Park Station Proposal Hits A Major Snag

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

Click Here for a compendium of past stories on the Park Station Pro...


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Tags: La Mesa Today, La Mesa news, Park Station, Planning Commission, Urban Housing Partners


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Comment by Kevin G George on June 24, 2014 at 4:31pm

If one didn't think East County is a pejorative term, why would one try to deny La Mesa is in East County. 

Embrace your Eastness Frank!

Comment by Kristin Kjaero on June 24, 2014 at 1:52pm

Apologies Anthony, I guess that did sound prickly, and love it or leave it is not what I was trying to convey. I love east county and for me, like many, it is a positive description. The most important point I want to convey is that Plans are covenants made by a community so that everyone can knows what the limits are when they make an investment in property. Spot zoning is one of the most destructive things that can happen to a community.

Comment by chris shea on June 24, 2014 at 1:39pm

I agree with Anthony about the disappointing tone to some of our disagreements here on LMT.  I happen to think that just about anything would look better than what currently sits on the land in question.  Sometimes when I look at old photos from the La Mesa Historical Society of the early days of La Mesa Boulevard, I wonder what kinds of disagreements took place between the time you could hitch your horse up to the curb until to today with the smart parking meters. Progress is inevitable and a good thing if it comes through the thoughtful cooperation of the citizenry. I wish we could figure out a way to elevate the dialogue and have spirited debate that respects other opinions while disagreeing with them.  I think this project could be done to accommodate the best of a variety of visions.  And I believe if it meets the highest ideals of respect for current property owners,businesses, the environment and all the people who love La Mesa, it could revitalize our beautiful Village.

Comment by Scott H. Kidwell on June 24, 2014 at 1:23pm

We all should know nothing is static and forever. And, I think, few would deny the owner of a property the right to redevelop within, or close to, current zoning standards and make a handsome profit in the process. However, the proposed project is substantially beyond the current zoning and will be a major and life long impact to those in the immediate area. The value, plus or minus, will be very personal for those impacted. Those who foresee coat tail profit will, no doubt, like the project too.

It's clear the work to get this project to where it is now has taken many years at significant expense of the owner. This was no small matter. But I find it hard to fathom the owner putting this much times, effort, and cost into the process without some assurances there was a decent chance the project would be approved. Where did that come from, from whom, and when? Because the owner is seeking significant zoning concessions or changes, they could help everyone out by laying all their cards on the table about who they have been meeting with and what might have been, if not promised, alluded to!

And what about the locals within the major impact area who, many having no idea this level of project was working behind a curtain, bought property and/or made investments with the reasonable expectation their investments and/or quality of life would be impacted only to the extent the current zoning in the area would allow?

Comment by Kevin G George on June 24, 2014 at 1:14pm

Settle down Anthony, don't you think "It's time that La Mesa stops being seen as an 'east county' "is a bit insulting?

I wasn't telling Frank to leave, I was questioning his moving to a place that he obviously thinks is inferior to the " larger picture". A place to be brought up to speed.

Oh and let me apologize for the 805 comment, that is admittedly a throwback to the 70s when the new 805 bridge was considered the border to the hinterlands by the more Westerly inhabitants.


Comment by Frank Robert Dittmer on June 24, 2014 at 1:04pm

I never lived west of the 805!

Comment by Anthony D. Mc Ivor on June 24, 2014 at 10:52am

Why all the "if you don't agree with my views, maybe you should leave" language?  Is the new motto for La Mesa "Love it or Leave it"?  This is worse than a thought-stopping cliche, it is a strong indication that thought never got started. Could we try a little more civility?  

I don't understand the prickliness about a reference to "east county"?  La Mesa is not in the East County Region.  Check the SANDAG statistical area map.  And if you believe East County begins at the 805, try telling that to the San Diego residents along Adams Avenue in the Normal Heights, Kensington, Talmadge and surrounding neighborhoods. They'll get a kick out of your sense of humor.    

Comment by Kristin Kjaero on June 23, 2014 at 1:28pm

"Change is hard" and "drama" are though-stopping cliches to shut down discussions. Property is the largest single investment most people will ever make. Plans are covenants a community makes with itself so that people know the limits in place before making that investment. Breaking that agreement effects everyone's investments and "legacies;" not just the Kitzmans. Spot zoning destroys community character. Doubling height and density and gutting parking and set backs requirements would make the Village unrecognizable. If there is any drama, it is contained in the scale of the proposal, not the polite, restrained opposition residents have expressed to date.

Mr. Ditmar, the Village already  i s  a meeting place for the community, and "better" is a personal judgement. It's a mistake to look down on a community for its understated lifestyle choice; SANDAG did a study for the City a few years back and found the highest levels in the county for of education and bank deposits is here in La Mesa. Your store is a fine addition to the Village (note the name), but if you view "East County" as a pejorative then perhaps this location isn't the right fit for you.

Comment by Kevin G George on June 23, 2014 at 9:24am

With all due respect Frank, I am proud to live in East County.

If you think there is something wrong with being associated with the culture of East County perhaps you should have stayed West of 805. 

I do not understand this incessant need to move to a place and then change it to be like whence you came.

Comment by Frank Robert Dittmer on June 21, 2014 at 4:38pm

Please build this!  As a business owner here in La Mesa Village I see the huge potential that the are has and needs.  It's time that La Mesa stops being seen as an "east county"  community and become part of the larger picture.   It will be beautiful when complete and I see it as becoming a landmark for the community.  This could put La Mesa in different category-one for the better.  I remember all the drama and controversy in Hillcrest some years back when the community was opposed to the Uptown development.   Now, it is a huge success and asset in the Hillcrest community.   It has added great restaurants, shops and homes, a neighborhood within a neighborhood.   It has become a meeting place for friends and community.  Let's do the same here.  This is a wonderful opportunity for la Mesa.  Change is a very good thing.  

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