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LA MESA -- Developers working on the major downtown La Mesa development project, known as Park Station, have been struggling quietly for months with a key portion of the project -- problems that have already forced a cut back in the project's eventual scale and scope.
The developer's hopes of counting the land now used as a city street -- known as Nebo Drive -- as part of the project has hit a legal roadblock. According to city documents, title for Nebo Drive is entangled in complex legal restrictions that may make it impractical for the land to be acquired by the developers. That would reduce the legal size of the Park Station project and would reduce the number of residential units and commercial space that could be located on the remaining 5 1/2 acres.
Michael Dunham, project manager for Urban Housing Partners, the project's developer, said in an interview today that the Nebo issues have forced the project to reduce the number of residential units from 500 to 443 and that the final application will "probably'' come in asking for less than the 190-foot tower height originally proposed.
"We can still make the project work at 443 units,'' Dunham said.
The project -- first announced more than three years ago by the Kitzman family -- caught a lot of attention with its initial estimate of having an 18-story residential (developer's artist rendition above) or hotel tower with lower commercial and office space filling the now-little-used land largely along Baltimore Drive and University Avenue.
Public relations personnel hired by the Kitzmans quickly began neighborhood meetings to promote the project and gauge community support or opposition while the developer worked with city officials on the application and an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) that would go a long way in determining the density of the final development.
That EIR report has gone through numerous drafts and revisions with the city repeatedly requiring the developer to recalculate its estimates of traffic impact. A study that was first submitted suggesting the project would have little traffic impact has been recalculated and has forced some reduction in the original proposed scale of the project.
With the Nebo Drive property included (photo right of proposed Nebo park), the project would be about 6.5 acres and the amount of land heavily influences the density of residential development that can occur. Without Nebo, the project is about 5.5 acres and that required eliminating nearly 60 residential units.
But Dunham said the Kitzmans don't want to give up on redeveloping the Nebo property even if its title must stay in city ownership.
Lawyers working for the developer have apparently found legal precedent for land originally given to a city for street use being converted to allow development as an "urban pedestrian mall." Park Station would pay to redevelop the Nebo corridor and maintain it in perpetuity if the city agrees.
"We think we're there with the city, but we will be setting up meetings with the City Council members to inform them of the EIR process and its publication schedule,'' Dunham said.
With pretty strong opposition already heard to any high rise development in La Mesa, legal challenges about the use of the restricted Nebo land could also potentially loom over any final proposal and this new wrinkle in the project will necessitate more of a partnership with the city in this effort.
The Kitzman family of La Mesa -- owners of much of the Park Station site -- has already spent $2-million on this project, developing the EIR and doing traffic studies as well as early public relations. The EIR is expected to be published in the next six weeks.
The Park Station project comes at an interesting time for La Mesa. Struggling, as many cities are, with revenue challenges, the prospect of a significant commercial development holds out some hope for fiscal relief and revenues to support local services. And a project like Park Station, located close along trolley tracks and bus lines, squarely fits with the priorities of regional planners who are favoring more density and less suburban sprawl. Park Station could be a poster-child for this "city of villages'' trend toward transit-supported development.
However, La Mesans may not be as willing to move away from its "small town" self-image and support high-rises where low-rise has been a century-long rule.
Dunham said in community meetings, the developers found younger La Mesa residents open to a high rise, but its older residents more hesitant.
"At the end of the day, when we go to seek the formal approval, we'll probably have brought the height down,'' Dunham said. "There is community resistance.''
City officials are, of necessity, remaining largely mute on the Park Station project progress. Eventually, any formal proposal would go before the city's Planning Commission and, eventually to the City Council for final adjudication. It is a political process with many legal implications so council members will stay clear of pre-judging any proposal.
Still, the City Council may have to weigh in earlier on its willingness to consider transforming the Nebo Corridor to an "urban pedestrian mall" even before the project continues its way through the application process. La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid said he has had two general meetings with the developers to discuss an overview of their working relationship with the city, but he would be reluctant to meet and discuss details of the project before any application goes through the Communty Development process, which includes the Planning Commission.
"Meeting to discuss details or exchange views at this point would be putting the cart before the horse,'' Madrid said Tuesday.
Undoubtedly, Park Station will continue to be watched closely for its potential and its implications for life in the city. The Kitzmans, who no longer live in La Mesa but still have their business offices on Fletcher Parkway and other local land holdings, remain committed to finding the right development for the parcel and to remain engaged in the project, Dunham said.
Nebo Drive Looking South With Park Station Property To The Right.