Steve walks his dogs past the blighted lot on the corner of Clairemont Drive and Balboa Avenue every single day. “The thing that I find frustrating is that if this eyesore was in Kevin Faulconer’s neighborhood, something would have been done by now. No one of importance lives in the neighborhood, so nothing has been done.”
The high-profile lot located at 3901 Clairemont Drive has been an eyesore for years. Before it became a hotbed of graffiti starting in late-2010, it housed an eyesore of a different sort — a motley mix of businesses including a smog check place, a yoga studio, a flower stand, a Korean BBQ food truck, and a coffee cart with lingerie-clad baristas. Prior to this, a Shell gas station and mini-mart operated on the site (starting in 1984). According to city hearing documentation, Shell Oil sold the property to Sharok Eslamian in 1998. Other county documentation show the property changing hands in 2003 for $600,000. The lot was originally built in 1971.
A former tenant said Eslamian evicted all his tenants in late-2010 telling them he wanted to build a restaurant on the lot.
The truth was that the city cited Eslamian for violating the permitted use of the site which allowed for a gas station and minimart and not his current tenants. Two months after the city issued a violation in April 2010, Eslamian quitclaim-deeded the property to his brother Shaw Eslamian.
While Eslamian did evict his tenants, he failed to follow the rest of the city’s demands which included either obtaining a demolition permit or a permit to operate a gas station. The deadline for both options was December 10, 2010.
In October 2015, another hearing was held to discuss noncompliance of the 2010 order. Steve attended this hearing but said the owner was a no-show. “I’ve been in touch with the city attorney’s office for over two years regarding this eyesore. I’ve talked to or written everyone in San Diego government, including the mayor. The city said the owner has claimed a hardship. He said the tanks are still in the ground and it’s really expensive to remove them and they don’t have the funds to move the tanks.”
Steve said he called the EPA and was told that the tanks were already removed. When he called the city to share this, he said he was told that the tanks were still in the ground.
I talked to someone at the EPA who then referred me to the county’s department of environmental health. Alex Bell from the latter said that three 12,000 gallon underground tanks were removed in 2002 with mitigation measures completed in 2011. Bell did say that if the land use changes, further remediation would be required.
The hearing in 2015 gave Eslamian until the end of 2015 to demolish all structures on the lot as well as pay penalties of $76,000 before the end of January 2016 (more than $100,000 if the demolition wasn’t carried out).
According to Michael Richmond, deputy director with the city’s code enforcement division, Eslamian filed a Writ of Mandate [a court order to a government agency to correct prior actions]. “To avoid further litigation, the city made a determination to take the case back to an administrative civil penalty hearing to rehear the second hearing . That hearing was recently held on March 2, 2017. The hearing officer’s decision and order is pending.”
According to Richmond, the city is seeking the same remedies as in 2010 and 2015.
Steve said he has been in constant contact with both Richmond and deputy city attorney Danna Nicholas since the last hearing. “She [Nicholas] promised me that she would call me to make sure I was there when they got a court date. I called and she said it had been turned over to another branch and they already had a hearing [March 2]. How is this hearing going to be different from the last hearing? It probably won’t. How many years will this go on?”
Gerry Braun from the city attorney’s office said hearing decisions usually take a couple of months to be issued. Braun said Eslamian filed the writ because he claimed he hadn’t been properly notified about the October 2015 hearing. This is odd since Eslamian himself asked for and was granted a continuance for the original hearing scheduled in September 2015.
Braun said, “Rather than wait for a court to take up his claim, the city chose to let the matter be reheard. The administrative hearing concerned the property owner’s violations of the law and the harm done to the surrounding neighborhood. The litigation would have determined the sufficiency of notification by the department of development services’ code enforcement section.”
Steve thought something was finally happening a few weeks ago when he saw the temporary fencing around the lot come down. It ended up being that permanent fencing was being installed after a car hit the old cinderblock smog check sign out front.
“What do you think it’s done to the property values of those that live around here? I’d like to ask the owner what [he] would like to say to the people that have lived around this gas station. How would [he] like it if this was in [his] neighborhood? It’s incredibly frustrating and rude. We all know this guy is going to make money off the sale of this property. The property value has skyrocketed, he’s going to make an additional $1 million.”
The lot has been on and off the market for years and now appears to be back on again as of January. The owner, also a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker, has put the property back on the market for $2 to $2.5 million. County documentation shows the property was assessed in 2016 for tax purposes to be worth $872,000.
Steve doesn’t think the city is doing enough. “They’ve been sitting on their hands doing nothing. They did nothing until I complained. That graffiti that spelled out ‘Letters’ was there for three months. I tagged it with the city’s app and they sent it back to me and said it was fixed. It wasn’t. If those buildings weren’t there, we wouldn’t have that problem. I’d be happy to volunteer to take them down with a sledgehammer. I’m sure others would volunteer too.”
Steve also said he learned from Richmond about an account the city has that can remove structures such as the ones prone to graffiti on the lot in question. “They can then assume the property and sell it to recoup their money, but they didn’t have enough money in the fund to remove the structures.”
Steve has an appointment with councilmember Chris Cate’s office on April 7. “If Chris Cate could do something about this, he would be a hero. He would have everybody’s vote from now on.”
Cate’s office confirmed the appointment and said that only one other resident has contacted their office about the blighted lot.