By JEFF CLEMETSON
As evidenced by recent-past, current and near-future development projects, La Mesa is in the midst of a housing boom. Red-hot demand to live in the city — and the potential profits that demand brings — is spurring La Mesa property owners to sell and developers to build.
However, one recent project proposal to redevelop the block surrounding Sprouts Market hit a snag in its early stages that shows that not all development in the Village — even smart-growth development — is inevitable, despite the money it brings. That snag in the project is La Mesa First United Methodist Church (LMFUMC), who despite admittedly needing financial resources to care for its 100-year-old church building, opted to not sell off its daycare site the developers needed for the housing project
A mutually beneficial proposal
“What we were trying to do was pretty cool, I think. But what I think doesn’t really matter — at the end of the day the church didn’t want to sell the land to me,” said Scott Hodson, vice president of PacTrust, the developers who own the Sprouts Market property. “But the concept was really interesting. It was transit-oriented housing, downtown adjacent and it creates some density but set back from the neighborhood.”
Hodson said the plan to redevelop the Sprouts property has been a priority for PacTrust for several years. Pac Trust has owned the property for over 20 years and the proposed project was meant to address issues with the property, including fixing the loading dock for Sprouts, which currently forces trucks to stop traffic on Spring Street as they back into the loading area. The plan would also change the grades of the alley behind the market as well as the parking lot areas, which are subject to flooding during heavy downpours.
Five years ago, PacTrust bought up the apartments at 4650 Palm Ave.
“We knew we needed to buy that building because we knew whatever needed to be done to solve the problem of the trucks loading on Spring Street had to be fixed by moving trucks on and off that parcel,” Hodson said, adding that PacTrust also purchased the two duplexes directly behind Sprouts.
To pay for the redevelopment of the Sprouts loading dock and parking areas, a sizable housing component would be necessary, so PacTrust began negotiating with LMFUMC to purchase what the church refers to as the “Fireside Property” that currently houses the daycare facility.
In a video presentation to the church’s board of trustees in October, Hodson laid out PacTrust’s vision for the project that “would honor the church architecture and preserve Sprouts Market.”
The PacTrust proposal was to combine the church’s daycare and the duplexes’ properties and build a four-story mixed-use building with 41 market-rate units.
In addition to purchasing the church property, PacTrust also offered to make improvements to the 100-year-old sanctuary such as added walkways and most significantly, a fix to the flooding issues in the church’s 7,000-square-foot basement area that is currently unusable.
The plan would have eliminated some of the church’s parking but would have included a shared parking plan utilizing Sprouts’ lot on Sundays during church services.
The PacTrust plan also included a suggestion of installing some fencing around the church courtyard for use as a playground for the daycare, which conceivably could be moved to another space in the church with the added square feet opening up in the unused basement.
LMFUMC Rev. Christian DeMent (see sidebar story on page 4) said that the church’s trustees and PacTrust had been in discussions and negotiations over the possible sale of the Fireside Property for the past two years. The board got the property appraised, and when the PacTrust purchase offer was confirmed as a “good deal,” the trustees pursued the idea further, eventually leading to the October presentation of the plan.
“Why it was something we would entertain is … our building is 100 years old on the corner of Palm and Lemon and other parts of the facility are pretty old as well so there’s a lot of deferred maintenance issues,” DeMent said. “It’s a large campus and it can feel overwhelming to have a lot of issues.”
Besides the flooding issues that render the church’s 7,000-square-foot basement unusable, other costly needed repairs to the church include new roofing, doors and upgraded bathrooms in the Fireside building for the children’s center.
Competing visions of property value
DeMent was quick to point out that the PacTrust offer was both fair and generous. “Selling the property would solve a lot of property issues,” he added. “But as we considered this, there was a great liability as well, which is we would primarily need to close our children’s center that has existed for 50 years serving the community, providing affordable child care for people in our neighborhood.”
Another consideration was the density of the project – putting a four-story apartment complex on the site. “And what that did to the community, knowing the variety of high-density developments that are going in and are planned,” DeMent said, and cited other large housing projects planned for the city like the 900-plus units planned for Alvarado Road, the Jefferson La Mesa project currently underway along Baltimore Drive and a planned housing project on the old police department property.
“So we recognized that would add more density in the downtown area — which could help local businesses — but with so much, we were concerned how it was going to impact traffic and single-family dwellings in the local area and those people who have moved here trying to escape some of that urban experience, which we know we’re not going to stop it by not selling property – it’s going to happen anyway – but we didn’t want to be contributors to that.”
DeMent also said that if the housing project behind the church was built, some aesthetics of the church would be lost, such as sunlight that illuminates certain stained-glass windows in the sanctuary and loss of some visibility of the church from Spring Street. Also, the aesthetic of the children’s center “provides laughter and children playing in an urban environment that really is important; to see children playing instead of building after building after building. It’s one of the only open spaces in our downtown area.”
Another issue that guided the church not to sell was a different vision for what the property could be for the community.
“If we were in a situation where we needed to do something with that property to help us sustain us into the future, we want to have more control,” DeMent explained. “As opposed to selling it to a development company that wants to build a four-story complex for their profit, we could if need be drive what might be developed there, maybe as a land lease. We could do affordable housing, or senior housing, or whatever it might be that would really allow us to meet our mission and vision for the community.”
Right now, the church wants to still provide childcare on the site, as well as maybe use the space for other community uses.
“We’ve talked about partnering with the farmers market on Fridays and having a food truck over in that area where families can sit and use the playground and order to go from local restaurants and be able to sit in an open space and have children play in a community space where maybe some live music can be played,” DeMent said.
What comes next?
Although LMFUMC has made its decision to hold on to the daycare property, it is still left with the question of how to fund the needed repairs to the aging church buildings.
“Now that we voted to say ‘no,’ we are now engaging in that ‘now what?’ And that is a 10-year plan of prioritizing our greatest needs on the campus, getting bidding on how much that would cost and how do we engage in that and how we would chip away at the issues,” DeMent said, adding that the 7,000-square-foot basement is the church’s biggest issue and priority because the space could eventually be used to generate income or used to run programs that help the community.
To raise the funds, LMFUMC will need to start a capital campaign, which DeMent described as “tough” because church membership has declined from 2,000 members in its “heyday” to current membership of just over 200.
“It’s going to be a large price tag and to ask 200 people to dig deeper into their pockets, it’s just not going to be sustaining. We need to find alternative sources of income,” he said, adding that the church recently hired a grant writer and has rented out its bell tower to AT&T for use as a cell tower. “We’re going to need to be creative in how we finance things.”
The church is not alone in its need for a new way to finance improvement projects. PacTrust is also now back to the drawing board in how to approach fixing the uneven parking lot, alley flooding and traffic-stopping loading dock behind Sprouts.
“We do have a long-term plan to intensify the site and put some housing there but … anything we would be undertaking there would be happening over time and we’re only at the conceptual planning stage at this point. To be sure, if we were to redevelop that site with Sprouts as a continuing occupant there, we’d need to address the parking for Sprouts,” Hodson said, adding that plan would likely be a podium with housing built over a parking area. “But there is no plan that we’re reviewing with the city or anyone else at this point on that concept.”
Although PacTrust lost some money pursuing the purchase of the Fireside Property, Hodson described the church’s decision as “completely logical” because it was based on the church’s needs and its mission.
“We have a great relationship with the church and we’ve been collaboratively working on ideas for the whole block for the better part of three years,” he said. “They’re wonderful people and we have a great relationship with them.”
Hodson added that he hopes that the goodwill between the church and PacTrust will be replicated when a new plan for the Sprouts property is eventually ready to be reviewed by the city and La Mesa residents.
“I do think there is an opportunity for a thoughtfully-planned project here that produces a good outcome for the community,” he said.
— Reach editor Jeff Clemetson at email@example.com.