Love where you live!
By CHRIS LAVIN
LA MESA – In the lobby of the Helix Water District offices on University Avenue, you can see impromptu history on display – some of the earliest photos of La Mesa, taken when the area was virtually open ranch lands.
One photo shows what is now the downtown Village of La Mesa at a time when a store at the corner of La Mesa Boulevard and Spring Street was virtually the only structure of size. What is particularly telling about these photos is that, in historic terms, they weren’t taken that long ago. Rather than chronicling the agrarian roots of the town, the photos point out how quickly a largely uninhabited area has been transformed into a suburban bedroom community of America’s 15th largest city.
Any realistic history of La Mesa tells the story of urban sprawl that has continued consistently for the city’s entire history. Sure, there were lemon groves and horse farms once. Avocados were grown long enough to have roads named for them. And there are still some homes in the hills that keep a horse in a paddock out back.
But for the most part all these are vestiges of not only a gone-by era, but one that lingered for a relatively short period in the town’s history and an even shorter period as seen in the unfolding of urban development trends that have transformed all of Southern California.
And today, those same trends are pushing in a new direction. From Washington D.C., through Sacramento and into the halls of County government and City Hall, the powers that be are singing the same tune. The days of sprawling further out into the deserts and prairies of America are done. Development dependent on car travel and the burning of gasoline is to be discouraged and inhibited at every turn.
Visit the website of the San Diego Association of Governments and all the new buzz words can be found: mixed use urban in-fill, increased density, transit corridor development.
There was endless analysis of the recent decision by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors to reject a massive new home project off the northern portions of Interstate 15, but anyone watching the development discussions in recent years would not have been surprised. Levittown is dead or at least dying in the history of American sprawl.
Now, we will return to the high density apartment, condo and townhouse developments that our grandparents back East saw shape the growth of America’s eastern urban centers in the earliest decades of the 1900s. That they came to call them “tenements’’ and see them as the source of illness, crime and other urban evils to be escaped from as they scrambled to the ‘burbs is not completely forgotten though as the country – and cities like La Mesa – attempt to navigate these waters anew.
Its relatively older and more stable population makes La Mesa, perhaps, a more interesting city to watch deal with this New Urbanism. Many of its residents not only have lived long enough to remember why many Americans were fleeing the country’s cities just a few decades back, but they can also remember La Mesa before Instate 8 and Routes 125 and 52 brought downtown San Diego, La Jolla, Chula Vista and the I-805-I-15 employment corridor all within just a few minutes’ drive. And they certainly can remember the days before the MTS Trolley built five stops within city limits.
Today, in fact, La Mesa stands if not at the center of the crossroads that generate urban growth, certainly just a tad east of that point. Six and sometimes eight lanes of I-8 run through town. Routes 125 and 52 have been upgraded and state Road 94, though sorely in need of a flyover from the 125 south to the 94 East, make La Mesa with its bus lines and trolley stops, the natural target for this New Urbanism.
And smack dab in the middle of this confluence of transit and transportation routes sits 6.5 acres of land largely owned by the Kitzmans, a longtime La Mesa family with roots in plumbing and, more recently, commercial development.
SMALL TOWN OR GROWING CITY
Andy Kitzman, who lived most of his life on Mt. Helix, was a lot like the city he called home. He was La Mesa’s first milkman, delivering the product of his own cows, and later started a plumbing business from a shed on his Mt. Helix property. That business – which streamlined the fabrication of plumbing materials for major developments – hit it big and before long the business was serving major housing developers as they built their way across America.
Andy bought property along what is now Baltimore and Spring Street in downtown La Mesa, but the land was never used to its fullest, most recently housing a tile establishment and a car dealership. As city officials began studying La Mesa to help shape future growth, the Kitzman land was a natural for redevelopment. It sits at the front door to the city and, in many ways, is not only underused land, but a bit of an eyesore.
So a few months ago, the family’s publicists and hired development experts announced a bold plan for the property – one whose size and scale surprised many locally and had city politicians privately saying to their constituents that “no way, anyone is building anything that big here.’’
The project – still only being sketched out in broad terms – was to be called Park Station and include four story retail, office and residential units running along Baltimore and Spring Street and a new strip park that would buffer the trolley lines to the property’s east side. In the area between, however, the project would include high rise (as many as 18 story) towers that would include residential and/or hotel units.
It was, of course, the towers that were seized on. They caused instant soul-searching and at least the earliest signs of a NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) movement at a preliminary meeting to discuss the scope of the projects required Environmental Impact Report.
“I know the city needs to increase its tax base,’’ said local Roger House of Orchard Street. “But 18 stories seems a little excessive.’’
At that hearing it was clear that La Mesans like to see their city as a small town. An 18-story apartment or condo project is a stark departure from the single-family home land use that is the dominant housing form here now.
Still, land use experts and the city’s development staff can trace a recent history that suggests the demand for La Mesa land and the regional development trends are producing projects more along the line of what the Kitzmans are proposing.
The condo project just west of the downtown La Mesa trolley station and the multi-unit apartment development recently opened at the Grossmont trolley station could be seen as the forerunners to the new, transit-based urbanism. Those two projects were not universally hailed as great architectural and artistic achievements, but even in a down market both projects appear to be achieving the goal of higher density, lower environmental impact and are offering residents a life not so dependent on the car.
READY FOR THE SCRUTINY
Joseph Kitzman, Andy’s 27-year-old grandson, sat recently at Cosmos Coffee Shop in downtown La Mesa and made it clear his family intends to prove they are committed to La Mesa and don’t plan on building a project that is an eyesore or that injures the elements they have enjoyed about the city for generations now.
Joseph Kitzman lives in Poway, but he points out his company office is on Fletcher Parkway near Costco and his grandmother continues to live on Mt. Helix (Andy Kitzman died last year). “I intend to remain invested in this project and I intend for my children to be involved after me, ’’ Joseph Kitzman said. ““Obviously a project of this scope will have other investors. We’re still in the process of developing the nature and scope of what it’s going to be. Still, we intend to keep a good amount of ownership.’’
Kitzman acknowledged his family hasn’t had a long history of mixed-use developments, having had deeper roots in developing restaurant properties and strip shopping centers, which is what they originally considered for the Baltimore/Spring Street land.
“To tell you the truth, when we started on this project, frankly, we didn’t know much about this kind of development, ‘’ Kitzman said. “So we went out and found the people who did. We have educated ourselves about it and our goal is to help educate the community as well. But I know change is hard. I know the people who do it can feel like they’ve walked into public with a bulls-eye on our back. But we’re committed to it. We have a great website. We believe in transparency.’’
Kitzman says the family is not interested in turning La Mesa into an urban center, but the city’s central location and the projections for this region’s growth will force the community to develop a process to deal with these pressures.
Joseph Kitzman also said he realizes the public process of developing a project like this will challenge the family in a way their earlier businesses did not. He knows developers can become a target of criticism. But, he said, he intends to speak publicly for the project at every opportunity.
“We are ready for it,’’ he said. “I will be there. I’m not going to sit and watch it on TV if I can be there.’’
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
The tone of the only public hearing to date on the Park Station project suggests it may face some tough questioning from local residents, but other factors may give local politicians a bit thicker skin these days.
Reductions in state revenues, the decline in local sales and real estate tax revenues and the rising cost of public employee pensions have created the perfect storm for local government, threatening staffing and services.
Estimates are just that at this point, but Jacob Schwartz of Urban Housing Partners, Inc. and Chris Wahl, of Southwest Strategies, two of the firms handling planning and public relations for Park Station, say the project could bring more than a $1-million in annual tax revenue to the city. That still buys a lot of police and fire protection.
So for now, the Park Station project moves quietly through the Environmental Impact Report stage. Schwartz said he believes the traffic analysis of that report will, in the end, determine how large a project Park Station will ultimately be – traffic being the great limiter for how much density a property can handle.
So the developers are spending their time waiting on that EIR report and developing materials that will allow residents – and the city’s elected officials – to picture exactly what a high rise development will look like on the Kitzman’s property.
Not long ago, helicopters flew over taking reference photos so more 3-dimensional presentations of Park Station could be produced as the approval process continues.
Clearly, the project managers will deal with the height concerns by pointing out, as they did on a recent tour of the property, that the streetscape – the areas closest to Baltimore and Spring Street will have four story buildings. The high rises will be located further north and east on the property and will not loom over the pedestrians as they would if they were located immediately adjacent to the streets.
Projects in the UTC area of La Jolla and in downtown San Diego’s Little Italy neighborhood have used this set back approach to soften the impact of height in mixed use developments.
Time will tell whether 3-D graphics and setbacks are enough to convince La Mesans that it is time for higher density and height limits in the Jewel of the Hills. It is clear that the development trends and long-term growth predictions are heading in this direction.
Starting today, LaMesaToday.com will create a special page to archive all information generated about the Park Station project. This page will allow residents to review the entire history of the project as it moves through the city development process. This archive can be found by clicking on the new “Government’’ tab at the top of the home page and clicking on“Park Station’’ in the drop-down menu.