By Jeff Clemetson | Editor
City Council, local civics group ponder city’s future
The future is on the minds of La Mesa’s residents. At two town hall meetings held by the City Council and one event held by a local civics group, officials and citizens looked ahead to how future and current development will affect the city and their neighborhoods.
A downtown conversation
On Jan. 27, La Mesa Conversations, a group that promotes discussion on local issues, held a forum on “The Future of Downtown.”
Over 100 people showed up to the Masonic Lodge to hear a panel talk about potential growth in housing and business around the downtown area of the city.
The panelists for the evening included La Mesa City Manager David Witt; local developer Christopher D’Avignon, CEO of Land & Design; and Mary England, president of the La Mesa Chamber of Commerce. Real estate developer Shon Finch was scheduled to speak but was not able to attend. CEO of Grossmont Healthcare District and former La Mesa City Council member Barry Jantz moderated the discussion.
Witt said people are passionate about downtowns, citing the reverence Disneyland’s Main Street is given as “part of the American culture.”
“We are very, very lucky to have a piece of that here,” he said.
Despite the nostalgia associated with downtowns, Witt said they are always modernizing and La Mesa’s is no exception.
“It isn’t static. It’s not Disneyland,” he said. “The paradox is that the downtown has always been about what’s new, what’s happening … about showing off that this is the place to be and that means it’s all about development.”
Witt said it is a challenge to new development to balance what the community wants to preserve while still keeping downtown La Mesa“vibrant and active.” The biggest challenge, however, is funding new projects after the state’s redevelopment program was ended by Gov. Brown, he said.
Witt summarized his vision of La Mesa’s downtown as a place that is walkable; is connected to the trolley and bus systems; and has activity day and night.
“I think it has a lot of potential for that,” he said.
D’Avignon, whose company built The Quarry Apartments on Palm Avenue, highlighted the process developers face when starting new projects –– the cost; the design considerations involved; overcoming lawsuits; and getting approval from city governments. He also stressed why it is important to get started on new developments.
“La Mesa is going to need something like 8,000 units over the next 20 years just to match population growth, and that’s a lot,” he said.
For downtown La Mesa’s future, D’Avignon sees potential smart growth in ideal locations.
“You got a lot of great spaces here by the trolley that make a lot of sense for transit-oriented development,” he said.
England praised business owners, like Pierre’s Jewelers, who invest in the purchasing and rehabbing of retail space downtown.
“When we see a building and a business that is sold, there is a lot of investment from that businessman,” she said.
Although La Mesa has “a good mix” of businesses downtown, the city and the chamber have little influence on what kinds of businesses end up there.
“I hear all the time ‘we want more this, we want more that,’” England said. “Sometimes, as much as we’d like to change what we see downtown, the owners of the buildings really make that determination.”
The panel also discussed the proposed high-rise Park Station development project that faced fierce opposition by residents and was eventually shelved by the property owners.
Witt said La Mesa is accepting of some types of large-scale development, citing La Mesa Village Plaza as an example.
“This town built a mixed-use project with multi-story residential on top of retail with structured parking, incorporating a light-rail station in 1989,” he said.
What the community won’t accept is a project that is “just an idea” and Park Station developers did not offer enough details.
“[The community] wants to know what it’s going to look like, how big it’s going to be and is it actually going to get built,” he said.
D’Avignon said Park Station’s proposed 18 stories and its density were outside the city zoning by “quite a bit” and as such, was “destined for disaster.”
D’Avignon also said an ideal density for housing developments in La Mesa is 40 units per acre because it is a manageable number to match with available parking. He said the city should encourage building the maximum units to help downtown La Mesa’s vibrancy by having more people to shop and dine there.
“In La Mesa, it’s all about fit,” added Witt. “That’s what I think we’ve done a good job of –– making sure that what does come in the future is a good fit for the community.”
Town halls offer feedback on future
The La Mesa City Council held two town hall-style meetings –– Feb. 16 at Parkway Middle School and Feb. 18 at Maryland Avenue Elementary –– to get input from residents about issues they feel the city needs to address.
The agendas described the events as “an opportunity for the public to speak in an open forum to the City Council on issues and concerns pertaining to La Mesa and its future.”
At the Parkway Middle School meeting, several local residents voiced concern over the future Depot Springs brewery that is currently under construction at 9176 Fletcher Parkway.
“I love rock and roll … and I love beer … but I am concerned about the noise in our neighborhood because this outdoor amphitheater overlooks my neighbors’ backyards. It’s very close,” said Doug Tower.
When completed, the Depot Springs Beer Company facility will house a brewery, distillery, restaurant, full bar and an outdoor space for live music. The project was not appealed when it went before the city planning department, so it was approved without requiring a vote by City Council. However, council leaders will still have a say on whether the brewery is allowed to continue operating with permits for live music, Mayor Arapostathis said.
“There is a process that if they don’t meet the terms, that it can come before the City Council and it can be revoked,” he said.
Other residents concerned about Depot Springs wanted changes to the city’s process of notifying neighbors of future building projects. Currently, the city notifies residents within 300 feet of a proposed construction project. One resident who spoke suggested the boundary be stretched to 500 feet to include more people’s input.
Depot Springs wasn’t the only development project discussed at the town hall.
“[When are we going to know] about the Civic Center Master Plan and potential opportunities to improve our library?” said La Mesa Friends of the Library president John Schmitz.
The La Mesa Library is currently in an interim location after the city tore down the old library to make space for the new police station. If the city doesn’t build a new library, it will have to pay for the county land the police station was built on. Schmitz and other residents that spoke at the town hall are hoping the awaited master plan for the civic center will include plans to build a larger library.
City Manager David Witt said La Mesa is “in the process of developing a feasibility plan” for the civic center that will look at a variety of possibilities for the old post office site, old chamber of commerce building, old police station site, among others.
The city will be discussing the plan with property owners and the City Council at an all-day workshop March 24 to examine different ideas. No decisions will be made at the workshop, Witt said.
“Keep in mind, that’s a first glance at some ideas that are very, very preliminary and [we’re] really talking about what are the possibilities, what could fit there and what those types of things cost,” he said.
The civic center and library issue came up again at the Feb. 18 town hall and Witt revealed a few more details about the city’s plan for the site, which may include affordable housing in a mixed-use format.
“I think that in any case it will be a wonderful addition to the civic center concept,” he said.
Witt also shared how the city is partnering with La Mesa/Spring Valley School District to build a Boys & Girls Club at the “partially utilized” property attached to La Mesa Middle School. The city will develop the sidewalks and areas around the new building as part of the project and construction will begin in the next two years, Witt said.
Pete Cecherini told the council that excessive fees were keeping investors away from redeveloping the city’s “old housing stock” and suggested the process be streamlined. He said La Mesa’s high cost for fees associated with remodeling are keeping owners from doing needed repairs and that is keeping home prices lower than they should be and attracting unwanted elements to neighborhoods. City Attorney Glenn Sabine said La Mesa hires a consultant to do a fee study every two years and the fees are in line with comparable cities.
Kathleen Brand wondered about the plans for the Little Flower Haven building at 8585 La Mesa Blvd., which is up for sale. Brand wants the historic façade of the building to remain intact and urged the city to order any potential buyers to keep the building’s iconic look.
“I don’t want to see things that are unique to be taken away or torn down because it’s just not efficient anymore,” she said.
Brand also voiced her concern that any plans for the civic center include an aesthetically pleasing design.
“I want to make sure La Mesa stays the ‘Jewel of the Hills’ and not the rhinestone or the polished rock,” she said.
––Write to Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org