In a surprise visit, San Diego District 7 councilman Jim Madaffer appeared at the City's December 1 Planning Commission meeting. Visits by councilmembers are "rare," writes Commissioner Carolyn Chase in the April San Diego Earth Times, "because decision makers are supposed to make land-use decisions based upon the evidence provided at a public hearing. They are not supposed [to] give evidence or testify in favor [of] or against land-use decisions, since that would demonstrate bias on their part."
That day the Planning Commission was evaluating a road and creekside park that the City's Development Services Department had put together in a single project. Madaffer and many neighborhood residents want the project, which is in Fox Canyon near Euclid and University Avenues. But the City Heights Area Planning Committee earlier recommended overwhelmingly that the City approve the park -- but without the street. It argued that the road would take up park space in a community that has less of it than most other San Diego neighborhoods. The Planning Commission's discussion initially seemed to favor the same position.
That's when Madaffer chimed in, according to Chase. He assured the commission that "he was personally going to see that the street would be paid for by redevelopment 'tax increment' funds," she writes. "Finally, due to instructions from the city attorney that we could not remove the street from the project," the commission approved the road-park project. But it also "voted to create a task force to [reconsider] the street, feeling that if all the factors were honestly taken into consideration, then the park without the street would [prevail]. Let's just say we were a little naïve," writes Chase.
In 2004 Madaffer was instrumental in helping the City acquire a $2.3 million California Urban Parks grant to develop the Fox Canyon Neighborhood Park. The City then committed $930,000 in matching funds. The park would lie at the southern tip of Winona Avenue next to Auburn Creek. It would feature, according to the City's project summary, "a children's playground, picnic area, shade structure, basketball court, a walkway, interpretive kiosks and a grassy area for play."
When the City applied for the park grant, it made no mention of a road as part of the project. In fact, a drawing in the City's grant application showed the road site as a southwest leg of the park. To justify the change, city staff reported that originally they thought the road site would be vacant. "Subsequent to the grant application," said the report, "the project changed to include the road connection reflecting input from the community." Other public input, however, apparently troubled the city's hearing officer in the case. The report stated that he expressed "strong concern that staff had received two different recommendations from the community," the road's rejection by the City Heights Area Planning Committee and its promotion by the Fox Canyon Neighborhood Association.
For several years, the neighborhood association had been counting on a road to connect Winona Avenue on Fox Canyon's northeast side with Auburn Drive on its west. Heavy concentrations of small houses and apartment buildings line both streets as they descend into the canyon. In 1999 the association had sought help from San Diego Street Division Services. By 2002 the agency had designed Ontario Avenue as a connector. It had been a paper road on San Diego maps since 1911. That means the City has a right-of-way at that site, whether or not it decides to build the road. But no funding has ever been committed to build it.
According to the city staff report, the proposed road-park project would be built on 2.7 acres in Fox Canyon. It would include 0.4 acre for the creek bed and 0.4 acre for the road, its curbs, gutters, and sidewalks. Thus, "of the 2.7-acre site," says the report, "0.4 acre is lost due to the proposed [road, but] the road does not bisect the park." In the state grant application, 1.9 acres were dedicated to the park. Now the park is restricted to the east side of the Ontario-Winona junction where, according to Lane MacKenzie of the City's Real Estate Assets Department, the City is currently negotiating with property owner Larry Zajonc to buy 1.9 acres. Proponents of the road argue that since the park has the same acreage in the new plan, nothing has been lost. But even they admit that only 0.4 acre of that land will be "usable" as a park. That's because much of the property to be purchased from Zajonc is sloping hillside.
The park-road issue resurfaced during the March 16 meeting of the Park and Recreation Board, which makes recommendations to the city council. Attorney Bob Ottilie, a board member, says he came late to the meeting only to hear deputy city attorney Hilda Ramirez Mendoza telling the board that "we could not consider the issue. The impression I got," Ottilie tells me, "was that she was taking it off the board's agenda. I told her the city attorney had no authority to take anything off the agenda. That would be a violation of the Brown Act, since the agenda had already been posted for the public." Mendoza was arguing that the Park and Recreation Board did not have purview over streets. The board decided to discuss the matter over Mendoza's objections, finally voting in favor of the park without a street.
Ottilie says that afterwards he phoned Madaffer, who expressed regret that he had ever suggested putting in the park. " 'The road has to come first,' " Ottilie quotes the councilman as saying. "Madaffer went on to say that if the road is not included in the project, 'The whole thing [park and road] is terminated at this point,' as though he has the power to do that."
Opponents of the road wonder why the City's Development Services Department linked the road to the park project in the first place. They also suspect that Madaffer may have put deputy city attorney Mendoza up to quashing the Park and Recreation Board's role in the matter. But Mendoza tells me later that she only intended to explain what was legal for the board to do.