San Diego Eight years ago, the Adams Avenue Business Association received a $600,000 "urban forestry" grant from the State of California to mitigate the pollution that would result from Interstate 15 traffic. Kensington business property owners chose an ornamental pear tree to plant along Adams Avenue. As they grew, the pear trees developed a blight that has provoked several Kensington business owners to draw up a new community-maintenance plan. But opponents of the plan suspect the pear blight is soon to join that more subjective neighborhood blight developers love hyping to get their way. Then high-density housing may be coming to Kensington, just as it has to surrounding communities.
Although not a local resident, Chance Billmeyer is the owner of Zen Body Mind Sanctuary and Studio in Kensington and vice president of the Kensington-Talmadge Business Association. On June 16, he gathered a group of 15 Kensington business owners at the Century 21 office on Adams to discuss ways to clean up Kensington. He says he invited local resident Marco Li Mandri, owner of New City America, the company that has revitalized Little Italy and other business locales in cities as far-flung as Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston. Billmeyer and Li Mandri subsequently prepared a 21-page report that includes photos and written descriptions of neglected areas in Kensington, including ones with the blighted pear trees. In the report's introductory section, Li Mandri discusses how a maintenance-assessment district might be the answer to cleaning up the neighborhood. But Kensington business property owners already pay $2.20 per linear foot of frontage -- around $300 per year for some -- into a maintenance-assessment district that extends down Adams to Texas Street. The district is supposed to keep up the trees, but business owners complain that the work has been neglected.
Li Mandri's New City America specializes in setting up business-improvement and maintenance-assessment districts as the vehicles for rejuvenating communities. Each of them comes about when business and/or property owners assess themselves money to pay for beneficial projects. Business-improvement districts promote such commercial activities as street fairs, while maintenance-assessment districts fund special local services, usually beyond those provided by the City of San Diego.
Peevey Jewelers owner Victor Vallejo attended the June 16 meeting. But the Hanfords, his neighbors three doors to the west on Adams Avenue, received no notification of it. The Hanfords have operated Kensington Video in the same location for the past 40 years. They became alarmed when Vallejo told them that at the meeting participants had discussed how business owners could assess themselves to clean up Kensington.
As a result, the family's son Guy Hanford, 53, drew up a petition opposing the idea. He circulated it to all 34 business owners in Kensington. He also sought out Chance Billmeyer for further explanation of what was going on. Hanford says that Billmeyer "told me that something had to be done because Adams Avenue in Kensington is filthy, unhealthy, and deteriorated." Hanford disputes the characterization, arguing that most communities in San Diego would love to be as "blighted" as Kensington.
On July 19, approximately 60 Kensington business and property owners attended an ad hoc meeting in the Normal Heights Community Center to discuss the idea. Like Hanford, several business owners complained that they had received no notification of the idea's initial discussion on June 16.
San Diego Business Improvement District Council chief executive officer Scott Kessler addressed the ad hoc meeting in Normal Heights. He reported that in late June the Adams Avenue Business Association "screamed foul" to his council about "a proposal" to start a new maintenance-assessment district in Kensington, which would address the pear blight and such other problems as weeds around the trees, excessive signage on businesses, and antiquated trash cans. The Adams Avenue Business Association administers the maintenance-assessment district that Kensington property owners already pay into.
"Questions came to mind at the Business Improvement District Council," Kessler went on, "since this was the first time we were aware that someone was attempting to start a maintenance district where there was one already in place. Do you do away with the existing district? Would you have to run a ballot to do away with it? Can you have two districts simultaneously in one place? Would you go to the administrator of the existing district to propose the new district? Meanwhile," Kessler told the gathering, "you all have circulated a petition that the undersigned business owners are not interested in the proposal by New City America."
Maintenance-assessment districts, Kessler told the meeting, occur if business property owners agree democratically (50 percent plus one) to tax themselves. The money can be used to pay for sidewalk maintenance or for decorative vegetation. Only those owners who vote have their voices heard. If only ten people vote on something, six carry the motion. "Your petition," Kessler continued, "had 60 percent of all Kensington owners for not assessing yourself additional dollars, as the new proposal calls for."
After Kessler's presentation, Chance Billmeyer complained that he had just spent two hours cutting blighted branches off the pear tree in front of his business on Adams Avenue. But he spoke up mainly to defend himself and Li Mandri, who did not attend the meeting. "I only wanted to meet with Alan Ellard [builder of the newest condominium complex in Kensington]," said Billmeyer, "to run my proposal by him, because something had to be done about the trees. I chose Ellard because the president of our Kensington-Talmadge Business Association leases property in his building, and I knew I could get a meeting with him. I wanted to show him some ideas. I could have run them by any of you in attendance tonight. And I thought if I'm going to meet with this guy, I'm not going to speak about fluff. So I also talked with Marco Li Mandri to come up with some specific ideas. I used to be a graphic designer myself, so I went into Photoshop and started creating some pictures of what Kensington could look like, my vision of it. I wanted to share that with other people and ask, 'What do you think it could look like? I'm open to your ideas too.' I was hoping that somebody else then would take over."