The proposed West End maintenance assessment district, squeezed between two business districts.
More than 800 San Diegans have petitioned San Diego City Councilmember Chris Ward to step into a tug of war that pits Hillcrest and El Cajon Boulevard business districts against what they see as a stealth move funded by a developer to create an overlay tax authority on parts of their districts.
Neighborhood assessment district wizard Marco LiMandri is planning an L-shaped maintenance assessment district tentatively called the “West End” that stretches from east of Texas St. down El Cajon to Park, includes the San Diego Unified School District property north to Meade and west to Campus and then heads south on Park to Robinson. It also grabs up the triangle formed by Park, University and Normal Street, including the coming Normal Street Promenade and the H.G.Fenton infill project planned for Harvey Milk and Normal Streets.
LiMandri and staff at New City America Inc. did not respond to requests for comment.
Sources say that Ward is sending out emails saying he is not involved in the proposal, which is being reviewed by the City Attorney and his response seems to indicate he is neutral on the proposal.
“Both MADs would be beneficial in this area, as it has long struggled with needs for additional services and resources that the City does not provide,” according to Ward’s communications manager Jake Estrada. “MADs do not create new neighborhoods, and regardless of any new MAD, the HBA retains control over the Pride Flag.”
Benjamin Nicholls, executive director of the Hillcrest Business Improvement Association called the proposed district ‘a gerrymandered map’ last week when he sent out an email urging people to “Save the Pride Plaza.”
“The pride flag will not be in Hillcrest, it will be in the west end,” he says. “Why do we need this now? Because it’s easier to pass a tax when no one is paying attention. If they can grab the valuable parts of the neighborhood here, they can do it anywhere.”
“They” is developer H.G. Fenton, which has just completed the 165-apartment project BLVD on ECB between Alabama and Florida streets; and the second, an 82-unit project at Harvey Milk and Normal streetsin the planning stages. Disclosures filed with the city clerk for January to June 2020 indicate that Fenton staff began weighing in on the Promenade project more than a year ago. Since at least March 2019, according to city lobbyist disclosures, Fenton executives have been meeting with Ward staffers Molly Chase and Brittany Bailey about the formation of the ‘El Cajon Boulevard BIA’, though it isn’t clear when the idea of what LiMandri is calling a “community benefit district’ emerged.
Fenton, in the disclosures, describes their lobbying as: Support planning and execution of the proposed Normal Street Promenade that enhances placemaking and pedestrian/bicyclist experience and creates positive impacts for surrounding properties while retaining appropriate access to future development sites.
When and why it shifted to a hybrid, which resembles a maintenance assessment district, isn’t clear.
The city’s map of business improvement districts shows a gap between the Boulevard and Hillcrest business districts, but the proposed maintenance assessment district snatches out pieces of both. North Park already has a maintenance assessment district, managed by the Parks and Recreation Department, that starts a block east of Park and goes east to the 805, south to Juniper and north to Monroe. These districts are voted into existence by the businesses and property owners that live within them. Their votes are weighted by the size of the property so that the votes of a single large land owner – like Fenton in the proposed district, can make it far easier to impose the ‘fees’ on all properties in a district.
The districts have become a way to provide enhanced services to areas hampered by low real estate tax income – though the courts have been clear that the services must be ones that go above and beyond what the city is required to provide.
The Boulevard’s executive director Tootie Thomas says the plan usurps work already done with money raised from its members – starting with the branding of the area as the West End and the iconic Boulevard sign.
“He is carving off parts of our district and calling for the use of our brand marketing and parking funds,” Thomas says. “That’s not just a MAD and it’s got us mad.”
The existing business districts are particularly irritated that LiMandri will operate the proposed district when he runs a for-profit corporation that will take up to $120,000 a year in administrative costs – according to a letter he sent in April – from people already paying fees to existing nonprofit districts.
Fenton, meanwhile, answered a spate of questions through spokeswoman Margie Newman confirming its apartment projects are in the proposed district but holding it at arms' length.
“Neither the Normal Street Promenade nor The West End are H.G. Fenton Company projects. We would direct you to CCM Ward’s office or New City America, respectively, for information specific to their projects,” Newman wrote in an email.