By Jeff Clemetson | Editor
Tied vote puts city in jeopardy of lawsuit
It’s not every day that a nun walks up to a microphone and says, “Please don’t boo me.” But that’s what happened at the Aug. 8 La Mesa City Council meeting, during public comments before the council voted on the proposed Little Flower Haven housing project.
The contentious meeting — which had a City Council member chastise the opponents of the project for booing those in favor of it — ended with a tie vote; meaning the proposal to replace a former home for the elderly with a low-income housing development, would not be approved. Run by the Carmelite Sisters of the Divine Heart of Jesus, the Little Flower Haven facility at 8585 La Mesa Blvd. had operated from 1938 until June 2015.
The decision also brought a threat of lawsuit by the developers.
The project’s details
The Silvergate Development group’s proposed plan is to build 130 units in several new three-story buildings while keeping the existing frontage building.
“We really felt that the architecture of the existing tower, entry and chapel was so significant that even though it wasn’t to be designated historic, we really loved the street scene, loved the building and wanted to retain that,” Silvergate principal Ian Gill said.
The project would be a mix of one- and two-bedroom apartments and feature upgraded landscaping, a pool area, bike storage, a new bus stop and a parking lot.
Although the property currently has no parking, it was the number of parking spaces the developers had put in the plans that had residents from the neighborhood speaking up in opposition.
Because Silvergate is taking advantage of a state program to encourage low-income housing, the Little Flower Haven development can get a waiver that allows for less parking spaces than the city normally requires. The city rule is two spaces for every unit, or 260 for Little Flower Haven’s 130 units. However, because the project will dedicate 10 percent of the units to low-income residents, it is only required to have one per bedroom, or 186. The Silvergate plan has 193 parking spaces, 67 less than what the neighboring residents want
“Now that the property is for sale and redevelopment is inevitable, the proposed 130-unit complex, while keeping only a fraction of the historic façade – the bell tower and original chapel — will have an impact on the neighborhood,” resident Susan Wayne said. “We want to be clear. We are not opposed to a residential development, but to the parking variance that deviates from the La Mesa municipal code.”
Wayne was followed by many other neighbors who echoed her opposition to what they deemed as inadequate parking that would force guests and some residents of the development to park on already crowded and narrow streets. And those who parked north of the development in the Porter Hill area would also be tempted to jaywalk across La Mesa Boulevard, since there are no crosswalks in front of Little Flower Haven. Another argument was that Silvergate wasn’t interested in providing low-income housing and was only offering it to side-step the city’s parking requirements. One woman even equated the developers to “carpetbaggers,” which drew cheers.
Although outnumbered, a few residents spoke in favor of the development. La Mesa Chamber of Commerce president Mary England pointed to the positive impact on local businesses of having more residents located next to the downtown village and nearby Grossmont Mall.
Christine La Marca, homeless veteran advocate and president of the San Diego County Apartment Association, originally wanted to see Little Flower Haven turned into a homeless shelter for veterans, but after talking with Gill she changed her mind and decided to support the project.
“The more I listened to his proposal, the more I understood the need for housing our families and our working population. It’s extremely critical,” she said. “We have gotten to the point where we need so many more housing units developed that this is the better and higher use for that property.”
La Marca drew boos and jeers when she urged the council to not “make feel-good decisions” and “do what is fiscally responsible,” despite the protests of “a small fraction” of residents.
Sister Mary Joseph of the Carmelite Sisters of the Divine Heart of Jesus followed La Marca, asking not be booed. She urged people to accept the project because her order can no longer afford to keep the building open or make the necessary repairs, and said that a development there is “inevitable.”
She also said the parking situation would be improved by the development.
“This question about parking spaces — it has none right now. There’s zero parking spaces,” she said. “We’ve been caring for 60 residents, 27 employees, eight to 10 sisters with zero parking spaces.”
The council vote
Following public comments, the council deliberated the project and voted on the two resolutions needed to approve the project.
Councilmember Guy McWhirter said that he expected the meeting to be “pitchforks and torches” and chastised the booing and applauding during the meeting as “rude.”
McWhirter voted to approve the project, saying that this was the best option for the site, given the state laws that govern development of low-income housing.
Councilmember Bill Baber, taking issue with the Design Advisory Board’s vote because part of the board is made up of city employees, said he felt there was a conflict of interest and voted against the project.
While Vice Mayor Kristine Alessio lamented the state’s authority to override the city’s parking codes, she said all she could do was apply “fact to law” and voted to approve the project.
Mayor Mark Arapostathis voted against the project.
“I will say this, and no disrespect to the developer, I was not in favor of this because I think it does impact the neighborhood and so I’m being honest, that’s how I feel,” Arapostathis said.
Councilmember Colin Parent recused himself from the vote because he lives in the neighborhood that would be impacted by the project. During the discussion of an earlier item in the meeting, Parent and Alessio introduced a proposal asking the city to consider developing parking districts, where residents would have permits to park in their neighborhood and police could then ticket or tow cars belonging to non-residents that were parked there.
Because the project needed a majority to get approval, the council’s 2-2 vote means the Little Flower Haven project is a no go — for now.
But following the Aug. 8 City Council meeting, Silvergate sent a letter to the city expressing their intention to bring the matter to court. In response, the City Council held a special closed-session meeting with City Attorney Glenn Sabine, to discuss options and any legal grounds the council has to uphold its decision, Councilmember McWhirter said.
“As a result of that meeting, we will be reconvening that hearing [on Little Flower Haven] on the Sept. 12, our first council meeting in September,” he said.
At that meeting, the council will, once again, vote on the proposed development.
—Reach Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.