Jeff Clemetson | Editor
Envision La Mesa sets sights on cleaning up city’s west side
A little over a year ago, residents in the west side of La Mesa were dealing with the aftermath of illegal dispensaries that dotted the city’s main western corridors of University Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard.
“It all started from that cute white stucco building … It turned into this dispensary and then they left and they painted it these hideous colors and it just made everybody angry,” recalls Ursula Koenig.
Koenig and other nearby residents vented their anger about this building — another going to blight in a neighborhood that already had too much of it — on the popular social media website Nextdoor. But they weren’t just venting — they were also suggesting ways to improve the situation, which caught the attention of resident Craig Reed.
“It’s one thing to see people complain on Nextdoor, that’s fairly common, but to see people who were throwing out ideas, I was like, ‘Wait, I’m seeing people looking for solutions here rather than just ranting,’” he said.
It was then that Reed proposed to people on the Nextdoor thread, which by then had grown to over 150 posts, that they should meet up and discuss the issues facing the west side of La Mesa and come up with strategies to address them. Before long, Koenig, Reed and a handful of other residents were meeting regularly and officially formed Envision la Mesa — a group dedicated to improving blighted areas in the western neighborhoods of the city and promote a greater sense of community.
Although relatively new, Envision La Mesa has already made progress on its goals. Last fall, the group conducted an environmental scan of University Avenue to make a record of problem areas. Instances of litter and neglected or abandoned buildings were noted by the group. The group recorded over 90 instances of graffiti and then entered them into La Mesa’s YourGov app; a week later, the graffiti was covered up.
“It was just amazing to see that the city was so responsive,” Reed said. “The one complaint I have is that … if there was graffiti on a wall that is white, they didn’t use white [paint to cover it up]. They would just use this brown square. So, it addresses the graffiti but not the feeling of blight.”
Envision La Mesa wants to involve the city as sparingly as possible by trying to accomplish as much as it can on its own before using an “ask” from the city to do something, Reed said. However, there are some ideas the group has come up with to address blight that will need the help of the city, such as putting in better bus stops, installing better garbage cans, mandating better signage and banning miniature-sized bottles of liquor.
For now, those lofty goals requiring officials to allocate funding or change municipal codes have been put aside for more attainable ones, such as cleaning up and finding community uses for vacant lots. During the environmental scan, Koenig identified seven empty lots in west La Mesa, five of which she described as “doable” for community uses.
“I think we can make an empty lot just shine and get cleaned up and have an artisan fair or a summer movie — something temporary,” she said.
And some progress has already been made toward that goal. Koenig has already contacted representatives of property owners and made her case that the spaces could be cleaned up and used temporarily by the community while investors wait to build out the lots — and has received some positive feedback about the idea.
She also put in a call to a local church that has empty lots that were slated for a community garden, but the project was put on hold because some neighbors raised concerns. Envision La Mesa hopes that if the church still wants to offer the lot for a garden, that it can work with the neighbors and dispel any worries they may have about the garden project.
“We think the solution is that if the church is committed to working with the neighbors in that fashion, we go to the neighbors,” she said.
In addition to using empty lots, Envision La Mesa is also pursuing the decoration of fences around abandoned buildings, such as the old VFW clubhouse and the old A1 Equipment Rental building, both on University Avenue.
“Just throw up something that doesn’t harm the fence,” Reed said. “Where we’re not trespassing, we’re just installing something that looks nicer. We’re just using the fence as a canvas and [making] it look more inviting than what it looks like today.”
Although cleaning up the neighborhood was the initial directive for Envision La Mesa, another function for the group soon became apparent.
“We were identifying the problems, but also looking for assets,” Reed said, adding that the group began noticing many unseen storefronts along University Avenue while it conducted its environmental scan. “We realized there was all this potential there too, it’s just we had to see it on the ground versus just [driving] through it.”
To highlight the neighborhood’s potential, Koenig has begun a project called “Hidden Gems” where Envision La Mesa invites the community to gather at a local restaurant or business to foster renewed interest in the community.
“All of these little small businesses just got forgotten,” she said. “There’s the new places that open, there’s the buzz about popular spots, there’s Instagram and Facebook food groups that chase after the next chef opening. But this is really just highlighting what’s been there a long time.”
Envision La Mesa held its first Hidden Gems on July 13 at J-K’s Greek Café, which has served Mediterranean food in La Mesa for over 35 years. Koenig said 15 people showed up to the event and it was well-received by both the attendees and the restaurant’s owner. Future events are planned at other west side eateries and maybe even some service businesses like salons or boutiques.
“Not only are we supporting the local businesses with our work, but we’re also getting neighbors to meet other neighbors,” Reed added.
When Envision La Mesa started, it was neighbors meeting neighbors. The handful of residents concerned about illegal dispensaries has grown to around 25 members. The group now has a website and meets twice a month — one public meeting and one with just the members of its steering committee, which operates as a collective leadership for the group rather than a traditional structure of a president and board members. Koenig said that’s because the members are “very kick back and easy.”
“One of the reasons why we intentionally took our time getting organized is because we really wanted something that wasn’t just a name, but a mission and vision that we could all agree that this is what we want to try for — something a little bigger than ourselves, yet something that we can break it down in smaller pieces and make progress,” Reed said.
Envision La Mesa’s motto is: “Improving neighborhood character and community life … one step at a time.”
“We emphasize that ‘one step at a time’ to remind ourselves that this is marathon not a sprint, because we know we can get there,” Reed said. “Just like a marathon, we might be aching in a few places by the time we get there, but we can get there.”
For more information about, or to contact Envision La Mesa, visit envisionlamesa.org.
— Reach Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.