This is not a story about sexual predators. If anything, it’s a story about life in a modern suburban neighborhood in the wake of the foreclosure implosion. But it does start with sexual predators, or at least, a conversation about them.
“We were all at one of our neighbor’s kids’ parties,” says Judy Gallardo, wife, mother, engineer, and resident of McCain Valley Court in Chula Vista’s westernmost Otay Ranch development, one block from the intersection of East Palomar and Paseo Ladera. “We were discussing the tragic events from earlier in 2010” — the assault and killing of Chelsea King and Amber DuBois in suburban North County. “We started saying, ‘It’s so common nowadays that you walk outside your house and you don’t even know your neighbors. It’s amazing when you go on the Megan’s Law website,’” which maps the location of registered sex offenders. “You just never know who’s listed there” — or where they’ll show up.
So a few of the parents decided to check. The cul-de-sac of McCain Valley Court was clear, as was Strawberry Creek Street, the cul-de-sac that leads to McCain Valley Court. In fact, the whole development of Sutter Creek was clear. There were four registered sex offenders within a one-mile radius, one of them about 1000 feet away on Mount Dana Drive. But Mount Dana is out past the neighborhood’s guard station and across the broad expanse of East Palomar. (And it is a broad expanse: two lanes each way, plus a 20-foot-wide center divider, plus sidewalks on both sides, themselves lined on both sides by sapling trees and strips of turf.) Still, says Gallardo, the whole affair was a reminder that “It’s important to get to know everyone on your street, to foster good relationships with everyone, so that everyone keeps an eye on each other — to make sure kids are safe. It’s our intention to get some really good, strong community going here.”
Good, strong community can be tough to come by these days. Both Gallardo and her husband Victor work in La Jolla; their commute runs 30–40 minutes each way, depending on traffic. “There are a lot of professionals here, and it seems like everyone’s living a fast-paced life — you go to work and come back home.” Maybe you get takeout, maybe go to a restaurant. (Gallardo estimates that 80 percent of her family’s dinners happen that way. “We’re like VIP members of the Cheesecake Factory.”) Saturdays, there’s your three-year-old’s soccer game, and you squeeze in errands and maybe an outing. “There were faces that I recognized, but I never got a chance to meet most of my neighbors.”
So Gallardo decided to throw a block party. “If you’re not going to help out and make things better, then you really can’t complain. I went house to house and dropped off a flyer asking if people were interested and what dates were good. I had a little green box for the flyers by my front door, and every morning, there was a pile of papers inside.” She was hoping for July 4; she settled for August 20. “There are 30 homes on our street, and only 5 homes weren’t able to make it. One family moved out the week before the party; they were so disappointed: ‘I can’t believe that after all these years…’” It was, you see, the neighborhood’s first since it opened in 2002.
“I remember them building the Vons on Telegraph Canyon Road when I was a kid,” says Eric as he sits down by his wife Crystal under a shade tent in the middle of the McCain Valley Court cul-de-sac. (A neighbor is watching their daughter as she waits in line to sit on the motorcycle belonging to Police Sergeant Danny Hollister, who has been invited to the party along with Chula Vista Fire Captain Darrel Roberts, engineer Dangkhoa Nguyen, and firefighter Matthew Carleton and their urban search and rescue truck.) “My parents moved to Chula Vista in 1967; the house was ten years old. We were on L Street; that was the east side of town at the time. This was all cow pasture.”
“And I grew up on the north side of town,” adds Crystal. “At one point, I could see my new house being built from my bedroom window in my parents’ house. And when we first moved in, you could still see cows.” Now, you can see houses, and more houses, and roads and cars, and yards and some crepe myrtle and palms.
The couple bought in 2001, when all of this was still just plans on a page. Crystal, happily engaged and eager to get in on the recovering housing market, was poking around in a nearby open house. “The price was probably around $400,000,” well over her limit at the time. “But I loved looking at houses, and they told me there were some lower-priced homes going in nearby that weren’t ready yet. They said prices were climbing steadily. I said okay, went to the builder’s office, looked at the pictures with the building elevations, picked a lot, and sight unseen, I put five grand down. I was first on the list, first one to pay, and first one to move in. All the plots around the end of the cul-de-sac were still empty.
“Most of us who have been here since the beginning are still here,” she continues. Most, but not all. “This whole block was under $330,000 in the first phase. But two years to the day after we first moved in, there were For Sale signs in the yards. There were a few investment owners who had bought, never moved in, sunk in $40,000–$50,000 on landscaping and upgrades, and then sold for at least $150,000 over the original price.” And even conventional buyers were hitting the jackpot: “Our neighbor across the street sold in one day, for $205,000 more than what they paid two years earlier.”
At four years, the For Sale signs sprouted afresh. “My immediate next-door neighbor bought a house that was a little bit bigger than mine for $320,000. He sold at the four-year mark for $675,000 and bought a huge house east of here somewhere — we lost contact. A nice family moved in, but they bought at the very top of the market, and just this past year, they lost the house. They had to do a short sale for $360,000. The people who bought it from them scored a deal, but the people who lost it are unfortunately out. That’s what we’ve seen over the past year and a half — people who paid well over $600,000, some who even paid in the high $700,000s. Those are the folks who were most affected by the foreclosures.” And there were a lot of them, “Probably a third of the houses on this street.”