"Kearny Mesa Park is Linda Vista's best park," says Bamford. "It's the only one in our community that Park and Recreation really keeps up. Kids use it constantly. When the National Guard Armory on Mesa College Drive gets ready to ship soldiers off to Iraq, their families are given a huge going-away picnic in the park." Bamford, who sits on the Linda Vista Community Parks Council, began questioning Park and Recreation officials about how much damage would befall Kearny Mesa Community Park. "None of them would tell me anything," says Bamford. But in a serendipitous conversation with a city arborist, Bamford heard that the grading for the garage likely would destroy 12 "beautiful" sycamore and eucalyptus trees on the park's northern edge.
On May 13, 2006, Mesa College published a mitigated negative declaration for the garage project. Individual contractors and most organizations are required to produce an environmental impact report to alert the city to negative effects their projects might produce; mitigated negative declarations, which the city must authorize, then describe how the damages caused by a construction project will be offset. But the San Diego Community College District is permitted by California law to authorize its own negative declaration. "That's fine if the college stays in its own confines," says Bamford, "but that's not what's happening."
Assisting Mesa College with its mitigated negative declaration and other planning issues was David Potter and Associates. Potter, now retired from a decades-long career in the city's planning department, wore several other crucial hats during his work for the college. He was chairman of the Community Planners Committee (the umbrella organization for all of San Diego's planning groups), president of the Clairemont Mesa Planning Committee, and a member of the Tecolote Canyon Citizen Advisory Committee, which threw influential support in favor of the college garage. (The structure will sit in the tip of a "finger" canyon off Tecolote Canyon, to the east of Tecolote Canyon Natural Park.) In addition, Potter served on Councilwoman Donna Frye's "transition team" during her 2005 run for mayor. (Both Linda Vista and Clairemont lie in the councilwoman's District 6.) Shortly after the election, Frye nominated Potter for membership on the San Diego Planning Commission. The city council did not appoint Potter. "Nevertheless," Wayne Bamford tells me, "the nature and number of Potter's voluntary positions, along with his being a consultant for the college, create the appearance of a conflict of interest, to say the least."
The planning commission considered Mesa College's parking structure at a July 13, 2006 meeting. The commission instructed the college to hold meetings with the Linda Vista Community Planning Committee to discuss the project and to consider alternatives.
In August, Mesa College hosted four "workshops" for the community. During the workshops, Linda Vista presented an on-campus alternative site for the parking structure that the college eventually rejected. "We hoped for some compromise," says Bamford, "but they weren't listening. In my opinion, they viewed the workshops as a forum simply to explain to us their plans. Throughout the several years of planning, they never once asked for our recommendations." Ron Tomcek, Bamford's colleague in the Linda Vista planning group, tells me that in one workshop he characterized the college's plans as involving a "land grab." To that, he says, the community college district's chancellor, Constance Carroll, "reacted with great indignation." When the workshops were over, the Linda Vista Community Planning Committee voted 13 to 0 to reject the parking-structure project. The previous January the Clairemont Mesa Planning Committee had voted 12 to 0 in favor.
The San Diego Planning Commission considered the garage plan again at its September 14 meeting. Commissioner Carolyn Chase blasted the project. "It's not a smart-growth approach, and it's not consistent with a city of villages." The plan "sets a very bad precedent," she said, for institutions to solve a problem "outside" their own spaces in the city "rather than figuring out how to infill and be more efficient on your own site. And you [the college] have gone to sell a deal to Clairemont...and completely ignored the concerns of Linda Vista. Instead of dividing the two communities, why didn't you have them unite on an alternative? And Mesa College is not maximizing its own parking space.... It's wrong to plan for peak periods. I learned a long time ago that you don't plan a church's parking lot for Easter Sunday morning nor a shopping center's for the Christmas rush," said Chase.
The rest of the commission was more sympathetic. Before voting to recommend the garage project to the city council, however, it obtained a promise from Chancellor Carroll that Mesa College wouldn't later come back for more city land to solve other campus problems.
At the January 8 city council meeting, Donna Frye made the motion to accept Mesa College's parking-garage project. "When I was first elected," she said, "one of the biggest issues I had to deal with immediately was the parking problem in Clairemont on Marlesta Drive and people coming home from work, and they could not park in front of their homes." Marlesta Drive leads from Genesee Avenue to the northwest entrance to Mesa College. Overflow Mesa College students taking the parking spaces in the neighborhood were causing the problem. To deal with it, many residents have been paying the city to park in front of their own homes, noted Frye. "So [what is before the council] is a parking issue, and it's been a parking issue for a very long time," she said.
The councilwoman then proceeded to condition her motion on several benefits the college should offer to Linda Vista. Those included giving some college open space to Linda Vista to replace what the community is losing to the garage, an environmental education program for Linda Vista kids, and removing non-native trees from existing Linda Vista open space. But Frye conceded that Linda Vista is likely to experience greater traffic problems of its own as a result of the new parking garage.
Wayne Bamford believes that "Clairemont's Marlesta Drive residents may come to realize they've been sold a bill of goods, that the new garage on our side won't reduce the problems with students parking in their neighborhoods." Since students have to buy a permit to park on campus, says Bamford, they will still try to find free parking off campus. "One solution we tried to suggest was putting the garage closer to that corner of the campus. But the college wasn't listening."