A group of people who really love Normal Heights showed up on May 9, 2002, at the annex of Adams Elementary School for the monthly meeting of the Normal Heights Community Planning Committee. Although the committee’s role is purely advisory, developers, bureaucrats, and neighborhood residents take its decisions to heart.
The room where the committee met was stuffy. Overhead fans stirred humid air. People wiped sweat from their foreheads. They shifted uneasily in their plastic child-size chairs. The first item up for discussion was the condo-conversion of an eight-unit apartment building on Hawley Boulevard south of Adams. On hand was the developer, Jeff Maisel, a muscular 33-year-old mortgage broker, and four tenants from the eight-unit building Maisel had just bought. Two of the tenants were a middle-aged black couple who’d lived in the building for nine years.
The husband stood and said to the committee meeting, “Mr. Maisel is going to throw us out.”
“After nine years,” the wife continued. “And we’ve been involved in this community. We’re good citizens. We participate in the Neighborhood Watch Program. We pick up litter. We keep an eye on things. And our daughter goes to school here.”
Hunkered over a child-size table, Maisel stared at the backs of his hands. During the next 20 minutes of participatory democracy, Maisel’s tenants and several members of the planning committee condemned him as “predatory,” as “greedy,” as an “outsider,” as an “example of what’s going wrong in this city.”
Maisel sat motionless until committee president Risa Baron asked him to speak.
Maisel looked around the room, cleared his throat, and said, “I’m the future. Like it or not.”
Maisel explained that the high cost of construction, the high cost of land, and the high cost of building permits had caused small-time developers like himself to turn more and more to condo-conversions.
“You know, it’s actually good for the neighborhood. You know there’s a shortage of affordable housing in the city. You say you want affordable housing for first-time homeowners. That’s what I’m providing. Homeownership is good for neighborhoods. Ask the mayor of El Cajon. He loves it when I do condo-conversions out there.
“Here in Normal Heights, someone was going to buy the building on Hawley Boulevard. The buyer would have only two choices: jack up the rents to the market rate or convert the apartments into condos. That’s the simple economics of the situation. A buyer has to be able to make his mortgage on the property or make a profit on its sale. If I jacked up the current rents to what they should be, no one now in the building could afford to live there. As it stands, if the city allows me to go through with the conversion, I’m going to give the tenants $400 to help defray their moving costs. I’m also going to give them the opportunity to buy the condos before I put them on the market.”
“How much are you going to be asking for those condos?” Savanna Forbes asked.
“Two hundred thirty thousand dollars.”
“Hey,” Maisel said, “I don’t know how many of you have looked at any real estate ads lately, but that’s the going rate in this area for a two-bedroom, two-bath condo. And I’m offering to let the tenants buy before I put the condos on the market. After the condos go on the market, they could very well go for considerably more than $230,000. I’m offering a good deal.”
Sitting not far from Maisel, planning committee board member Gary Weber grumbled that Maisel was “taking advantage of people.”
“I, too, am a landlord,” said Weber. “And I don’t take advantage of people.”
The board of the Normal Heights Community Planning Committee decided it would recommend that the city deny Maisel permission to go ahead with his condo-conversion. Maisel sighed.
Gary Weber grumbled throughout the meeting. His bushy gray mustache wriggled when something annoyed him. Weber’s mustache-wriggling intensified when an innocent-faced representative from the city planning office announced that the city planning office had failed to file a grant application.
“What?” cried Weber, wide-eyed. “What? We needed that grant to buy land for a park! We need more parks! We need more open space!”
The young fellow from the city planning office looked stricken. He was just the messenger, he explained. He was very sorry. He was extremely sorry. He was sure there must have been some honest mistake.
“Bullshit,” Weber said.
To emphasize his disgust, Weber rapped his fingers on the tabletop.
“I could have written that grant myself. What you’re saying is bullshit.”
Around Normal Heights, Weber has a reputation for grumbling at planning committee meetings, for having a low tolerance for “bullshit,” and for getting things done.
When I later asked a planning committee member if it was wise to try to speak with Weber, he said, “That beautiful annex to Adams Elementary that we all were sitting in? Well, Gary got that built. There’s a very long and complicated story about how he got it built, how he negotiated with the Methodist church for the land. He’s capable of following through on very complex matters.
“He can be intimidating, but that’s purely a front. He’s really a softy. A very sweet guy. But he’s extremely intelligent and he has no tolerance for city government incompetence. He can’t stomach their excuses. And he’s like that because he knows how city government works. He worked for the city. He can’t be fooled. He knows all their tricks. He knows where all the bodies are buried. He’s been around forever. He’s the whole reason there was ever a Normal Heights planning committee in the first place.”
Weber lives north of Adams, not far from the $3.2 million home that Linda Artiaga showed me. Weber’s much smaller Spanish-style house overlooks Mission Valley. On the afternoon I met with him, the roar from I-8 washed up from the valley, sounding like the sea.
“You remember that TV show called Dragnet?” Weber asked after seating me at his dining room table. “I always watched that show and imagined what it might be like to live in California. There was also a bit of that Horace Greeley thing: ‘Go west, young man, go west.’ I was from Cincinnati. I had a job as an urban planner in Lexington, Kentucky. In 1968 I read that the City of San Diego was hiring urban planners. I saw that and said, ‘That’s it. I’m going!’