Getting Some Distance On This Jewel Of The Hills

LA MESA -- A friend of mine once pointed out that if you hold a rock up, close to your eye, you won't be able to fully appreciate its true essence. It is only as you move it away, extending your arm and hand, that you start to see its characteristics and, eventually, understand what gives it its place in the universe.

I thought of this as I drove through the charming cities of Carmel and Monterey while on business last week. Heading south along the 101 on Thursday, I passed through Solvang and Pismo Beach before stopping in downtown Santa Barbara (see photo above) for an inexpensive Greek salad in an energetic natural foods restaurant.

All the while, I found myself thinking of La Mesa -- my little piece of rock.

You could choose to see all these more northern California cities -- Carmel, Monterey, Pismo, Solvang -- as different than La Mesa. Richer. More populous. Closer to the ocean. There are a lot of reasons an economist might explain their relatively higher land values and bustling stores.

But to a kid who grew up in the frozen northeast -- hundreds of miles from ocean waters -- I found myself seeing more parallels than differences.

La Mesa is almost smack dab in the middle of one of America's wealthiest counties. It has better weather than Monterey and is regularly warmer than all these California coastal jewels.  It is on the doorstep of a foreign country and it is home to doctors, lawyers, executives and Navy officers. The estates tucked onto and around Mt. Helix, some still with horse corrals and grape vines, hold their own with any residences dotting our coast from Arcada to Imperial Beach.

It is probably something else, I thought,  that keeps a great little place like La Mesa from achieving its full potential. Not that La Mesa needs to match Santa Barbara with its Coach and Nordstrom quality boutiques. But that rents along La Mesa Boulevard hover around $1 per square foot in many of the buildings and that Goodwill is one of its newest merchants, certainly suggests, whether we like it or not, that La Mesa's commercial core may have more in common with Lemon Grove and El Cajon than North Park or Hillcrest.

Many La Mesans might argue with that. Jewel of the Hills, its moniker, suggests they see it as more cherished than the numbers suggest it is.

Perhaps what keeps La Mesa from growing in the California sun like some of its more vibrant neighbors is a lack of confidence. La Mesa is more sure of what it once was -- small town America -- than it is in articulating a future that by any clear-eyed view will not be small town American any more.

For all of its small town sensibilities, this is a city with more Interstates than country roads, more trolley stops than hitching posts. Investors are not coming to town suggesting more ranch homes on a ridge; they are spending $4-million rehabbing commuter-line apartments off Severin Drive right now and proposing high rises along Baltimore.

As it marks its Centennial, it may be time for La Mesa to consider whether its political culture needs to mature too. With a City Manager/Weak Mayor form of government, it can be proud of how well-managed the city is, but can we identify who is articulating clearly a vision of what La Mesa can and should become?

City Council meetings in La Mesa are forums for fairness, caring and listening. Any crank with a complaint is met with a civility so cordial that many listeners could miss the fact that the speaker is, in fact, a crank. One local resident recently has complained repeatedly about trolley noise -- despite the fact that the trolley and the railroad have been there for decades while this resident just recently chose to purchase a house and move next to the tracks.

La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid may have a vision for his city. He may be pushing the Property Based Improvement District with a hope of keeping the Village rents and quality in its commercial core from sliding further.

But in the end, Madrid has only one of five votes on a council that can be described as competent, but arguably is not known for painting a picture of our future. There may be endless plans stacking up on the planners' desks in City Hall, but creating a town of character and charm takes more leadership and salesmanship than bureaucrats can be expected to muster.

The development pressures are here and they aren't at all local. Banks don't loan money on restaurants like Gingham unless they see the population in the region that can allow it to succeed. The San Diego Association of Governments and smart-growth advocates can be expected to line up behind the Park Station and other high-density projects, not for La Mesa's needs, but for the needs of a fast-growing region.

Before the U.S. economy recovers fully and those pressures increase exponentially, it would be good if the city's political leaders -- or new ones waiting in the wings -- start figuring out what they want La Mesa to become and start leading the way there. Lacking that, the community will be left to fight over little issues while the job of shaping a charming future goes undone.

Successful cities know themselves and trust their instincts in facing and shaping the powers of change -- even when tough calls ruffle some feathers.

Chris Lavin, Editor of La Mesa Today, writes this column, On La Mesa, occasionally. Members are invited to comment below or to submit their own "On La Mesa" columns for consideration. Write to 

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Comment by John C Schmitz on February 27, 2012 at 9:54am

I agree with Chris Shea, very thought provoking article.  I am a native San Diegan and have spent the majority of my life between 54th Street in "East San Diego" and La Mesa.  I had to drive my wife to work this morning (car trouble) and went down University from Helix HS to Fairmont through neighborhoods that were once bustling commercial districts in post-war San Diego.  Many of these areas are not visually appealing and are not aging well at all.  As a city planner who worked throughout the County, including for the City of La Mesa, I know that the City of La Mesa has been trying for some time to preserve La Mesa's image as a stabile community that will age gracefully like some of the communities you mention in your article.  Redevelopment efforts in the Downtown area and along Fletcher Parkway are evidence of that effort.  But without that redevelopment tool anymore the City may not be able to influence future efforts as they could in the past.  The "free market" advocates in the community will cheer that change, but will the City's desperation to keep the community fiscally sound encourage it to accept less desireable developments (i.e. 18 story high rises adjacent to traditional lower scale neighborhoods).  And what changes may be in store for Grossmont Center when the shopping center lease expires?  And as the country claws it's way out of the recession can we expect more quality mixed-use projects along El Cajon Blvd, and new projects along University to continue La Mesa's image preservation efforts?  So many questions, so few clear answers. 

Comment by chris shea on February 25, 2012 at 8:44am
This is really, really well done Chris.
Great writing. Very thought provoking.
I'll be reading this again.

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