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Development Shouldn't Threaten the Character and Charm of Our Neighborhoods

Community planning groups in San Diego are skeptical of the process for a reason. Fortunately, a proposed property exchange in University Heights offers city officials the opportunity to help ameliorate the state of bad feelings.

El Cajon Boulevard / Photo by Dustin Michelson

University Heights, the historic community bordering Hillcrest, Normal Heights and North Park, is at a crucial juncture in its existence, but there is one last chance to rescue and preserve the historic character and charm of this community.

A tsunami of development is rolling in from North Park along El Cajon Boulevard, heading west toward Park Boulevard. Several planning groups were expecting amenities to accommodate the massive increase in population and traffic. Instead, officials have given us, through the community master plan, mid-rise buildings with little or no provisions for the additional cars and residents.

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Residents like myself are not categorically opposed to new development, but we are skeptical of the process and disappointed by what seems to have been a huge misunderstanding and lack of good will by the city.

At first, community members were somewhat placated by the plan’s zoning rules at four levels, but the implications of a “bonus clause” weren’t clear until it was too late. Developers can build up to eight stories if they include a percentage of “affordable housing.”

Not only are there little or no provisions for the new residents’ cars; some transit plans will reduce existing parking places along Meade Avenue.

Officials believe that North Park will be receptive to the new growth and can handle it without feeling much strain. But it seems a big leap to assume that all the new and existing residents in nearby University Heights will be prepared to jettison their vehicles and switch to public transportation and bicycles.

Los Angeles County, for example, has been expanding rail transit connections, but ridership on those same systems has mostly declined over the last decade. One possible reason is that the jobs held by lower-income residents are located in outlying areas that aren’t served well by public transportation.

The expansion and use of public transportation is a good thing. However, the feeling among my neighbors in University Heights is these projects are being forced on residents. Out-of-town developers seem to get preference over the long established local community and planning groups.

Unless someone with deep pockets, a powerful legal strategy and a strong grassroots connection can step forward and counter to the “North Park Tsunami,” Park Boulevard is well on its way to becoming another urban canyon. One only needs to take a drive down Park Boulevard between El Cajon Boulevard and University Avenue to see a disastrous example of traffic planning in this area. The stretch of road has become a chaotic, hazardous quarter-mile with twisting, confusing lanes.

This is an important time for University Heights because the San Diego Unified School District has proposed a “property exchange” of its central offices, offering officials the opportunity to help ameliorate the state of bad feelings among the community groups.

It is not unreasonable that at least five of the 11 acres on the table should be reserved for the University Heights community to be developed according to the interests and benefit of residents. The University Heights Community Development Corporation and Library Task Force have developed plans, such as preserving and readapting the Historic Normal School Building for use as the new library.

The hundred-year-old Italian Revival structure was the original site of University of Southern California before becoming the forerunner of San Diego State University. It’s an integral part of the community. Campus Avenue and University Avenue were named accordingly.

The “property exchange” also represents a last chance for University Heights to salvage some of its historic character and unique quality of life in face of the ambitious transit and density plan for the area.

University Heights and Uptown communities cannot and should not accept the complete annihilation of property and structures, core symbolic and historical vestiges of this community.

This isn’t just a question of community preservation and respect for historic integrity of a beloved community. It is also a question of fairness, given the manner in which local community members participated and negotiated all along in good faith.

Dave Hamrah has lived in University Heights for more than 30 years. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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