Park Station Hears A Big No

By Scott Lafee

Contributing Writer

LA MESA -- On Wednesday night, the La Mesa planning commission voted 6-1 to approve the environmental impact report (EIR) for the proposed Park Station development, then voted by the same count to recommend denial of the project when it eventually comes before the City Council for actual approval.

If those actions sound a bit contrary and confused, perhaps they were, but they were also in keeping with the saga of Park Station, which has been anything but a walk in the park. And the saga is not over.

The proposed mixed-use development of high-rise housing and commercial space on 4 .75 acres, roughly bounded by Interstate 8, Baltimore Drive and Spring Street, has been controversial since it was first broached publicly nine years ago by the Kitzman family, who own the property and have been widely admired and respected La Mesa residents for more than a century.

Original plans involved talk of perhaps a 190-foot tall hotel, hundreds of high-rise condos, a conference center and several hundred thousand square feet of office and retail space.

Objections from residents about the unseemly height of the proposed structures, not to mention concerns about traffic, noise, air pollution, excessive water use and more prompted the Kitzmans to scale back their plans, especially after a long and vociferous planning commission meeting in June.

The revised plan, which was voted on Wednesday, featured buildings stepped from 46 feet to 110 feet in height, or roughly four to 10 stories. The maximum number of condos was reduce your from 416 to 363. Parking spaces in the underground garage would be increased from 363 to 454. The result, said Frank Kitzman, would be a “legacy” the family could be proud of, something to cherish for generations to come.

As in June, Wednesday night’s planning commission meeting at City Hall was packed to capacity, mostly by opponents of the project. After brief reports by staff, Kitzman family members and their representatives, roughly two dozen local residents took three minutes each to voice their objections.

Their concerns had not changed: The proposed buildings were still too tall, obscuring views and defiantly out of character with the human-scale nature and history of La Mesa. Their slogan: No More Than Four (Stories.)

Skepticism also abounded about claims that the projected increase in traffic would be manageable, that adding hundreds of new residents and their cars wouldn’t degrade local conditions and quality of life.
“I love our quaint little town,” said longtime resident Janet Bach. “I’m not opposed to developing the site. It really needs it. But I feel in my heart that this project is just wrong.”

Bach’s comments were echoed again and again. After more than an hour, though, it was Sherman Harmer’s turn to rebut. Harmer is a consultant for the Kitzman entity developing the site, called South Baltimore, LLC. At the beginning of the planning commission meeting, he had laid out the well-documented proposal, complete with video views taken with a drone. Now he would throw a curveball.

“We’ve tried to do all of the right things, to play by the rules,” he told the commission. “I guess some opponents we will never be able to make happy.”

Then he proceeded to try.

Harmer said the Kitzmans would compromise further, reducing the maximum height of the project to 85 feet or about eight stories. Buildings fronting Baltimore Drive would be no more than four stories tall. More parking would be added. Density would not change. “We might need to go with smaller units or change the site plan, build out more horizontally.”

The offer of a revised Park Station plan was just as sudden and unexpected as the withdrawal of support from the American Legion Post to the plan at the June planning commission meeting.

For 15 minutes, the commissioners asked questions of staff and of themselves: Could they approve the EIR before them if it didn’t reflect the just-proposed changes? Was it relevant anymore? And what of the request for an exemption from the existing Village Specific Plan? If the basic facts were suddenly different, did they need to hold another public meeting to consider them before voting?

Eventually, a consensus emerged: The final word on the fate of Park Station really lay with the City Council. The planning commission is simply an advisory group. They could vote on what they had in front of them, offer recommendations and then let the Council do what it was elected to do.

And so they approved the EIR, such as it was, and recommended denial of Park Station’s application for its own specific plan. It was inconsistent with the city’s general plan, they declared.

Park Station now goes before the City Council – on a date to be determined. It’s unclear at this point what the proposed development will look like. It might have 10-story buildings or eight, six or even four. It might pass. It might fail. It might be back before the planning commission again.

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Tags: City of La Mesa, Kitzman, Kitzman family, La Mesa, La Mesa Planning Commission, La Mesa Today, La Mesa news, La Mesa newspaper, Park Station, Scott Lafee, More…South Baltimore, LLC

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Comment by Karen Whitney on October 3, 2014 at 10:42am

I have several issues here i would like to address.

1. The EIR stated there were 2 "unmitgatable" issues with the plan - one aesthetic, one environmental.  That is 2 unsolveable problems with this design.  If you accept that the EIR is valid then how could you respond to the plan in any way but by denying it.

2. They have reduced the proposed height from 18 (!!) stories to 10 and now possibly 8, saying "they've tried to play by the rules".  Since the the city's "rules" are for 4 stories, they have a ways to go.

3. The drone's view.  Can't say I'm thrilled to know a private party has a drone that can cruise by my neighborhood at 4 story windows.  However, the problem is not at 4 stories.  I notice they did not show a 10 story view.

4.  Right now the Kitzman "legacy" is decades of used car lots and a questionable hotel down at Baltimore and 8.  I can see why they would like to improve that.  We would all love the see that eyesore of 3 used vehicle lots converted to a people friendly development - one appropriate and appealing to La Mesa.

Lastly, I resent being characterized as the 'opponents' who "they will never be able to make happy".  We are long term citizens who love our life here in La Mesa, who cherish the quality of life we find here and who are unwilling to have that compromised by the overblown, undefined, nebulous plans of profiteering developers.

I think the Planning Commission made the only decision possible based on the EIR.  Good for them.  It restored a little faith in the process.  Money and steak dinners don't always win.

Comment by Kevin G George on October 3, 2014 at 9:06am

Did you ever notice that in these artists renditions there are never any poles, wires or crossing gates shown at the trolley. Always lush greenery and that nice smooth and clean area on both sides of the tracks. Hardly a representation of the ugly trash strewn reality.

Comment by Susan Brinchman on October 2, 2014 at 12:18pm

The Kitzmens should propose two stories if they really want to beautify La Mesa. Otherwise, take their horse and pony show elsewhere.

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