When John O’Connor looks at the lot on the northwest corner of El Cajon Boulevard and 40th where the I-15 exit ramps end, he sees a great opportunity for a building with housing and shops on the ground floor. The land qualifies for density bonuses; it’s just yards from the new Center Line express route on the 15; it has the infrastructure needed to build.
But apparently, that’s not what the mayor’s office sees. Because it appears to O’Connor that it was the mayor who ordered Civic San Diego to sell the lot to the highest bidder.
“For the long term, we want something better than the highest and best value,” he says. “This could be a balanced project that stands out as an example to the city, the state, even nationally.”
The 26,000-square-foot lot (actually two adjacent lots) is one of the remaining parcels that the redevelopment agency acquired from the city in 2009 that the city got from Caltrans in 2001. The state was forced to disband redevelopment agencies in December 2011, and it’s now in the hands of Civic San Diego. CivicSD answers to the state department of finance and the San Diego City Council, according to Kristine Zortman. Money from the sale then gets divided up among government entities including the city, county, state and school district.
While the redevelopment plan talks about exactly the uses the Boulevard is advocating for, that’s not the focus of the sale, and it’s not required, CivicSD says.
O’Connor, the secretary for the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association says the group worked with CivicSD to craft a proposal looking for a developer who wants to build a project along the lines of what the Normal Heights Community Planning Group and the Boulevard have long wanted: ground floor retail and service businesses, with a mix of affordable and market rate housing. Because of the close proximity of express and regular bus routes, the developer will be able to build more units of housing.
“It was designed to be the mother of all transit oriented density projects,” he says. But at the last minute, the plan changed. O’Connor believes it was not CivicSD’s idea.
“At the 11th hour, they came in and said sell it for the highest dollar amount,” he says. “We want better than that for our community.”
One of the frustrations is that there’s so much confusion between the community plan and the zoning that potential projects to improve El Cajon Boulevard between the 805 and the 15, like replacing the half dozen used car lots with attractive things that draw residents, aren’t even proposed.
For example, the shed shop at 33rd and El Cajon is being replaced by a storage facility that’s digging down three stories before building upward. It didn’t even go to the planning group because the owner has the right to do that — and adding insult to injury, is naming the facility North Park Storage.
“West of the 805, the boulevard (in North Park) is blossoming with great projects but there’s no money coming to El Cajon Boulevard east of there,” O’Connor said. “This is such a key site, an anchor site, and it’s not being thought of as part of a bigger revitalization for the neighborhood.”
The planning group has written the mayor’s office twice to promote the project and express support — without a response. Similarly, both the city communications department and the mayor’s office didn’t respond to my requests for comment sent via email.
The community frustration is palpable.
“We hear so much about how we need more housing and how transit-oriented housing is part of the Climate Action Plan,” says planning group chairman Gary Weber. “Well, here we are trying to get just that and no one will listen to us.”
Marty Graham is a new member of the Normal Heights Community Planning Group and has not participated in any voting or other actions on this issue.