"People in apartments aren’t stable; they don’t become part of the community,” grouses G.W., who lives in La Mesa near Mt. Helix. She fears that her tony neighborhood will take a turn for the worse if rezoning allows multi-unit residences (and/or a convenience store) to be built a half mile from her spacious, Spanish-style digs.
On Wednesday, January 16, she found a notice, “General Plan Changes that May Concern You,” at her doorstep. The anonymous flyer stated that the City of La Mesa, via an updated general plan, was poised to allow development of two triangular parcels adjacent to the 125 freeway at the corner of Lemon and Bancroft. G.W., who describes the notice as a “single sheet of paper with a little map on it,” is both puzzled and peeved. “It doesn’t appear to have come from the [La Mesa] planning commission or the community development people; it just seems like they’re trying to do something without alerting the neighbors.”
But who exactly is “they?”
According to Christopher Jacobs, a senior planner for La Mesa (one of two contacts listed on the flyer), the northernmost tract (formerly part of a Caltrans right-of-way) is owned by Michael D. London, a downtown lawyer and entrepreneur. G.W. notes that London, who’s best known as the founder of the Pure Fitness gym, had been rebuffed by locals in a prior bid to build on his property. “About ten years ago, some developer wanted to rezone them so he could build apartments and a little mini-market and there was a big to-do about it. There was a big ruckus, an uproar; all the neighbors were incensed. They put up signs: ‘We don’t want a gas station; we don’t want apartments.’ They went to a La Mesa city board meeting and spoke. There was such an outpouring of disgust over the fact they would even consider this. The City of La Mesa decided that the general plan would remain in place and the area would continue to be residential and semirural. I would’ve thought that it was a done deal.”
Christopher Jacobs states, however, that the plan withdrawn under fire in 2000 was “not the same proposal,” because it included the potential annexation of land in an adjacent unincorporated tract. Jacobs stresses that any rezoning would be done pursuant to an update of La Mesa’s general plan (unchanged since 1996), under review in conjunction with the city’s 2012 centennial. When I asked Jacobs about opposition to the as-yet inchoate development, he noted that he’d been contacted by a few residents. Striking a neutral tone, he also said, “It’s all part of the democratic process.”
Ensconced on her .75 acre lot since 1977, G.W. doesn’t trust the process. She laughs, “I’m inclined to believe that someone’s in bed with the developer. At this point, I don’t even know who owns the property, but I just find it odd that the city planning commission would contemplate the change; looks like the City of La Mesa is trying to push this thing through.”
She also doesn’t trust renters. “Apartment living is just sort of a stop-gap thing. They’re not interested in the community; it’s just a place to live until they move on. They don’t have a vested interest. If you’re an apartment-dweller, you just don’t have the same interest in maintaining the property that the owner would.”
In G.W.’s view, anything other than a single-family home should be verboten in her neck of the woods, “unless the surrounding community feels it needs something.” She insists, though, that the locals aren’t dead-set against all change. “We’ve had many homes where they built a second dwelling on a property, and that’s usually been accepted because other neighbors have done the same thing. Some of us have rather large pieces of property, very lovely homes. It would be like putting it up on Mt. Soledad or in La Jolla; you can wind around that hill quite a bit and you don’t come across mini-markets or commercial buildings.”
G.W., who freely admits that she dislikes living near businesses and apartments, says, “There’s also a much bigger issue. It brings strangers into the neighborhood; it gives people access. They come off the freeway for one thing and go, ‘Let’s check out the neighborhood’ to see if there’s anything easy to burglarize.” She also cites what she believes are logistical hurdles. “I was shocked when the idea originally came up to build apartments; I question what they were thinking. These are little triangular pieces of property that you’ll typically see near an on-ramp or off-ramp. Are the parcels big enough? They aren’t large enough for much in the way of apartments. Well, I would not have thought they were that large, but obviously, somebody thinks they’re big enough.”
Whatever the plans, G.W. acknowledges that she’s not privy to them. “There’s nothing about anybody wanting to develop it at the moment, but the fact is, once they rezone it, then it’s open to whatever.” She laughs, “They can dig down 50 feet, put in three levels of parking.” She also contends, “It seems like someone is trying to accomplish this without even letting the neighbors know. When you buy the property, you buy it knowing how it’s zoned, so if La Mesa rezones this to commercial without the neighbors even having any input... If these things get rezoned, then if somebody wants to come along and put in a mini-market or a gas station and it’s already zoned for commercial use, then how can you fight it?”
However, the City of La Mesa says that G.W. and the rest of the old-timers will get their say as the usual municipal mandates of notice, discussion, and review run their course.
An environmental impact report will be circulated during the next 60 days with public hearings to follow. Until then, the vacant lots will continue to be used as they have been for years — as a place for locals to trespass by parking cars for sale.
Michael London did not respond to telephone or email queries for this article.