powell, executive director of City Heights Community Development Corp., a nonprofit, public-benefit corporation that owns and manages affordable housing, views the MM schools as an opportunity to implement thoughtful urban planning. Powell envisions converting Polk Avenue, which borders three existing schools and possibly a new school, into a greenway where kids could safely walk. Installing photovoltaic cells on roofs would enable campuses to generate some of their own electricity. Designing buildings to double as community centers would better integrate schools into neighborhoods. Such innovations, described by Powell in letters and public meetings during the past year, have not generated firm commitments nor wild enthusiasm from school or city officials. Powell is concerned the district may build City Heights' four to six elementary schools without regard for their impact on one another. "What we need is a comprehensive approach," he said, "not incremental planning." Powell warns that estimates for the number of City Heights residents to be displaced by new schools could be low, noting the environmental impact reports use a multiplier of only three for each home to be demolished.
Despite complaints about lack of vision, the school district seems a bit more responsive and responsible about the MM schools than it was with the Proposition O schools, say Powell, Sprague, Nelson, and other volunteers. "They've made a big show of coming out to the community to talk with us. They've had smaller meetings for individual schools," Nelson said. "But I still don't completely trust them." In 1999 the district didn't seek enough input for the proposed Euclid Area Elementary School and spent $80,794 for an environmental impact report. Because the favored location upset homeowners who claim they had not been notified, the district is preparing another report targeting a spot closer to a larger population of children.
Only by word of mouth did Vaughan learn she lives in the path of the new Central Area Elementary School. If her location remains "the preferred site" -- as it is designated in the environmental impact report -- Vaughan and her husband would have to vacate the apartment they've occupied 14 years. But self-preservation isn't the only reason Vaughan speaks passionately about upcoming demolitions. As the property manager of a 16-unit apartment building on 39th Street, she is aware of San Diego's housing shortage, skyrocketing rents, and low turnover of tenants. Despite having an unlisted telephone number, Vaughan hears regularly from people looking for a place to live. "People move to San Diego every day. You need to take down a minimum of homes and apartments. The kids have to have a place to live as well."
Julie Sexauer, a City Heights homeowner, said the demolition of residences is only one factor to be weighed. Although the Central Area Elementary School's "preferred site" would dislodge more people than two other sites, Sexauer said, its proximity to the YMCA, a new park, and a proposed Boys & Girls Club would anchor a complex dedicated to children. "I support the primary site because it's the best use. I'm sorry about the loss of homes, but these schools are going to be here 50 years or more. As a taxpayer, it's important to me to see the school in the best place," Sexauer said. "There's a reason housing is affordable in City Heights. Much of it is significantly deteriorated with decades of deferred maintenance."
Traffic considerations are paramount, Nelson said, noting children should not cross busy streets, such as University or El Cajon Boulevard. "The schools need to make sense for the kids." At the same time, Nelson prefers spots that would rid City Heights of substandard housing and blight, which may include homes as well as apartments. But Hellerich dismisses such strategies for revitalization as "social engineering" with a hidden agenda. In the case of Central Area Elementary, there are two alternative sites that would displace far fewer people. "Why is the school district taking the site that costs two to three times as much and disrupts more lives?" Hellerich wonders. "Instead of dispassionately looking at the numbers, the school district and the neighborhood planning groups are co-conspirators in deciding which homes are worth keeping and which are not. It's bad economics, and it's a bad philosophy. Today it is the apartments we don't like, so they will be torn down because we think it will make our neighborhood prettier. Tomorrow, what will be next? Maybe someone doesn't like the way you decorate your home..."
Some City Heights residents can't help but feel overwhelmed. The San Diego Unified School District's long-range plan calls for the construction of middle and high schools in the same neighborhoods where Proposition MM's elementary schools will be built.