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Monday, October 03, 2005 | Correction (Oct. 21, 2005): It has been four years since the project began, not five. The wall itself is built in two sections, which together measure approximately 32 feet. David Sanderfer owns 41.5 percent of the land the wall is built on and his two neighbors own the rest.
It all started with a volcano.
One balmy morning in the summer of 2001, Ned and Diane Michalowski were woken by a screeching, scraping sound coming across the canyon behind their home.
Looking across the narrow University City canyon, the Michalowskis could hardly believe their eyes. A truck had backed down their neighbor’s driveway and was depositing a load of earth onto a conical pile of rubble at the end of the canyon. The pile had begun to resemble a small volcano.
What began as that fairly innocuous pile of earth has, five years later, grown into what the Michalowski’s refer to as “The Monster,” a towering, 40-foot-high, 245-foot-wide wall of huge, interlocking concrete blocks. The giant retaining wall, which has become known in the neighborhood as “The Great Wall of University City,” now holds back more than 2,100 cubic yards of soil.
Up and down the street, residents are amazed that the structure somehow slipped through the cracks and was allowed to be built. They want to know why the city of San Diego failed to act on dozens of complaints about the structure. They also want to know how the wall ever got planning permission, and how it managed to get through the inspection process.
David Sanderfer, who built the Great Wall and owns most of the property on which it sits, said he started the project for a very simple purpose – to extend his yard, which once dropped off sharply into the canyon as a steep slope of ice plant.
“It wasn’t much to look at in the first place,” said Sanderfer of his end of the canyon, which now lies buried under hundreds of truckloads of earth. “I got to thinking, ‘If I’m going to go through this process, and I’ve got two neighbors with the same situation right next to me, why don’t I go ahead and improve it for all of us?’ “
Why build one retaining wall, when you can build three?
That’s what Sanderfer decided to do. Rather than simply extending his yard out into the canyon, he came upon the idea of essentially “filling in” the end of the canyon. He talked to his immediate neighbors and they agreed to put him in charge of the project. Sanderfer is a civil engineer for the California Department of Transportation, so they assumed they were in good hands.
There was only one problem. In 2001, Sanderfer had not yet applied to the city for a permit to build the wall or to pile up the earth it would support. Nevertheless, he poured concrete slabs to form a driveway down the side of his house and began to bring in trucks full of fill to dump their loads in the canyon.
The volcano was born.
But Ned Michalowski is not the sort of guy to sit by and watch his view disappear. He decided to contact the city to report the goings on behind his home.
On Aug. 30, 2001, Sanderfer was issued with a code violation notice.
The engineer was ordered to provide proper plans to the city’s Development Services Department. That took him 18 months.
In February 2003, Sanderfer submitted plans for his property and the properties on either side of his house. He obtained building permits for three retaining walls running across the three properties. In October 2003, Sanderfer finally secured himself a coveted grading permit from the city.
It was almost another year before Sanderfer actually started to again get serious about filling in the canyon. In August 2004, trucks again began to arrive at his address to deposit soil into what was by now a greatly eroded pile of material resembling a giant termite hill.
That’s when the nightmare really began for the Michalowskis and their neighbors, they say.
“A construction site is always dusty and dirty,” said Ned Michalowski, “and when you have one going on in your back yard for three or four years, you’ve got some real problems.”
Sanderfer would work on his wall at all hours of the day, the Michalowskis said. He would even work on Sundays. All the earth-moving was done with a smelly, noisy bulldozer and the large amount of dust coming into the Michalowski’s house caused some serious problems, they claim, not least for Ned Michalowski’s elderly mother, who suffers from respiratory conditions.
Of course, Sanderfer’s neighbors tried to get the situation under control, but they say they didn’t get much help from the city.
“The city just didn’t seem to want to make this thing move along,” said Ned Michalowski. “When it first started, we had a couple of city engineers out here. We were standing out in the back yard and I asked them ‘If you lived in this house, would this be going on across the canyon from you?’ After three questions, one of them looked at me and said ‘No.’ “
But, of course, the project was going on. Sanderfer’s monster was getting bigger and bigger.
“He never came and explained to any of us the magnitude, or what this thing is ultimately going to look like,” said Ned Michalowski, “or showed us a picture or anything.”
Concerned neighbors kept complaining to the city about the project. Eventually, Sanderfer was ordered to get the dust coming from his project under control, but still none of the neighbors knew just how big the project would eventually become. They didn’t think to try to access Sanderfer’s plans, instead assuming that the city’s building guidelines would keep the wall under control.
On a recent visit to the city’s Development Services offices on First Avenue, pulling up the plans for Sanderfer’s development was like pulling teeth. Various records systems had to be cross-checked against each other by city staff until, eventually, a project number could be tracked down for the Great Wall. Once the project number was established, Voice of San Diego staff could access the records for Sanderfer’s project.
Checking the plans, one thing soon became obvious: Although the drawings on file show three retaining walls, none more than 12 feet high, the Great Wall of UC has only two walls, one of which is almost 20 feet tall.
Sanderfer’s got an answer for that one.
“Those are the old plans,” he shrugs.
He can’t explain why the “new plans,” which he says were approved in August 2005, are not on file. The city can’t explain it either.
“It’s just one of those screwy things,” said Cynthia Queen, spokeswoman for the Development Services Department.
She said Sanderfer contacted the city in 2003 asking for permission to alter the plans on his project. Queen said Sanderfer asked for permission to build two walls instead of three, one of which was to be 20 feet tall. Exactly what happened between Sanderfer and the city after that is hard to ascertain.
Queen said Sanderfer was told by Development Services staff that he could not build any of his walls higher than 12 feet tall. She said Sanderfer informed a planning supervisor that he had already received approval on plans showing a 22-foot high wall. According to Queen, the supervisor then informed Sanderfer that he would only approve the plan changes if Sanderfer agreed to comply with the 12-foot height limit.
Two weeks ago, when an inspector visited the site for a routine inspection, he looked at what he thought were approved plans. According to Queen, the drawings Sanderfer had on site showed a 22-foot wall. The inspector signed off on the plans “because the 20-foot wall that was there was built correctly.”
Whether or not Sanderfer received permission from the city to go ahead with his project, his neighbors are left wondering how it could happen in the first place.
It is probably surprising to many San Diegans that projects such as The Great Wall of University City are unlikely to be assessed for the impact they are likely to have on the surrounding houses.
Kelly Broughton, chief deputy director of land development review at the Development Services Department, explained why.
“If the project did not require a higher level of permit type – in other words it didn’t have to go through a public hearing process and be publicly noticed – then there isn’t an (impact) analysis, if it complies with all of the building and grading codes in our municipal codes.”
Indeed, Broughton, who has come across projects similar to the one in University City, said his department is not only required, but is legally obligated to issue permits and not to interfere in such construction projects as long as they stay within the wording of the municipal code.
In order for a second tier of supervision to be required on a project, Broughton said, it would have to either be impacting some sort of geographical resource, for example, protected open space, or be a project outside the realm of the building code.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Great Wall of University City is neither. Despite the near-destruction of a large chunk of natural canyon and the sheer size of the project, the wall is, strictly speaking, not required to have its geographical impact assessed.
David Sanderfer likes to play down the impact of his wall. He said his neighbors lack vision. All they see, he said, is a big ugly wall. They haven’t taken into account the landscaping he plans to do, or the trees he plans to plant in front of the wall to hide it from view.
“The landscaping is going to be more plush and diverse than before,” said Sanderfer. “… You won’t even see the wall. You won’t see the wall, you won’t see earth, you won’t see anything.”
For the Michalowskis, that’s hard to believe.
“We’re still looking into the side of a green wall,” said Ned Michalowski. “Anything you can do to cover it is going to improve it, but it’s not going to take it away. The Monster is still there.”
Two weeks ago, the Michalowskis had a fencing company come in and build a 12-foot high fence between their back yard and the Great Wall, in an attempt to block the structure from sight.
Besides the wall’s scale, however, Ned Michalowski said it’s Sanderfer’s track record that has him concerned about the future of his neighborhood.
“It all looks good on paper,” he said, and then sarcastically described how well he thinks Sanderfer maintains his own property.
Sanderfer’s house has been described in various terms by his neighbors and passersby. Adjectives that are commonly used to describe it include “eyesore,” “mess” and “disgrace.” Stucco is falling off the building in chunks, concrete slabs are cracked and random bits of wood and wire stick out around doors and windows on the structure’s outer walls.
Inside, it’s not much better. Unfinished walls and surfaces dot the house and the back yard is a mass of old paint tins, rusting tools and piles of odd-shaped pieces of wood.
All in all, the house sets an inauspicious precedent for neighbors who will rely on Sanderfer to keep his retaining wall in good condition and his plants watered and healthy.
That’s if the wall survives.
As of press time, the future of The Great Wall of University City was in doubt. Under pressure from Councilman Scott Peters’ office, the Development Services Department paid Sanderfer a visit last week. According to Queen, the plans Sanderfer was using on site were not all from the set of plans that had been approved.
The city inspector issued a stop-work order on the project on Sept. 27, five days after Voice of San Diego began its investigation.
“We told him, ‘Don’t do any landscaping, mister, because if you end up having to tear it out, it’s just going to end up costing you more money,’ ” said Queen. “We’re stopping everything while we resolve the situation.”
Sanderfer is standing firm, however. He has re-submitted his plans to Development Services and says he’ll fight to keep his wall even if he needs to go to court to defend it.
The Michalowskis are pleased with the latest action by the city, but they say it is too little too late.
“I think, ultimately, it’s the city that’s failed us,” said Diane Michalowski.
“There’s just been this blatant disregard for the community,” added her husband. “At the end of the day, if everything’s growing on it and it’s this beautiful park and all that, then still, the wounds are still there.”
Please contact Will Carless directly at