Concerned about what the city is planning to do with two vacant lots on the northwest corner of El Cajon Boulevard at 40th Street, adjacent to the I-15 off-ramp, local groups are asking the city to develop that land as a transit-oriented, high-density housing project with businesses on the first floor.
The Normal Heights Planning Group went a step further and suggested that the city look at adding the parcels to a larger project that would extend as far as two-tenths of a mile west. Selling off the parcels "would miss an opportunity to create a much larger higher density mixed use project at that corner, extending to 38th Street on the west and located immediately adjacent to the in-line freeway transit station," the planning group wrote.
Plots of land on both the northwest and northeast corners where I-15 crosses the boulevard have stood empty for a long time. They have been the subject to proposals that fell through for a variety of reasons. But the community would hate to see a gas station or convenience store end up there. While the two groups are throwing around virtually every urban-development buzz-word from the planners' dictionary, the next-door neighbor is just amused.
Minh Pham owns the home and property immediately north of the two parcels. He has watched ideas come and go since the freeway was finished. "They think they want to build here and they come and see and change their minds," Pham said. "The zoning for this one is residential but for that one [right on the boulevard] is commercial so they have to start there."
He points out that there's no access to the alley, another problem for a big project. Pham says that plans have been announced and then faded away since the 1990s. He's considered selling his property to developers so they could join it to the north lot and build more apartments, but no one has ever gotten that far. In the meantime, the properties are fenced off separately. Both are oddly shaped, and the northern plot is at the turnaround for the dead-end street.
The planning group and business association have heard that the properties are up for sale, some say on the mayor's orders.
"In 2004, the parcels were included as part of a project which was designated as one of five Pilot Village properties by the City of San Diego," El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association president Tootie Thomas wrote in an October letter to the mayor and two councilmembers. The plans culminated in the conceptual Boulevard Marketplace, proposed as a mixed-use project with 366 apartments or condos and 37,000 square feet of commercial space. But, the letter says, "with a lack of commitment from the city, a recession, crash in the housing market, and the demise of redevelopment, the plan went unrealized."
Civic San Diego now owns the land but doesn't have concrete plans for it, Civic San Diego senior project manager Jeff Zinner said. He said that even if the land was going to the community-oriented project the groups are calling for, the agency would still sell it to whoever develops it. How it can be used will be defined in the agreement with the buyer — including the possibility of affordable apartments, commercial use, and other conditions.
"The easiest way I can explain it is we can sell it with strings attached or without strings attached," he said.
The land ended up with Civic San Diego after California redevelopment agencies were dissolved in 2012. It was acquired from Caltrans after the freeway opened.
Zinner says the not-redevelopment agency is considering the sites for transit-oriented mixed use and is getting ready to look for a buyer to develop the site. The agency can sell it without saying what goes on it, he said, just as they can define the project.
"We haven't ruled out any options," he said.
Pham already heard about this plan. He grins broadly at the idea before he goes back to work on his house. "Sure, this time we'll get new owners," he says. "Not like those other times."