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LA MESA -- For a time Wednesday night, it looked like the Park Station project's arrival before the city's Planning Commission was going to be a text-book case of the well-organized developer versus the Not-In-My-Backyard Gang.
Seated throughout the overflowing council chamber were citizens with "yes" buttons. The consultants and architects sat together and worked from a script. The property's owners, the much respected Kitzman family, sat stoically among the populace.
And the hearing started well for Team Park Station.
The project's consultants listened as the city staff described an Environmental Impact Report that described some negative aspects the large, mixed-use project would bring to the La Mesa Village, but nothing that, it couldn't be argued, wasn't offset by the positive aspects of the plan. There would be more pollution from an increase in traffic concentrations, and the ten story towers being planned might cause some aesthetic challenges, but overall this high-density, transit-based project would add millions to the city's coffers, boost local schools and offer the possibility of hundreds of new living units right along an MTS Trolley track. A bit more pollution here, but less suburban sprawl elsewhere.
However, as the hearing moved on through its second and into its third hour, the project proponents suddenly found themselves scrambling and having to work without a script. In a moment that could only be described as bizarre, a representative of the American Legion Post that has always been described as a partner or co-applicant for this project, rose, described the plan as far too massive and, when questioned, abruptly declared he was withdrawing his participation in the evening's events and raced off from the chambers.
Team Park Station was suddenly left regrouping. The Planning Commission continued the hearing to July 16 at 7 p.m. And on-lookers were left wondering how, after what they described as ten years of planning, the project's first formal steps into the approval process could stumble so badly?
"It was a total shock to us,'' said Jacob Schwartz, vice president of Urban Housing Partners, who have been helping the Kitzmans pursue redevelopment of the five-acre site along Baltimore and Spring Street.
Earlier it was Schwartz who had revealed what the Park Station approach would be in its effort to persuade the Planning Commission that deviating from the city's four-story, 46-foot height requirement was warranted in this case.
In a series of slides, Schwartz described the kind of project that current zoning laws would allow. With the four-story limit, the land would probably be used for a condo project that would need to fill up the land available to have an economically feasible number of units. Such a project would essentially create a four-story "wall" excluding the public. He showed photos of the relatively new apartment complexes along Fletcher Parkway and the Grossmont Trolley Station as an example of a project that may be good for its residents, but doesn't create public spaces and a strong retail environment.
Shifting gears, Park Station, Schwartz said, by amassing the residential or hotel units in taller buildings, would open up the kind of public walkways and spaces that would allow for thriving retail and office spaces amid a residential neighborhood that would link to La Mesa Village via well-landscaped and attractive walkways. By pushing these taller towers away and behind the four-story frontage along Baltimore, he said, the height impact would be mitigated and the result would be "more open space, better economic impact for the city, more elements to attract people in, more entertainment.''
After the formal presentations, the Planning Commission opened the floor to comments from the public. There was no shortage of speakers. There were a number of local residents who attended to speak in favor of the project who claimed no formal connection to the Park Station team. Lynn O'Shaughnessey and her husband, Bruce Bigelow, live just above La Mesa Village and spoke in favor of the project as helping combat what they have seen as the economic struggles that have limited the old Village and kept it from being as vibrant as it should be.
O'Shaughnessey said approving the project was a "no-brainer" for her and described the concerns to the nervousness the community had when it was redeveloping Fletcher Parkway a few years back. "Change is hard, I know,'' she said. Other proponents pointed to the possibility of a hotel with meeting spaces or condos suitable for retirement living in a walk-able neighborhood. Mary England, the executive director of the La Mesa Chamber of Commerce, said she was speaking as a private citizen, but haled the project as a needed boost to the local economy.
The Kitzmans, Frank and Joseph, both spoke, describing their generations of family commitment to La Mesa and promised they would remain owners of the project through construction. "We're not just a large developer coming in to flip this thing,'' Joseph Kitzman said.
But throughout the proponent comments, a large group of opponents sat waiting and remained largely quiet, murmuring only as a number of proponents identified themselves as living outside La Mesa.
When the opponents were called to speak, the arguments were measured, but focused. While virtually everyone would like new development in this eye-sore of a site, the scale and height of what Park Station is seeking was uniformly attacked.
Speaker after speaker -- young and old -- described the "small town" feel that had drawn them to "the Jewel of the Hills.'' They produced pictures -- superimposed with their own version of the project's potential impact on sight lines from surrounding neighborhoods. They described their own experience with current traffic in the area, which they said would be worse if a project of this scale is allowed.
Some opponents attacked specifics of the plan, pointing to the "one parking space per living unit" being sought which they believe will result in excess cars crowding into surrounding neighborhoods.
Pat O'Reilly, a long-time local resident engaged in civic activities, reminded the Planning Commission that the existing Downtown Village Specific Plan, which limits building height to four stories, was specifically put in place to combat what La Mesa residents saw as "glass towers" springing up in other areas, like La Jolla, and ruining these "village" settings.
There wasn't a formal script for the project opponents, but there might as well have been. Virtually every speaker said the 110 foot towers made this project inappropriate for La Mesa. Current zoning allows only 46 feet, though there are a few higher buildings in the city that have been granted variances in the past.
When speaker Lenny Guccione (pictured right), the manager of the American Legion Post, rose with his VFW hat on and began criticizing the project, a palpable buzz moved through the room. Guccione was listed as a co-applicant with the Kitzmans as the American Legion property abuts the southern end of the Kitzman acreage.
Guccione said the scale of the project being sought seems too big for a neighborhood that already has heavy traffic and he said his organization has no plans to sell or move. However, he did say the organization was interested in having the property's zoning changed, hence their listing as a co-applicant in this night's proceedings. When asked by the City Attorney if he was supporting the application he made and the approvals being sought at this hearing, Guccione said no and quickly left the premises.
It is unclear whether a withdrawal of the American Legion property from the project would require complete recalculation of Park Station's plans, including the project's density.
Sherman Harmer, Urban Housing Partners president, said he wasn't sure the American Legion officials fully understood what he was being asked. Harmer reiterated that the project needed the height variances and the density to attract developers who could deliver an efficient and profitable hotel or senior housing project as well as the retail and commercial aspects that are key to the redevelopment effort.
After a brief recess -- and with 11 p.m. looming -- the Planning Commission closed the hearing and said it would finish its deliberations on the proposal at its 7 p.m. July 16th meeting. Any decision of the Planning Commission is eventually subject to City Council review.
Following the meeting, Joseph Kitzman said he wasn't discouraged by the proceedings. "We listened a lot and we'll go back and talk about it,'' he said. "We have some work to do, but I'm not discouraged.''
Overflow Crowd Listened From Outside The Chamber