Three SD communities square off over Mid-City redevelopment

For nearly seven decades, the Pearson Ford car lot at Fairmount and El Cajon Boulevards in central San Diego was a piece of San Diegans’ collective conscious. Its familiar jingle echoed unchanged on radios throughout the county until the cars cleared out in 2008.

At Pearson Ford they stand alone/At Fairmount and El Cajon.

Now, with the empty land awaiting redevelopment, the site evokes tension more than it does regional nostalgia. That’s because it sits at the crossroads of three communities that each represent a distinct socioeconomic stratum in San Diego and, thus, harbor different hopes for what might fill it in. Wealthier residents in Kensington and Talmadge want a departure from the social services that have dominated redevelopment in the area since 1994, while those in City Heights fear such a departure might fuel gentrification and an exodus of low-income residents.

“What it really comes down to is the difference in class, income and privilege among these communities,” said Diana Ross, the director of Mid-City CAN, an advocacy group in City Heights. “Who gets to make the decision and what will that decision symbolize?”

The decision rests largely with Price Charities, a nonprofit that has invested capital and energy into programs and infrastructure for low-income residents in City Heights for more than a decade. It purchased the land in 2008 and began surveying the community about its use this year.

“The goal for this project is to create a space all three communities will be drawn to,” said Derryl Acosta, a spokesman for Price.

But disparities across the three neighborhoods make finding a compromise tricky. In an initial survey circulated by Kensington and Talmadge residents, consensus seemed to focus on what wasn’t wanted: subsidized low-income housing and services for the poor.

An anonymous survey respondent warned against installing low-cost retail stores, check-cashing services and low-income housing, saying they attract “undesirables.” Instead, he and almost 30 percent of his neighbors said they’d prefer a food market with gourmet stock.

“I know most of my suggestions sound blunt and snobbish, but Talmadge was originally a super nice area of San Diego,” he said. “The future of the Pearson Ford site puts our area on the precipice of either returning to being upscale and desirable or continuing down the shame spiral to become more dumpy and unremarkable.”

Indeed, El Cajon Boulevard fell into disrepair after Interstate-8 drew cars away from businesses on the once well-traveled thoroughfare in the 60s. But Talmadge and Kensington remain desirable for their picturesque, tree-lined streets, which feel isolated from the gritty boulevard.

According to 2000 Census data, those who live in Kensington and Talmadge have a median income of nearly $40,000 and live in homes valued, on average, around $300,000. Homes in Kensington hover closer to $1 million. Just across the 4-lane boulevard, families in City Heights have a median income of less than $24,000 and a median home value of about $96,000.

“Unfortunately, they didn’t consider that the site is in a lower-income neighborhood, nor that it’s owned by a charity that serves the residents of such neighborhoods,” said Talmadge resident Paul Jamason of the survey respondents. “Suggesting that an upscale market go there seemed a bit out of touch.”

While City Heights hasn’t given formal input regarding the project, research by community nonprofits suggests that those in the immigrant and refugee neighborhood would continue to benefit from services and amenities with a clear focus on community health.

Mid-city youth want skate park on site of old car lot:

Half-pipe Dreams from robertknauf on Vimeo.

Several community advocates suggested incorporating recreation space into the project to help combat the disproportionate levels of obesity and heart disease that plague the community. There are just 1.03 acres of open space per 1,000 residents in City Heights, compared to nearly three acres per 1,000 people citywide, according to Health Equity by Design, a partnership between Walk San Diego and San Diego Health and Human Service that mapped health disparities in the area.

Kathleen Ferrier, HED’s project manager, said such ailments could also be attributed to financial stress. She said she’d like to see businesses that offer well-paying jobs fill in the lot. According to Ferrier, for each City Heights household, there is less than a half a job available in the area.

“I think they should bring something like a Walmart in here, something that will add jobs to the community,” said Dawnette Rawls, a City Heights resident. “I’m more into people working and taking care of their families.”

Most in City Heights who spoke with agreed that such businesses should share space with low- or mixed-income residences to maintain affordability in the neighborhood. According to HED, nearly a quarter of the population in City Heights spends 50 percent or more of their monthly income on rent. Nearly 40 percent fall below the national poverty level, according to the 2000 Census.

“A lot of times the inner city is a very trapped place of poverty and its really hard to lift up out of poverty in these types of areas,” said Jacqueline Jordan, a community health advocate visiting from Oakland, Calif. “Bringing in things that are more ritzy, more expensive, ends up making the community look better, but it drives people out of the community and forces them to live in a poorer area.”

Beryl Forman of the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement District said providing mixed-income housing is key for achieving progress without out-pricing current residents. She said other portions of the boulevard that have experienced an upswing were able to maintain stable property values and relatively cheap rent.

“I don’t refer to it as gentrification, which refers to displacement,” Forman said. “Revitalization is a needed thing in areas where people left the urban environment, left storefronts and left the area to further deteriorate. It doesn’t have to necessarily be a bad thing.”

Ross and others are watching anxiously to see whether that trend continues along this stretch of the boulevard. Candid survey responses out of Kensington and Talmadge worried many with talk of expensive chains and market-rate condos.

The survey’s organizers said, however, that the visions expressed weren’t necessarily about status and raising property values. Ron Anderson said upscale market chains were suggested because of their neighborhood feel, and that residents would settle for a more reasonably priced store. Maggie McCann said opposition to affordable housing was based on the current mid-city community plan drafted in 1998, which aims to limit further concentration of affordable housing in the area. In 2008, the county’s Department of Housing and Community Development counted 24 affordable developments in mid-city comprised of nearly 1,000 units.

“You have this urban apartheid cramming everyone in the middle and leaving them there,” McCann said. “It doesn’t put people where jobs are, where amenities are.”

The goal is informed by the city’s balanced communities policy, which calls for an even distribution of affordable housing by focusing efforts in areas where low-income residents make up less than 60 percent of the population. Exceptions can be made based on community support, elimination of blight and location within a redevelopment area—all of which apply to City Heights.

Both McCann and Anderson said they recognize that Price has a distinct vision and responsibility to City Heights, which encompasses affordability—the survey acted as more of a wish list. Foreman said she suspects that residents north of the site were simply working with the brands and concepts they know.

“People choose from things that they already know—a Whole Foods,” said Forman. “We have to throw larger ideas at people so they can do something bigger.”

Forman suggested an international market that extends the Little Saigon district west or a permanent farmers market with the same draw as Seattle’s fish market. Jamason and others suggested a community square like San Francisco’s Portsmouth Square. McCann and Anderson said they’d like to see a “gateway” that brands the mid-city region and acts as a gathering place for the three neighborhoods. Some City Heights youth, with the support of a teacher, even circulated a petition for a skate park.

Those striving for such innovation will have to contend with a request for proposal already drafted and submitted by Price to three design firms—one local and two in Orange County. The RFP calls for a traditional mixed-use development that incorporates housing, retail and community space per the land’s zoning. The lot can accommodate residential, light industrial and commercial use, which accounts for recreation. Active recreation like skating, however, typically falls under an open space zone, though some San Diego skate parks have been built in residential and industrial zones.

Price has received three proposals, all of which featured market-rate housing, retail and community gathering space. Matthew Hervey of Price said the RFP and subsequent proposals are just a starting point to stimulate ideas. He said that no decisions have been made and that all suggestions will be heard. There is currently no timeline for the project.

“This will either make us or break us,” said Anderson, referring to the impact the site might have on his small division of Talmadge. The blank pavement might just as well determine whether Kensington, Talmadge and City Heights will stand together at Fairmount and El Cajon.

This map shows the three communities of Talmadge, Kensington and City Heights. Click on the communities for photos of each place:

View Pearson Ford Lot in a larger map

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