San Diego’s city attorney will use taxpayer dollars to fight a lawsuit filed by taxpayers. The suit is over what Rolando residents claim were ill-begotten permits from the city for a college dormitory dressed up as a multifamily apartment building.
The Boulevard at 63rd, formerly known as Centrepoint Luxury Apartments from developer Carmel Partners, has been at the center of a controversy that so far has resulted in an administrative hold on construction, a lawsuit from the developer, and a settlement between the developer and city, which required a $150,000 payment for maintenance of a community park in exchange for permission to continue the project.
Carmel Partners, experts in dorm-style housing projects near colleges throughout the state, took over control of the property after the former owner abandoned plans to build a large 312-unit mixed-use development near the intersection of 63rd Street and El Cajon Boulevard. Included in the land deal was the permit for that earlier proposal. Armed with a pre-approved site plan, the developer drew up its own vision for the lot. That turned into a plan for 332 units, 933 bedrooms, and 10,000 square feet of commercial space less than one mile from San Diego State University. The developer managed to gain final approval from the city, despite the changes to traffic, density, and other environmental impacts, by way of a ministerial permit — in other words, over-counter and without any public notice or review, and without any hearings by the local planning group or the city’s Planning Commission.
The project and the permits raised concerns from some city employees and, later, from nearby residents.
Emails obtained by the Reader show that staff inside the Development Services Department were scrambling to determine whether to support or oppose the project. It also provides a view into a sometimes chaotic and disjointed permitting process.
Even from the outset, one thing was apparent: the developer wanted more bang for its buck. One way to do that was to take advantage of the location’s proximity to the university. They designed the units so that each bedroom would have its own bathroom, hardly a configuration for a typical multifamily development.
In a December 2011 cycle review, the representatives from Carmel Partners asked planners whether they could rent by the bedroom as opposed to the unit.
The answer was no. “Dwellings where rooms are rented, individually or separately, resulting in multiple, independent living units where tenants do not share common access or financial responsibility for use of the dwelling unit are considered rooming houses. Rooming houses are not allowed in the applicable zone.”
However, as the company continued to move forward and no longer referred to the rent-by-bedroom arrangement, city planners still seemed confused as to how to proceed.
“I have to agree that the unit-mix and especially the 4-bedroom/4-bath units smells like a dorm. But without a restriction on residents I think we are stuck,” senior planner Dan Normandin wrote to then-director Kelly Broughton in a March 5, 2013 email.
Eight days later, Broughton had crafted his official response to residents who opposed the project.
“This project provides individual dwelling units, consistent with the definition of a dwelling unit…and was therefore reviewed as a multi-unit project. In conclusion, staff had no legal authority to deny the permit for this project,” Broughton wrote.
Under increased pressure from residents and from then-mayor Bob Filner and councilmember Marti Emerald, Broughton, changed his tune. In late March, the former Development Services director placed an administrative hold on the project.
In May 2013, Filner and Emerald rallied behind the residents and put an end to construction. Carmel Partners fired back, filing a lawsuit in federal court over the stop-work order. The city attorney took over and in no time ironed out an agreement wherein the developer would pay $150,000 in exchange for a guarantee to move forward as planned. The cash payout would be used on maintenance for nearby Clay Park.
At the time, the city attorney’s office focused their ire on the mayor for putting a stop to the work while simultaneously taking credit for the settlement reached with Carmel Partners.
“The Mayor exercised this asserted power in connection with a project which resulted in a lawsuit against the City. This office defended the City in that lawsuit and successfully negotiated a settlement,” reads a June 3 memo from assistant city attorney Paul Cooper.
Cooper argued that the mayor did not have the authority to stop work on a permitted process, regardless of how flawed that permit process may be.
“The process for issuing a stop work order (and subsequent permit revocation hearing under appropriate circumstances) affords developers due process and provides an appropriate check and balance on the Mayor’s power.... Bypassing the stop work order process could result in a potential violation of due process. The City can be held liable for failing to afford a developer due process even if there would have otherwise been a legitimate basis for issuing a stop work order had the process been followed. In addition, there is a risk that those who participate in an effort to bypass the City’s stop work order process may be denied defense and indemnification in future litigation.”
Now, the frames of the buildings are up. Crews are working at breakneck speed to complete the project in time for the 2014 fall semester.
Frustrated, a group of neighbors calling themselves Rolandans for Quality Infill Development pooled together resources to hire attorney Craig Sherman, who specializes in cases pertaining to the California Environmental Quality Act. On October 4, Sherman filed a lawsuit against Carmel Partners and the city, demanding that the project gain the necessary approval.
That again leaves the city in the middle, having to side with developers in lawsuits from residents over development projects ill-approved by the Development Services Department.
“Something clearly went awry here,” says Rolando resident Karen Collins. “This single development will add 50 percent to Rolando’s population and will skew the community’s demographic and socioeconomic metrics into the foreseeable future.... No one development should be capable of such radical impact, particularly without public comment or input. Rolando will not roll over.”