Should members of affluent communities blush when their leaders go scounging for federal assistance? Probably not in the view of Lynda Hunt, who was interviewed by the La Jolla Village News in May 2006. “San Diego County assumes that everyone who lives in La Jolla is rich and doesn’t need help,” Hunt said. “I have a really difficult time securing donations as soon as I mention that [we’re] in La Jolla.” At the time, Hunt was employed by the nonprofit LiveWell San Diego as the Riford Center’s executive director. The center’s purpose had long been to serve elderly folk in a building that sits on La Jolla Boulevard at Bonair Street. Former La Jolla resident Florence Riford, who died in 1993 at age 100, established the center in the 1970s, including an endowment to pay for its ongoing activities. She later donated the property to the City of San Diego. Over the years, the City has leased the property to a series of center operators.
In 2007, several community leaders founded another nonprofit to run the Riford. Friends of the Riford Center immediately faced annual expenses that were exceeding what a shrunken endowment and donations were paying for. The organization’s board contemplated solutions. Its hikes of membership fees were met with complaints and weren’t enough anyway. By the end of last year, Friends of the Riford decided it needed to expand its vision. The Riford had always been known as a “senior center,” and Florence Riford’s endowment intended that it should play that role. In the new vision, however, the Riford would become an “adult center.” Besides the dollar increase from potential members that the proposed change entailed, activities would expand from staging bridge and Scrabble games and offering language and computer instruction to include renting the building for weddings and parties.
In the meantime, Friends of the Riford had been in contact with District One councilman Scott Peters and his successor Sherri Lightner concerning a different kind of funding. Each council seat had available Community Development Block Grant dollars to dole out to projects that could qualify, in most cases on the basis of how many low- to moderate-income households the project served. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development gives cities the money to award grants for projects municipal leaders deem worthy and that fit the program guidelines.
According to the City’s Community Development Block Grant website, “Funded programs are those that serve 51 percent low- or moderate-income neighborhoods and residents within the City of San Diego.… However, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) allows 15 percent of the City’s entitlement to go toward funding public service programs.” Included in the latter 15 percent are programs that serve seniors.
But Friends of the Riford was not seeking the block grant money only on the basis of service to seniors. The group wanted it to upgrade access to the building for disabled people. The Riford Center currently has a makeshift ramp that leads to the rear entrance to the building off Bonair Street. But the Americans with Disabilities Act has higher standards for disabled access.
Glen Rasmussen is a La Jolla attorney who in December became chairman of the Friends of the Riford board of directors. He belongs to the La Jolla Kiwanis Club, is secretary of a business organization called Promote La Jolla, serves on the La Jolla Community Planning Association, and is a former president of the La Jolla Town Council. I asked Rasmussen how the Riford first got started trying to correct its disabled-access problem. Did someone file a complaint about difficulties getting into the building?
“No complaint was filed,” Rasmussen wrote me by email. He went on to say that the City, as owner of the building, “was already aware that the ADA entrance did not comply with the ADA act and told us, since our organization, Friends of the Riford Center, was the lessee. So now we thought: ‘What do we do about that?’ since we were thinking of ways to improve the place. We were working with Scott Peters and then Sherri Lightner, when the CDBG money became available, and since we were a logical candidate, we applied and we got the grant.…”
In a June 23, 2009 approval memo, Sherri Lightner referred to the block grant monies under her control. She wrote, “A total of $207,152 is available to Council District One for applicant funding. After consulting with City staff regarding this project’s eligibility and readiness, I propose allocating $207,152 to the Riford Center ADA front entrance project.…
“On April 10, 2009 Citywide Access Compliance Officer Vern Westenberger assessed the Riford Center and recommended upgrading the front entrance to the property in order to attain ADA compliance.”
The Riford Center, continued Lightner, subsequently “prepared plans for the ADA accessible entrance based on Mr. Westenberger’s assessment, and Mr. Westenberger has also prepared a scope of work document” for the project.
On July 21, 2009, the San Diego City Council included Lightner’s proposal in a total Community Development Block Grant allocation for the City.
However, the first official application on file for the Riford Center’s block grant is dated December 7, 2009. In the application, the project is no longer described primarily as an upgrade to the Riford Center’s front entrance. The application’s description now refers to a “new accessible entrance on the south side of the building.” That would be on Bonair Street, an entranceway to the surrounding neighborhood, and around the corner from the building’s front entrance on La Jolla Boulevard. The new idea is to “provide an accessible path of travel and walkway at street grade from the public sidewalk and parking to a new building entrance. Remove two existing windows on the south side of the building and install a 3ʹ by 7ʹ swinging door.”
Marengo Morton Architects will design the renovation. At the time of application, Claude-Anthony Marengo, one of the company’s principals, served on the Riford Center’s board of directors. He has recently been replaced. The venture is now under the guidance of Paul Godwin, a project manager in the City’s Economic Development Department. I asked Godwin why the City’s process in working with the Riford looks as though it went backward, why the approval of its disabled access came first and the application last.