Love where you live!
Park Station Hears A Big No
By Scott Lafee
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.