Jeff Clemetson | Editor
La Mesa’s annual town hall meetings, where City Council and city staff hear from residents about issues in their neighborhoods, were held on Jan. 29 at Dale Elementary and Jan. 31 at Murray Manor Elementary.
Residents brought up a wide range of topics, but the majority of concerns at this year’s events centered around infrastructure in the city — roads, bike lanes, sidewalks, street lighting, parks, and other nuts and bolts city functions.
New to this year’s format were several presentations on topics that the city regularly receives phone calls or emails about.
La Mesa Police Capt. Matt Nicolas gave a presentation on animal services. He said that most residents do not realize that the shelter La Mesa uses is in El Cajon, even for residents that live on the west side bordering San Diego. He also said the police often get calls about wild animals such as coyotes, but there is little that they can do because state law says wild animals can’t be removed. He suggested deterrents like improving fencing, keeping shrubs and trees well-trimmed, and picking up fruit from trees off the ground to make yards less appealing to wild animals.
Community Services Director Sue Richardson presented on the Livable La Mesa project, which looks at ways to improve life in the city for people age 45 and older. [See story on page 1 for more information about the project.]
Assistant City Manager Greg Humora presentation was about the city’s outreach, community relations and transparency efforts. Major communication tools include the city’s new mobile-friendly website where residents can get information on public meetings; report problems using YourGov; look over city finances using OpenGov; sign up for newsletter updates from different city departments; and find information tables on things like active construction projects.
Humora also encouraged residents to use Nixle, a program used by public safety departments that alerts about emergencies in the community through text or email. For example, Humora said, when police deploy a helicopter to look for a suspect in a neighborhood, a Nixle is sent out to inform residents what they should know.
La Mesa also expanded its social media platforms to include Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and NextDoor.
Most recently, the city invested in technology that allows for all City Council meetings to be streamed over the internet through the city website and Facebook page.
Public Works Director Richard Leja gave a very thorough presentation on how the city fixes roads — from how it chooses what roads to fix to all the different ways the city repaves streets and the material used.
Roads, sidewalks, bike lanes
Even with Leja’s detailed presentation, many residents still had questions, or wished to share concerns about various road repair projects, or lack thereof, in the city.
At the Jan. 29 meeting, resident Paul Hitchcock asked about a project at the corner of Lowell Street and University Avenue that was done twice. Leja said that the contractor had to redo the work because it wasn’t up to the city’s expectations and standards. He added that the city is diligent in hiring contractors that are licensed bonded and insured.
“That’s what La Mesa can enforce in addition to our technical standards,” he said. “But we can’t do [the work] for them. What we can do is not pay them when they do it wrong.”
Mayor Mark Arapostathis added, “When we have a contractor that is not doing what we want, we will never use that contractor again.”
One resident wondered why the city has bumped out certain sidewalks. She said the new configuration no longer allows for cars turning right at an intersection to pull alongside cars going straight through traffic lights and said this has caused some streets to back up at lights in the mornings.
Humora said the bulb out sidewalks create an overall safer right of way at intersections.
“What we’ve tried to do is recognize that the right of way space is not just for vehicles, but for pedestrians and also for bicycles. We’re trying to strike a balance out there,” he said, adding that the bulb outs do not lose very much efficiency.
Craig Reed, representing the community group Envision La Mesa, shared that they recently conducted a survey of the group’s constituents to find out what was most important to them. “No surprise, but street improvements were No. 1,” he said, and added that the residents’ concerns were “more than potholes.” Dangerous intersections, pedestrian safety and bike safety, especially around Helix, were also high priorities for the members.
At both town hall meetings, there were several residents who brought up the issue of bike lanes and bike safety. Some of the suggestions made by residents included making the city’s bike routes continuous and installing Class 1 bike lanes — those with a barrier between cars and bikes — on major thoroughfares.
Leja said the city is always looking for grant money to expand bike lanes or build better ones, sharing that La Mesa recently received a grant that will allow it to put bike lanes going both ways on University Avenue between Baltimore Drive and the western city limits.
Other road-related issues brought up at the town halls included poor street lighting, repeated road closures around Palm Avenue due to back-to-back construction projects in the area, and speeding drivers, which Arapostathis said was the No. 1 issue he hears about from residents.
Leja said that the city has a “detailed traffic calming program” that includes a variety of measures to reduce speeds on streets, including adding speed bumps in residential neighborhoods
“In six to eight weeks we will be installing bumps on the city’s No. 1 street, as far as concerns go, Stanford Avenue,” he said.
Resident Tom Brady asked what was being done about traffic signals in the city, especially along busy streets like Fletcher Parkway and Jackson Drive where he says they are on cycles that are inefficient, especially at night.
“We are finishing right now as part of a highway safety grant installing fiberoptic control systems all the way up and down Fletcher Parkway,” Leja said. “They go back to a centralized traffic management center where we can control those timings to react more to the need. Prior to having that coordination, we rely on the timing of the signal system itself. Now that we are going to have that system connected, we’ll have more ability to address the traffic flow on a corridor-wide basis.”
Trash cans and ‘eye sores’
Cleaning up the streets from trash and blight was also a concern shared by residents.
“What I’ve noticed in our city … is that we have no trash cans,” said Mary Gibson, a resident in west La Mesa, who compared the differences between how El Cajon Boulevard and University Avenue look in La Mesa versus San Diego.
“They have a trash can at every bus stop [in San Diego]. They have a trash can on both sides of the street every 50 feet. They have plastic bags in them, and people use them, and they’re maintained. Once you get to the ‘Welcome to La Mesa’ sign — zero,” she said.
Another resident wanted to know what the city could about the blighted building “eye sores” created in the wake of illegal marijuana dispensaries that once inhabited them but have recently been shut down.
“The city can’t force any development on private property,” said City Attorney Glen Sabine. “But what it can do is force the private property owners to comply with the standards. There are property standards that they have to abide by, and they may include excessive accumulation of debris or trash, dilapidated buildings, for unsecured structures, unsecured barriers that would allow people to come in and illegally [reside].”
A few residents voiced concerns related to utilities.
A resident named Carlos said he was worried about cellular antennae’s popping up all over the city as service providers look to expand 5G networks in the area.
“One of the things that these companies are going to do is they are going to come in and make a presentation and show you these street lights with small versions of antennas,” he said. “But over time, once the door has been opened, they are going to add on more and more and more.”
Carlos suggested that the council pressure these companies to take aesthetics into account before installing new towers. Federal law prohibits cities from blocking the installation of cellular towers.
Councilmember Kristine Alessio said that despite the inability to block antennae projects, the city does have some sway over how they look, and suggested residents pay attention to the Planning Commission agendas where these projects are first presented to the city and attend those meetings to give their input.
A Dallas Street resident asked about how the city decides where to underground cables.
“The city does have an undergrounding utility district program in concert with SDG&E,” Humora said. “You pay a tiny, tiny portion of your bill every month that goes into the program.”
Humora said that the City Council sets priority for which streets are undergrounded and that the next street to be worked on is Massachusetts Avenue.
The program itself is getting stretched thin, Humora said, because resources from SDG&E are declining every year and projects are becoming more expensive. However, La Mesa is saving money because the city bids the jobs itself instead of SDG&E.
A resident named Samantha expressed concern over a lack of park space in La Mesa. She said that the city has less than 50 percent of recommended square feet per population total of park space.
“I think it’s great the AARP has noticed us as an aging community, but I also think we need to embrace our families that we have here.”
Arapostathis reported that the city recently acquired a piece of land on Waite Drive and Murray Hill Road that will be the city’s fifteenth park. Future parks, he added, will likely be pocket parks built into new developments in the city, parks on roofs or other solutions not yet conceived for developers to add park space.
Alessio encouraged residents interested in parks to get involved with La Mesa Park and Recreation Foundation which raises money for expansion of parks in the city.
Polly Kanavel, a city planning commissioner, raised concerns about resident notification during city events that shut down the streets.
“I’m on the Flag Day Parade committee and one of our issues is we have to ask that street be closed near the parade route so we can line up the floats and cars and all of that,” she said. “The problem is, there are some apartments tucked in those areas and a lot of times the notification will go to the property owner, who could even be out of state and it doesn’t often trickle down to the actual residents.”
She requested that the city send notifications to the addresses.
Another resident brought up the issue of the Friday Farmers Market. He said it should be moved because it is affecting businesses on La Mesa Boulevard.
City Manager Yvonne Garrett said that the city staff is looking at options right now and will be reporting back to council in March.
Vice Mayor Colin Parent said he was personally committed to keeping the market on La Mesa Boulevard and to find ways that would minimize the impacts on businesses.
“Hundreds and hundreds more people are enjoying the market on Friday compared to the prior location,” he said. “I think that’s an important thing to balance with the concerns that we are hearing from some of the businesses.”
Changes in shopping districts
John Schmitz had this question for the Council: “What is the future of the Fletcher Parkway corridor and Grossmont Center?”
Schmitz pointed to recent closures of Toys ‘R’ Us, Babis ‘R’ Us and Best Buy as reason for the city to be concerned about the future of big box retail centers in the city.
Garrett was able to provide some answers.
“Babies ‘R’ Us is going to be a new Costco Gas station,” she said. “It is going to have 34 pumps, which will be wonderful for us because that’s a good sales tax generator for the city, so we’re excited to have them come to our city.”
For the Best Buy property, she said, plans have been submitted to the city from the property owner for redevelopment, but she was unable to share any details. And the family that owns Grossmont Center is still trying to decide what direction to take the property.
“They definitely are thinking about and contemplating a mixed-use that will have residential, office as well as retail [space], but they have not made a final determination about how to proceed in that area,” she said.
Several residents brought up the La Mesa’s Climate Action Plan (CAP) and asked how the city was doing in meeting its goals.
“We need to reduce vehicle miles traveled 3 percent per year the next 10 to 15 years to make the goals of the Climate Action Plan,” said resident Jack Shu.
Leja said the city was currently in process of adopting Vehicle Miles of Travel (VMT) standards for traffic studies.
Garrett added that the city is working on the CAP’s implementation plan which will be taken to City Council for approval in March.
“We are working on putting out a report card to show where we are and where we need to be by the 2020 goal,” she said.
A resident named Wendy who is part of the environmental group San Diego 350, thanked the city for adopting the CAP. “We just want to make sure that the commitment to the resources to fully implement that plan are in place,” she said.
Odds and ends
Although most residents used the town hall to voice concerns or issues in their neighborhoods, there were a few who came to present to the Council their own projects that involve the city. Jim Newland, representing La Mesa Historical Society, said the society will soon start a project to update the city’s historical resource survey. The original survey was taken in 1984 and has not been updated since.
“Because of that there have been some concerns that have come up over project review and the ability of the city to clearly comply with the California Environmental Quality Act as it relates to historical resources, as well as our general plan’s historical preservation element and the city’s historical preservation ordinance,” he said.
The survey will be conducted by society volunteers and students from San Diego State University’s history department. It will involve taking pictures of residential and commercial properties and gathering information about them.
Newland said the society is reaching out to the community “to let them know what this is and not fear it. It’s not going to hurt you, in fact there is a lot of benefits of historic preservation to a community — economic, social, cultural.”
The goal of the survey is to find which properties have potential to be historical and recognize which ones are not eligible. Being included in the survey does not mean the property will be in the historical register. Newland added that they are aiming to survey all buildings built before 1980.
Newland wasn’t the only one to make a presentation at the town hall. Three students from Helix Charter High School presented a school project that they want to test in La Mesa that would filter out debris from the sewer water system. The high-tech design would automatically alert the city when the mesh bags that filter out the debris are full and need to be emptied.
After the students’ presentation, Councilmember Akilah Weber praised the project.
“All the ideas that have come about how we can fix [plastic waste] have really been focused on the ocean, but not necessarily preventing things from going there so I am really very impressed with your idea,” she said.
Future town halls
Some residents shared with the Council their appreciation of the town hall meetings and offered some suggestions for improving them. Ideas included holding them more often; holding smaller group sessions; live streaming and recording them so people can view them more conveniently; and holding them at middle and high schools, which often have better parking than elementary schools.
Brenda Gibson, chair of La Mesa’s Community Relations and Veterans Commission, reminded residents that they can voice their issues year-round to her commission.
“You can come to our meetings, which is on the fourth Wednesday of every month and you’re welcome to share, share, share so you don’t have to have it all bottled up for just one time a year,” she said.
—Reach Jeff Clemetson at email@example.com.