Where do you suppose San Diego Mesa College, which lies in Clairemont on its southern edge, will build a huge garage to solve its student parking problems? Why, largely on Linda Vista canyon land, of course, at the southeastern corner of the campus. This is the story of one San Diego planning group trying to retain control of its territory.
The Linda Vista Community Planning Committee first heard about the parking structure at its July 26, 2004 meeting. According to the meeting's minutes, members listened to discussion of "road realignment," "handicap access, shuttles, [and] traffic." But it was not immediately evident that the garage would be built partly in Linda Vista.
"Environmental engineer" Dave Potter and several college officials presented the parking structure that night as part of the Mesa College Master Plan. In his presentation, Potter told Linda Vista something the community considered startling news. In 1999, the San Diego City Council had rejected any future possibility that Mesa College Drive, which currently dead-ends at the southeastern entrance to the campus, might be extended to Genesee Avenue. Both the Clairemont and Linda Vista planning groups had long wanted to keep open an option to extend the street to relieve area traffic. On Linda Vista Road, between its intersections with Genesee and Balboa Avenue, there is no other thoroughfare leading west.
Several days after the meeting, in a July 29, 2004 e-mail to Linda Vista planning committee chairman Ed Cramer, Potter wrote: "I was surprised by members asking that the [garage] project be designed to accommodate a future extension of Mesa College Drive. This issue was put to rest on January 19, 1999, when the City Council adopted a Resolution deleting the extension of Mesa College Drive from the Linda Vista Community Plan."
How did Linda Vista not know about a crucial provision being deleted from its community plan? Wayne Bamford, a member of the planning committee, says he's been told that representatives from Linda Vista were present at a discussion of the issue shortly before the city council deleted the road extension. "But nobody ever names who the representatives were," Bamford tells me, "and there is no record I can find of any of our people being there." Barbara Warden, Linda Vista's councilmember at the time, introduced the deletion measure during the 1999 city council meeting. "You practically have to read city council agenda items every week to make sure your neighborhood isn't going to be affected," exclaims Bamford.
At its September 2004 meeting, the Linda Vista planning committee began discussing ways to get the Mesa College Drive extension back into its community plan. "It's not that we wanted to start building a road over to Genesee right away, or ever to build one," says Bamford, "but to keep that as an option for Linda Vista in case residents get trapped by traffic problems, say, 50 years from now."
In the meantime, Mesa College was working hard on its parking-garage plans. On April 22, 2005, seeking community comment, the college sent a draft "mitigated negative declaration" for the Mesa College Master Plan to city officials and community leaders. The draft made the first official reference to eliminating the last block of Mesa College Drive. The San Diego Community College District would then buy that land plus a portion of the canyon to the west, totaling 2.58 acres, for the garage project site. And the draft stated, "Mesa College and the proposed areas of expansion are located in the Clairemont Mesa Community Plan."
On July 8, 2005, Helene Deisher of the San Diego Development Services Department e-mailed an engineering company working on the parking-garage plans with a telling instruction. "It has come to my attention," she wrote, "that [the garage] project is actually within two different community plan areas.... I am forwarding the last set of plans to the Linda Vista Community Planning Committee. Since they were inadvertently left out, I would recommend you follow up with the group chair to be placed on the agenda and receive a recommendation from them."
Mesa College's architects, Delawie Wilkes Rodrigues Barker, responded immediately. On July 10 they sent to Linda Vista the latest version of the plans for the parking garage. Among the documents in the packet was a January 5, 2005 letter from Damon Shamu, Mesa's assistant chancellor for facilities management, to Lane MacKenzie of the San Diego Real Estate Assets Department. The letter requested that the city sell the college the vacated block of Mesa College Drive and canyon land to the west. But the packet contained no acknowledgement that much of the project would sit on Linda Vista territory.
At their monthly meeting in August 2005, the Linda Vista planners voted against the Mesa College Drive vacation. And in place of a city land sale to the college, they urged that Linda Vista canyon land that might be affected by the proposed parking structure be preserved as open space.
Wayne Bamford, of the Linda Vista planning committee, tells me that "after summer, and for a long time, we didn't hear anything more about the garage." The following spring, 2006, however, Mesa College put out a binder, with maps and diagrams, explaining in the greatest detail yet the parking-structure plan. It now appeared that Mesa College wanted to run a road into the canyon to reach the lowest level of the garage. The canyon-level entrance would complement a main driveway into the garage at street level.
Bamford found in the binder a mysterious one-page letter to the San Diego Community College District's Facilities Management Department. It appeared on letterhead of Park and Recreation's Community Parks Division I. But the letter had no signature. The wording in the letter that caught Bamford's attention was the following: "Community Parks Division I does not object to the Community College District's request for permission to perform the necessary grading at the Kearny Mesa Community Park in order to accommodate the proposed parking-structure construction at Mesa College." Apparently Mesa College had approached the city about grading a portion of the Kearny Mesa Community Park, which lies in Linda Vista on its boundary with the college and Clairemont. The grading would allow the lower-entrance road to descend the canyon wall to the west of a vacated Mesa College Drive.
"Kearny Mesa Park is Linda Vista's best park," says Bamford. "It's the only one in our community that Park and Recreation really keeps up. Kids use it constantly. When the National Guard Armory on Mesa College Drive gets ready to ship soldiers off to Iraq, their families are given a huge going-away picnic in the park." Bamford, who sits on the Linda Vista Community Parks Council, began questioning Park and Recreation officials about how much damage would befall Kearny Mesa Community Park. "None of them would tell me anything," says Bamford. But in a serendipitous conversation with a city arborist, Bamford heard that the grading for the garage likely would destroy 12 "beautiful" sycamore and eucalyptus trees on the park's northern edge.
On May 13, 2006, Mesa College published a mitigated negative declaration for the garage project. Individual contractors and most organizations are required to produce an environmental impact report to alert the city to negative effects their projects might produce; mitigated negative declarations, which the city must authorize, then describe how the damages caused by a construction project will be offset. But the San Diego Community College District is permitted by California law to authorize its own negative declaration. "That's fine if the college stays in its own confines," says Bamford, "but that's not what's happening."
Assisting Mesa College with its mitigated negative declaration and other planning issues was David Potter and Associates. Potter, now retired from a decades-long career in the city's planning department, wore several other crucial hats during his work for the college. He was chairman of the Community Planners Committee (the umbrella organization for all of San Diego's planning groups), president of the Clairemont Mesa Planning Committee, and a member of the Tecolote Canyon Citizen Advisory Committee, which threw influential support in favor of the college garage. (The structure will sit in the tip of a "finger" canyon off Tecolote Canyon, to the east of Tecolote Canyon Natural Park.) In addition, Potter served on Councilwoman Donna Frye's "transition team" during her 2005 run for mayor. (Both Linda Vista and Clairemont lie in the councilwoman's District 6.) Shortly after the election, Frye nominated Potter for membership on the San Diego Planning Commission. The city council did not appoint Potter. "Nevertheless," Wayne Bamford tells me, "the nature and number of Potter's voluntary positions, along with his being a consultant for the college, create the appearance of a conflict of interest, to say the least."
The planning commission considered Mesa College's parking structure at a July 13, 2006 meeting. The commission instructed the college to hold meetings with the Linda Vista Community Planning Committee to discuss the project and to consider alternatives.
In August, Mesa College hosted four "workshops" for the community. During the workshops, Linda Vista presented an on-campus alternative site for the parking structure that the college eventually rejected. "We hoped for some compromise," says Bamford, "but they weren't listening. In my opinion, they viewed the workshops as a forum simply to explain to us their plans. Throughout the several years of planning, they never once asked for our recommendations." Ron Tomcek, Bamford's colleague in the Linda Vista planning group, tells me that in one workshop he characterized the college's plans as involving a "land grab." To that, he says, the community college district's chancellor, Constance Carroll, "reacted with great indignation." When the workshops were over, the Linda Vista Community Planning Committee voted 13 to 0 to reject the parking-structure project. The previous January the Clairemont Mesa Planning Committee had voted 12 to 0 in favor.
The San Diego Planning Commission considered the garage plan again at its September 14 meeting. Commissioner Carolyn Chase blasted the project. "It's not a smart-growth approach, and it's not consistent with a city of villages." The plan "sets a very bad precedent," she said, for institutions to solve a problem "outside" their own spaces in the city "rather than figuring out how to infill and be more efficient on your own site. And you [the college] have gone to sell a deal to Clairemont...and completely ignored the concerns of Linda Vista. Instead of dividing the two communities, why didn't you have them unite on an alternative? And Mesa College is not maximizing its own parking space.... It's wrong to plan for peak periods. I learned a long time ago that you don't plan a church's parking lot for Easter Sunday morning nor a shopping center's for the Christmas rush," said Chase.
The rest of the commission was more sympathetic. Before voting to recommend the garage project to the city council, however, it obtained a promise from Chancellor Carroll that Mesa College wouldn't later come back for more city land to solve other campus problems.
At the January 8 city council meeting, Donna Frye made the motion to accept Mesa College's parking-garage project. "When I was first elected," she said, "one of the biggest issues I had to deal with immediately was the parking problem in Clairemont on Marlesta Drive and people coming home from work, and they could not park in front of their homes." Marlesta Drive leads from Genesee Avenue to the northwest entrance to Mesa College. Overflow Mesa College students taking the parking spaces in the neighborhood were causing the problem. To deal with it, many residents have been paying the city to park in front of their own homes, noted Frye. "So [what is before the council] is a parking issue, and it's been a parking issue for a very long time," she said.
The councilwoman then proceeded to condition her motion on several benefits the college should offer to Linda Vista. Those included giving some college open space to Linda Vista to replace what the community is losing to the garage, an environmental education program for Linda Vista kids, and removing non-native trees from existing Linda Vista open space. But Frye conceded that Linda Vista is likely to experience greater traffic problems of its own as a result of the new parking garage.
Wayne Bamford believes that "Clairemont's Marlesta Drive residents may come to realize they've been sold a bill of goods, that the new garage on our side won't reduce the problems with students parking in their neighborhoods." Since students have to buy a permit to park on campus, says Bamford, they will still try to find free parking off campus. "One solution we tried to suggest was putting the garage closer to that corner of the campus. But the college wasn't listening."