A La Mesa City Council 2-2 vote on August 8 stalled Silvergate Development’s plan to convert the now-closed Little Flower Haven Catholic retirement home at 8585 La Mesa Boulevard into the 130-unit Little Flower apartment complex. The council rejected ratification of the Design Review Board's March 13, 2017, approval of Silvergate’s plan to redevelop the 4.1-acre site. However, onsite parking, not design, was the focus of discussion. The plan was modified in June to include 13 low-income units, making it subject to California’s density-bonus law. It allows fewer parking spaces than La Mesa requires. City attorney Glenn Sabine cautioned that rejecting the board approval could lead to litigation.
The land is owned by the Carmelite Sisters of the Divine Heart of Jesus, who opened the nonprofit home in 1938. When it closed in 2015, the sisters relocated to Texas. Silvergate hasn’t closed escrow to purchase the property for “around $6 million,” Silvergate principal Ian Gill said in a March interview.
Three Carmelites attended the August 8 meeting where people applauded residents protesting the project.
La Mesa requires two parking spaces per unit, and Silvergate applied for a permit to reduce parking by 10 percent. After residents in the Porter Hill neighborhood north of La Mesa Boulevard objected to tenants parking on their streets, the June 7 Planning Commission hearing on the permit was cancelled. The inclusion of 13 low-income housing units for households earning 80 percent of the county median income brings a state requirement for 186 spaces. Silvergate is proposing 195 spaces.
Leases would prohibit tenants from parking on Porter Hill Road and Randlett and Rosehedge drives, according to the presentation given by Gill and project manager Tommy Edmunds. In addition, there would be bike sharing and storage of bicycles in the basement.
Although no residents spoke during an earlier council discussion about neighborhood permit-parking programs, some scoffed about needing a permit to park in front of their homes when Silvegate’s project was discussed.
Lili Feingold said the developer “has razzle dazzle” and was “bloviating. I’m a school teacher; I could not afford that rent. This is not 1865; we don’t need carpetbaggers coming to our city.”
Some residents called for the developer to build an onsite parking garage. Others proposed that the city install parking meters or implement diagonal parking on La Mesa Boulevard.
Joe Bird, a project supporter and Porter Hill resident, said, “I’m the father of three and never felt threatened by a parked car. We're moving away from car ownership [with] ride sharing." He compared opponents’ reactions to turn-of-the century carriage drivers fretting about "having cars on the road.”
Sister Mary Joseph Heisler, Carmelite provincial administrator, turned to the audience and said, “Please don't boo me.” She spoke about the sadness related to closing the home and described infrastructure needing repair. “We couldn’t keep it up.”
Sister Barbara said, "I came to Little Flower in 1965" and may have served “your grandparents” and other relatives. She compared apartment use to the Carmelite’s mission to house people and said the city should build a parking structure.
During council discussion, Guy McWhirter chastised the audience. "In the two-and-a-half years I've been on the city council, I've never seen such a rude group of people." After decrying remarks made about Gill, he said “We [the city] can't afford to buy" the property. Why don't you buy it?" He said the density bonus was state law. "I don't like pot shops, but" the law approved by La Mesa voters in 2016 allows marijuana dispensaries.
Councilman Bill Baber brought up an issue raised by residents: the presence of city staffers on the design board. The board’s 3-2 vote on Little Flower Apartments included “yes” votes cast by community-development director Carol Dick and planner Chris Jacobs.
Mayor Mark Arapostathis asked Sabine what would happen if the council rejected the board decision. Sabine said he wasn’t sure what the developer would do. “If the developer brings suit and prevails, [Silvergate] gets attorney’s fees.”
Vice mayor Kristine Alessio said the council’s hands were tied. She and McWhirter cast “yes” votes. Colin Parent rescued himself from the matter because he lives within 500 feet of the property.
After the meeting, Gill said he had no comment other than, "It's a surprise and unfortunate that the facts of our parking study weren't considered."
La Mesa has not yet from Silvergate, city manager Yvonne Garrett said in an August 10 email.