After numerous San Diego Union-Tribune hit pieces, a brand on the city attorney's head now reads "frivolous and futile litigator." No need to heed this guy's advice. Could that be what the city council was thinking when, on September 12, 2006, it ignored Mike Aguirre's 20-page warning that a huge mixed-use project in Hillcrest would be illegal on a number of counts? By a 7-1 vote, the council approved the proposed 12-story structure that local residents called "the monster building."
The 96 condominiums, along with retail space and a parking structure, were to go up on the south side of University Avenue between Third and Fourth avenues. Until January, that is, when the community action group Friends of San Diego filed a lawsuit to stop the project. According to Friends president Tom Mullaney, "We took on the suit in conjunction with a residents group called Save Hillcrest. We then hired a land-use attorney and were assisted by donations of time and money from numerous residents and business owners in the Uptown and Hillcrest communities."
John Taylor was a founding member of Save Hillcrest and owns a home on Third Avenue across the street from the proposed condos. Last year, Taylor organized a petition drive and sent over 2000 signatures to the city council opposing the development. "Even our councilmember, Toni Atkins, ignored them," Taylor tells me. "Her standing in our community really went down after that."
The La Jolla Pacific Development Group planned to build the condos for landowners Michael McPhee and Bruce Leidenberger. "After we filed the lawsuit," says Mullaney, "the developers told us how surprised they were at how much community opposition there was. But the community had been universally against it from day one. In the early planning stages, the developers acted like they were listening carefully to complaints voiced at the Uptown Planners meetings. Then they'd make some minor changes and go their merry way."
Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, Mullaney got his own surprise. A representative from the mayor's office attended the meeting the two sides held to discuss the case. It got Mullaney to thinking -- and to searching at the city clerk's office. There he discovered in a 2005 report that the "Jerry Sanders for Mayor" committee paid rent for office space in a Fifth Avenue building owned by Leidenberger and McPhee. He also saw that in 2005 Leidenberger and his wife Joanne donated $600 to the Sanders campaign. But Mullaney isn't making accusations yet.
On August 23, superior court judge Linda Quinn reversed the city council's decision and halted the condo project, citing numerous "causes of action," most coinciding with the city attorney's analysis. Residents of such a building would cause significant new traffic problems for an already congested Hillcrest. The 12-story, 147-foot structure would be out of character with the rest of the area, which is dominated by 1- and 2-story buildings. The developers did not analyze the project with respect to noise and air quality. The City's Development Services staff did not properly circulate the project's environmental study. The developers did not sufficiently deal with short-term impacts from construction. "The edge of the condominium tower," comments Mullaney, "was going to be right up against University Avenue. A hammer falling on you from construction up top would pretty much ruin your day."
Mullaney's favorite reasoning, however, involves a shortage of parks in the Hillcrest, Uptown, and Mission Hills area. He shows me a photo of two girls hitting a tennis ball back and forth in the middle of the street. "This area has 35,000 residents, and we have two tennis courts," says Mullaney. "Uptown is about 90 percent short of the park acreage it's supposed to have. Kids have to get in a car and go to another community to play a game of baseball or soccer. So a big part of our argument involved a lack of any evidence that the new development would be accompanied by new parks. It's not enough that development impact fees are paid for parks. The law requires evidence that there are actual plans for the parks to be built. The judge ruled in our favor on that and said the City has to provide such evidence, something it hasn't done.
"The trouble with a lot of these developments all over town," claims Mullaney, "is that while the City says it will provide the infrastructure they need, it never does."
Mullaney is especially critical of how the project's environmental study was circulated. "The developers did not properly inform the community when they changed the project's plans," he tells me. "They first bought the property at Third and University and planned for 40-something condos. Later they bought the property next door to the east, increasing the units to over 60. Finally, for the parking structure, they bought a parcel on Third. That brought the project up to 30,000 square feet, and when you have [that much space], the law allows you to add half of the units you already have. So they got another 30-plus condos, bringing the total to 96. That kind of increase would be extremely valuable. The problem is that when each of these changes was made, the developers didn't properly keep the community informed about them. So there were many people who had no idea how extensive the project was going to be. The developers should have completed their environmental report and circulated it after they were all done planning."
The upshot of Judge Quinn's decision was that developers of the monster building neglected to take the community's concerns into consideration. Since Mike Aguirre had originally weighed in on the issue, I pay a visit to his office. I ask him a leading question. "Are the communities, through their planning groups, or in any other way, getting represented before the city council as well as developers are?"
Aguirre gives me a quick "No," which he then qualifies. "It's not that the communities are not being represented as well; their representatives are great. But there's an imbalance in the way the City functions, which in the long run is destroying everybody, including the developers."