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Not All Neighborhood Development Projects Fuel Community Angst

Resolution of a hot-button tear-down in La Jolla, progress on an innovative proposal in East Village and establishing an adaptive reuse pattern in North Park.

There are big questions facing the future of urban planning in San Diego, and high-profile development battles going on throughout the city. And as always, there are countless projects of varying scope that’ll have an effect on their neighborhoods and the city as a whole.

But not all projects generate community outrage, or get caught in a seemingly endless bureaucratic morasse. Here are three neighborhood projects that have flipped the normal development narrative. One moved forward without pissing off any neighbors. Another generated conflict, until those involved met and negotiated a mutually acceptable alternative. Another can be literally picked up and moved if the neighborhood changes or wants a change.

Here’s a closer look at three such projects, selected without any scientific process. If there are other projects in your neighborhood you’d like to know a bit more about, contact me and we’ll try to include it in a future post.

You Got Mail

It’s not often a huge construction project goes up quietly in a densely populated commercial area.

But that’s basically what happened with “You Got Mail,” a mixed-use project in the heart of North Park incorporating and surrounding the abandoned Post Office at Grim Avenue and North Park Way.

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

It’s being built by the architect-designers at Foundation for Form, whose “You Are Here” project in Golden Hill was similarly built on top of the bones of an old, unkempt gas station on 25th Street, just before the Interstate-94 freeway.

“It’s kind of our M.O.,” said Craig Abenilla, one of the two principles in the company. “We think it’s sustainable, because it’s not using resources just to tear things down, but it’s also commercial space that isn’t mundane, which is hard to get.”

The North Park project is still in construction, but it’s already visibly arresting, with a large slanted design element springing from the Post Office to the top of the new structure’s wood frame.

It’ll include 33 market-rate rental apartment units, and the old Post Office will be converted into 5,000 square feet of commercial restaurant/retail space. The developers are still talking with tenants, but it could end up as a sort-of cooperative retail spot where multiple smaller tenants go in together.

The developers were able to get approval for their project relatively easy, because they took all existing land use regulations into account and aren’t asking for any exceptions. They didn’t need to appear before the North Park Planning Committee or anyone else to get a discretionary approval, because the project was designed to the existing land development code.

Abenilla said there were initial rumors that they were planning to tear down the Post Office, which scared some neighbors, but they invited Councilman Todd Gloria to look at the site and hear their plans, which helped alleviate concerns.

Abenilla’s partner, Mike Burnett, said the main priority in planning the site was to respect the existing residential community by using an updated approach to the neighborhood’s established courtyard-type housing stock.

And just as they’ve done with their Golden Hill projects, they’re looking to use the courtyard to host special events in the ground level for the building’s residents.

“It’s really the next level of courtyard housing,” Burnett said.

And part of creating the “dynamic open spaces” that they want to build means thinking about what people want, not what zoning allows.

“We don’t look at zoning — that’s reactive, not proactive,” Burnett said. “We think what’s best and makes the most sense for the neighborhood. We have step-backs that are much further than what’s required in North Park, because we want to respect the people near us.”

La Jolla Cottages

It’s almost cute what passed for controversy in this town just before the sexual harassment scandal that took down Mayor Bob Filner broke.

Two months ago, a seemingly small item on the city Planning Commission’s docket spun into a short-lived drama when the commission voted against Filner’s wishes.

When it was all over, the entire meeting was canceled and a high-level official in Development Services was fired.

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

It was all over the proposed demolition of two potentially historic cottages in La Jolla.

The La Jolla Historical Society, the Save our Heritage Organisation and neighbors opposed the property owner’s proposal to replace two Tudor-style cottages with a modern duplex.

Now, the involved parties have reached a tentative compromise, and only one cottage will be torn down after all.

At the June 13 Planning Commission meeting, Filner’s then-deputy chief of staff, Allen Jones, told the commission Filner wanted the vote, which would have approved the owner’s plans, delayed until the city’s historical resources board could weigh in on the cottages’ historic value.

When the commission voted not to delay the item and approved the demolition, Jones shocked the meeting by returning to the lectern and informing the group that, in the eyes of the Filner administration, the entire meeting was invalid.

Earlier that week, Filner’s two appointments to the Planning Commission had been officially sworn in. But they weren’t seated as commissioners at the hearing, and one of the outgoing commissioners, Robert Griswold, said he was told by city staff to prepare for the meeting just as he would for any other.

Since the new commissioners were sworn in, they should have been seated and ready to cast a vote, Jones said. Because they weren’t, the hearing was illegitimate, all votes from the meeting should be vacated and the rest of the docket should be delayed to the next hearing, Jones said.

After a short recess, Eric Naslund, chair of the commission, said the mayor’s concerns were valid and granted his wishes, vacating the vote they had taken and canceling the rest of the docket until the new commissioners could be seated the following week. The next day, deputy director of development services Cecilia Gallardo was fired over the whole thing.

But what happened to the cottages?

The standoff led the property owners and those opposing the project back to the negotiating table, where they worked out a tentative deal.

Rather than tear down both homes, the owners agreed to preserve the front home — said to be more historically relevant — while expanding it slightly in the back to provide for a second bedroom. The second cottage will be demolished and replaced with a new structure.

“From a historic perspective, you want something different in the back, so it sets off what you’re trying to enhance, the historic Tudor cottage up front that everyone agrees is really the post-card image structure,” said Tim Golba, the project’s architect.

He said the parties opposed to the demolition have agreed to the project in concept. He’s now adding specificity to the design to get final approval from the city.

“They made a very good presentation that was very well-received on how they would develop the property, while still retaining the cottage on the street that has the important rock-wall chimney,” said Heath Fox, executive director of the La Jolla Heritage Society.

Both Fox and Golba said the project was also approved by the Save Our Heritage Organisation.

Bruce Coons, executive director for the Save Our Heritage Organisation, declined to comment on any agreement because he said nothing is official yet.

Golba agreed there is still a lot to sort out, but said he’s as optimistic about the agreement.

The next step is for the front cottage to be designated a historic structure by the city’s historical resources board. Then Golba will need to secure a site development permit to move forward on construction. That’ll ultimately require another visit to the Planning Commission.

“Hopefully by that point everyone shows up to the Planning Commission singing kumbaya,” Golba said.

East Village’s ‘Rad Lab’

Downtown San Diego’s East Village has been the target of formal and informal redevelopment efforts for decades.

Its current mix of luxury condos, artist lofts, a baseball stadium and many vacant lots reflects its state as a work in progress.

Rendering courtesy of Design Tempo

Rendering courtesy of Design Tempo

Masters students at the neighborhood’s NewSchool of Architecture and Design made news this spring with their proposal, enthusiastically embraced by Filner, to address East Village’s transitional nature.

The idea: Use shipping containers to build a communal outdoor area with space for multiple tenants in a vacant city-owned lot at Park Boulevard and Market Street.

The project, marketed as “Rad Lab” by the student team, whose members have since formed a company called Design Tempo, is negotiating a two-year lease (with a mutual option for a third year) with Civic San Diego, the city-controlled nonprofit that used to handle redevelopment projects.

Civic San Diego’s plans for the lot fell apart when the state ended the redevelopment program, which used new property tax money to subsidize large-scale development projects.

Rendering courtesy of Design Tempo

Rendering courtesy of Design Tempo

It’s now looking to sell the property to a developer for millions of dollars. But economic conditions still aren’t in a place that anyone expects the site to sell anytime soon.

So, while the property’s owners – taxpayers – wait for the market to come around, they can rent the unimproved lot to four young people with a plan to turn it into a community gathering spot.

They’re calling it an “experiment in flexible temporary urbanism.”

Across the 28,000-square-foot lot, Rad Lab will have space for a large beer garden, eight stalls for food trucks, a central stage for community events, a dog park and an indoor space that could be used for a retail tenant. Similar projects have succeeded in San Francisco, London and Brooklyn.

They’re hoping to attract tenants and implement design decisions that will keep the project changing throughout its life.

“On a month-to-month basis, it won’t look the same as it did before,” said David Loewenstein, Design Tempo’s COO.

Filner called Rad Labs was a good example of the sort of imaginative project he was expecting from the city’s new Civic and Urban Initiatives incubator. He initially approved the project after the students pitched it during one of Filner’s “office hours with the mayor” events at City Hall.

“Within 60 days you will see in East Village the most remarkable public gathering space,” he said. “Just by taking some vacant land and using some creativity and architectural principles and a sense of what you want to do, in a neighborhood, and it’s going to be incredible.”

Filner’s timeline was a tad ambitious.

Loewesnstein said they’re hoping to hold a grand opening at the beginning of January.

The group is in the closing stages of negotiating its lease with Civic San Diego. They group says it’s nearly ready to announce a few tenants, and are working to secure permits that’ll outline when and how they can operate. Civic San Diego has agreed to make the lease term begin on the group’s first day in control of the space, so it doesn’t waste its short two-year period wrangling permits and approvals.

The entire development cost, Loewenstein estimated, will come in at just $300,000.

But more than 80 percent of that, he said, will be recoverable.

That is, once they reach the end of the lease, they’ll be able to pick up the majority of the astro turf, shipping containers and other improvements, and reinstall them at a new vacant lot somewhere else in the city. And so on.

“Once we start building and operating, we’ll immediately start looking for locations to replicate the Rad Lab,” Loewenstein said. “The biggest problem we face is this hasn’t been done in San Diego before.”

He said much of what they’re working on now — outlining the terms of their conditional use permit, for example — involves creating a streamlined approach that can be replicated throughout the city.

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