Encanto residents have waited for nearly 30 years for the city-owned vacant lot at Hilltop Drive and Euclid Avenue to be developed. Now that the process is underway and a developer has been selected, they wish it would start all over again.
On Tuesday (September 27). San Diego City Council members approved a request from Civic San Diego, the city-owned nonprofit responsible for planning and permitting duties in Southeastern San Diego and downtown, to enter into an agreement with Affirmed Housing Group to transform the 8.5-acre lot into a 128-unit mixed-use development featuring 84 affordable-housing units and 44 for-sale units as well as some retail and a brewery.
Dozens of Encanto residents, however, feel the process was rigged from the start. They accuse Civic San Diego of ignoring their ideas and shutting them out of the process.
In June 2016, Civic San Diego's board selected Affirmed Housing Group through a request-for-proposal process wherein a developer — not a specific project — was up for selection.
Members of the public grew frustrated during Civic San Diego's selection process. Their requests to review the developer's proposals before the selection were denied.
Kristine Zortman, vice president of neighborhood investment for Civic San Diego, says the nonprofit held three community meetings aimed at informing residents about the three potential developers who submitted concept designs. Zortman said selecting Affirmed Housing does not mean that a specific project will be pushed through.
"The process allows the selected developer to further demonstrate the viability or feasibility of their concept proposal," wrote Zortman in a September 9 email. "This includes the requirement for additional community and stakeholder outreach, further demonstration of financials and development funding, further permitting with the City or other regulatory bodies, negotiation of development terms with other parties, and overall satisfaction that the ultimate development project continues to meet the goals and requirements."
But longtime Encanto residents and community activists say the city is allowing Civic San Diego to do as they wish with public land without community consensus.
"These are just words," says resident and activist Katheen MacLeod. "As a private corporation, Civic San Diego gets away without having a development policy, an appeal process, without releasing public records, and no community review. So, what evidence can Civic San Diego show that they require developers to change anything during the [exclusive negotiation agreement with Affirmed]?"
As reported by the Reader in previous articles, the city's decision granting permitting and planning authority to an outside nonprofit was met with resistance. In fact, the city's decision is the only example of a municipal government transferring planning authority to an outside agency. In 2015 one of Civic San Diego's own board members sued the nonprofit over the arrangement. Other suits have since followed.
MacLeod shares many of the same concerns.
"Civic San Diego is operated as a mutual benefit corporation that's controlled by the developer industry, not a public-benefit corporation that considers the public good," says MacLeod. "Civic San Diego is so afraid that Affirmed Housing will walk on this project — after all, it's the third or fourth attempt to get it developed, meaning the developer has all the leverage here, which doesn't bode well for the community."
MacLeod claims that Civic San Diego played favorites and didn't interview other developers who had responded to their request for proposal.
Encanto resident Teddy Cruz also objects to what he says was a one-sided agreement. He says that in choosing Affirmed Housing, Civic San Diego ignored their own guidelines. One such example was a restriction placed on affordable-housing units. According to the request for proposal, no more than 33 percent of the units would be designated for affordable housing; Affirmed Housing Group's proposal calls for 65 percent.
"We demand a more visionary project that brings together community benefits and economic development," says Cruz.
Cruz and MacLeod, as well as other residents, say Civic San Diego had options that the community was willing to get behind. One project came from nonprofit Groundwork San Diego, in collaboration with the University of California at San Diego, to build a mixed-use housing development that included a community workshop that offers educational and manufacturing training for the area's youth.
Says MacLeod, "Civic San Diego's bias in favor of Affirmed Housing is so blatant and they operate with impunity. It's wrong, especially when one of the bidders spent $300,000 to prepare a comprehensive mixed-use proposal and didn't get one interview. That's reproachable."
Despite their objections, the city council voted unanimously to approve the agreement. In the coming months, the developer will finalize their development concept for the site. Once that is done, community meetings and hearings will be held to approve the proposal.