North Park resident Don Leichtling
As San Diego’s budget deficit has grown, the list of basic services that the City provides has shrunk. To address the increased number of overgrown trees, trash-strewn sidewalks, and rundown business centers, dozens of communities throughout San Diego have formed maintenance assessment districts and business improvement districts.
But in North Park, some business leaders believe that the maintenance assessment district created in 1998 isn’t effective enough. And the business improvement district, created in 1996, is not allowed to spend money on maintaining residential areas.
North Park Main Street’s Liz Studebaker: “The lack of maintenance is noticeable to residents, business owners, and patrons.”
“We have empty storefronts, crumbling infrastructure, litter and graffiti problems,” writes Liz Studebaker, executive director of the North Park Main Street, the nonprofit that manages North Park’s business improvement district. “The lack of maintenance in North Park is noticeable to residents, business owners, and patrons.”
Last year, North Park Main Street began lobbying for a new maintenance assessment district. The idea was to form the North Park Clean and Safe Overlay Maintenance Assessment District, similar to overlay districts in Little Italy and Downtown. It is called an overlay district because it would be contained within the existing maintenance assessment district.
Staff at the Park and Recreation Department —which oversees the City’s maintenance assessment districts — agreed, and in late May, the City mailed ballots to residential and commercial property owners asking if they wanted to pay an extra tax for more services.
If approved, property owners will pay assessments — collected along with the property tax — that are based on a number of factors, including type of property, location of property, and number of feet fronting the street. A single-family home on a residential street with 50 feet of frontage, for example, would pay $54.64 per year. A condo owner might pay $29.44, and the owner of a ten-unit apartment building on a residential street with 75 feet of frontage would pay $233.26. For commercial property owners, average payment would be $1245.
In all, the engineer’s report estimates that assessments would amount to $470,193 the first year. After that, assessments would increase in accordance with a cost of living index plus 3 percent. Of the $470,193, North Park Main Street would receive more than $65,000 per year to manage the overlay district.
The city council will consider the proposal at a July 12 hearing, at which time the ballots will be counted.
“The clean and safe overlay district will provide valuable daily cleaning, security patrol, and economic development services to commercial property owners and business tenants in North Park,” writes Studebaker.
“With the current state of low-quality maintenance in North Park, it has become increasingly difficult to recruit daytime tenants when neighboring communities provide a dramatically higher level of service to the business corridors.”
But while North Park Main Street staff and Todd Gloria, the community’s councilmember, feel a new assessment is the solution to North Park’s problems, dozens of residential property owners oppose the idea. They object to paying a tax that will benefit and promote businesses when the patrons of those businesses, especially the bars, litter the streets, create late-night disturbances, and take all the parking places in front of the homes. Residents accuse North Park Main Street and Gloria of promoting the clean and safe district in order to pay for their own projects, such as maintaining the Ray Street Art and Cultural District and the Boundary Street Gateway. And they claim they have been left out of the process.
The process included the ballot mailing, in which a “Proponent Statement,” written by North Park Main Street, was available for voters to read. On the reverse side of the statement, voters saw, “No opponent statement was received.”
“There was no formal request for opposition statements,” says Brandon Cohen. “I take that back. There was an opportunity to submit the opposition statement at the city council meeting in which they approved the balloting. However, no one knew of that meeting because the only public notice given of the city council meeting was on Todd Gloria’s weblog.” The City had mailed residents a survey and a notice of a public-comment meeting. “The expectation would be that we would receive notice of a city council meeting regarding the balloting,” Cohen says. “This was conveniently glossed over so that they could get the balloting approved.”
Cohen lives in a corner home one block from University Avenue’s North Park sign. If the new district is approved, Cohen’s property tax bill will increase by 10 percent the first year. According to the engineer’s report, Cohen will pay $325.90.
One argument made for the new district has been the positive impact that a bustling North Park business center will have on residential property values. Cohen disagrees.
“A successful business district operates to the detriment of its immediate neighbors,” he writes in a June 30 email. “While the immediate neighbors of the business district benefit from successful eateries and shopping, we are negatively impacted by issues such as parking and loud bar patrons. I take offense that I am expected to shoulder the burden for services that primarily benefit the business district.
“While I want to be supportive of the business community and appreciate that they are contributing much [higher assessments] than residents, I believe this overlay district is a little piggy bank to get all of the business district’s pet projects up and running. Unfortunately, the community wasn’t given a chance to critique the services to be offered. And who was the organizer and primary pusher of the [maintenance assessment district]? North Park Main Street, of course.”
The residents are also suspicious of the high number of residential properties included within the clean and safe district. They fear that little of the money will be spent on the residential streets. They also worry that if the district is approved, they will have little or no influence on decisions.
Rob Steppke, former chair of North Park’s community planning group and current chair of the existing maintenance assessment district’s advisory committee, lives a block from University on Arizona Street. If the new district is created, Steppke will be assessed $45.42 per year.
Residents accuse North Park Main Street and Councilmember Todd Gloria of promoting the “Clean & Safe” district in order to pay for their own projects, such as the Ray Street Art and Cultural District and the Boundary Street Gateway.
Steppke objects to the district’s boundaries, which include residential areas within one or two blocks of the main corridors — University Avenue, between Interstate 805 and Florida Street, and 30th Street, between Howard and Thorn. He says the western section of University, near Mississippi and Florida, a dozen blocks from the center of North Park, should not be included in the district.
“The businesses along [the western end of] University are small mom-and-pop operations,” he says. “I have issues with the large number of residential properties” that are captured when western University is included in the district.
“I live along this area,” Steppke says, “and the most impact I see from the small businesses around my house is when someone drops a sock on the sidewalk walking from the Laundromat.”
Don and Debbie Leichtling live one block from the heart of North Park’s business area, at University and 30th. If the new assessment district is formed, Leichtling will be responsible for an extra $108.90 every year, in addition to the $18.70 he already pays for the existing maintenance assessment district.
Leichtling attended the scoping meeting that was held after the clean and safe district was proposed. At the outset, he suggested raising fees on the existing maintenance assessment district so that all of North Park could see improvements.
“They didn’t want to listen,” says Leichtling. “This whole thing is to make things better for the business district, North Park Main Street.”
Councilmember Gloria says that enhanced services will “strengthen the quality of life for current and future residents and visitors throughout the area.”
He writes in a June 27 email, “Residential property owners, like commercial property owners, will benefit from the services provided through the program, so an assessment is appropriate.”
Adds Gloria, “Because commercial businesses have a greater impact on the community, their assessments are proportionately higher than those for residential neighbors.”
But residential property owners point out that those higher assessments also mean that the commercial votes count more.
According to the engineer’s report, votes are weighted in proportion to a parcel’s assessment, which leads Steppke to believe that even if all residential property owners voted against the proposed district, the votes from commercial property owners would still be enough for the proposal to pass.
“We are essentially having it forced on us,” he says.
North Park resident Steve Tweedale concurs. If the district is approved, Tweedale will pay an extra $128.60 per year for his two North Park properties.
“North Park Main Street colluded with Gloria to gerrymander a new assessment district and to pick the pockets of some North Park residents [in order] to shoulder the burden of the successful business district and to fund projects that [Gloria] will be first to claim as feathers in his cap.”
He continues, “The process was manipulated. Sadly, they have more staff, time, and money than I, and at this point I’ve voted my disapproval but will be subject to the vote of the business property owners.
“If it passes, I’ll simply deal with my pocket being picked twice a year when I pay property taxes. You can bet that I have no respect for the organizations, nor the individuals involved in this thievery.”