Thursday, Aug. 31, 2006 | In 1998, after the passage of Proposition MM provided funds for the construction of new facilities, the long-neglected neighborhood of City Heights was set to welcome four new schools.

Where to put them was a problem. The residents who needed the schools, would have to be displaced – their houses razed to make room for the construction.

In 2002, four city agencies – the Redevelopment Agency, the Housing Authority, the city of San Diego and San Diego Unified School District – came together to create the Model School Project to try and solve this problem.

The idea was a noble one: replace the lost housing and create an entire community with the school as its main centerpiece. Like its name, the project was to serve as a model that would change the way planners thought of urban revitalization.

City Heights, already the site for massive redevelopment projects, seemed like the perfect place to pioneer the model. But last month, the agency responsible for the Model School Project ultimately fell apart.

Delays, a $24 million financial gap and questions about its practicality left the project in disarray. In July, the agency in charge of the project voted to disband itself.

Under the plan, the area would turn into an “urban village,” complete with service facilities, retail, housing and recreational spaces all surrounding the centerpiece: Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary. Officials imagined it as a place where residents could work, live and play.

The San Diego Model School Development Agency was formed to create such a neighborhood. Under a joint powers agreement, four city agencies appoint representatives to a board which in turn facilitates the planning, financing and construction of the model school project. The agency was supposed to function as a one-stop shop, saving all the member agencies time and money associated with redevelopment projects.

“The idea was something in respect to having a new school serve as a catalyst for revitalization,” said Sal Salas from the Housing Authority and chair of the agency.

Even after the disbanding of the Model School Development Agency, most community leaders still believe in the concept of the “model school,” and the idea of a “one-stop shop” agency that would eliminate bureaucracy to help guide such a project.

But some say the scope of the City Heights project was unrealistic and its funding insufficient. Residents also claimed they were left in the dark during critical parts of the project and that the agency’s structure allowed it too much power with not enough input from the community.

Last month, after the agency disbanded itself, discussion over what finally contributed to the agency’s downfall continued. Some maintain that the concept of the model school project can still work in the future; others question whether the project should have even been started. Meanwhile, construction on the elementary school continues on as a standalone project, its doors will open in Sept. 2007.

The Beginning Years

By the second year of its inception, the Model School Project seemed to have made some progress. The agency selected its board members; a Joint Powers Agreement was drawn up to formalize the arrangement between the four agencies. With seed money from Price Charities, a nonprofit organization involved with other projects around City Heights, the group embarked on a search for potential sites in 2003.

Finally in 2004, the agency came up with a 30-acre area encompassing canyons and city blocks along Fairmont Avenue, 43rd street, Redwood and Myrtle. The location, comprised of mostly old detached single-family homes, was considered a blighted neighborhood with some rundown buildings and badly-maintained canyons.

Notices went out to residents saying the surrounding area of the future Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School would also be the site for the Model School Project, bringing in new townhomes, apartments and condominiums. The plans included cleaning up canyon sites and constructing a housing project for seniors and a child development center. Recreation spaces, a health clinic and commercial plots were also part of the project.

“We were going to kind of give the community a bundle of benefits,” Salas said.

But the agency would have to seize existing homes. While the agency maintains it made efforts in getting the community involved, some say most residents were never properly notified of public meetings.

Jody Carey, a resident, was surprised when he found out he might lose his home. Carey, who later became the community representative for the agency, said residents found out about the project two years into it.

“There were meetings,” he said. “But no one knew about them.”

Carey had just finished nine months worth of renovation on a house within the project boundary when he received his notice. He and his partner, Dennis Woods, had toiled over the building, pulling together permits, ripping out fixtures, and finally, reconstructing the entire house.

Though they planned to sell the house right away, the two eventually decided to stay.

“The more we met the neighbors and all the families here, we fell in love with the area,” Carey said.

Carey said they were devastated when they found out about the project. Current homes in the area are relatively inexpensive. But new housing units brought in by the project would be beyond what most of the current residents can afford, he said, though a small percentage would have to be affordable housing.

Property owners in the area were also caught off-guard by eminent domain, the government’s ability to seize private property for public use. It’s usually used by government agencies to build facilities like public schools and fire stations. In 2002, the state Legislature gave the joint powers authority – headed by non-elected officials – eminent domain powers such as those bestowed upon cities and redevelopment agencies.

The board operating under the JPA consists of one representative from the city, one from the Redevelopment Agency and one from the Housing Authority; three-members representing the School District; and one member representing the community of City Heights.

Because the JPA was created through the state, it would not have to go through neighborhood committee groups like most projects, Carey said. Development plans in City Heights usually go through two committees made up of residents.

“When a presentation was finally made at the planning committee in 2004, they had asked for some sort of endorsement and the planning committee voted against endorsement,” Carey said. “There were a lot of rumblings in the community.”

Funding and Feasibility

In an effort to move the project along, the agency asked development groups to submit project proposals, from which it would select one Master Developer. But there were increasing concerns that project was too large, the site too costly.

The agency hired CityLink Investment Corporation to do a feasibility study last year. CityLink found that the plan required $60 million in public subsidies due to its size and because of its tricky location along canyon areas. Michael Sprague, chairman of the City Height’s Area Planning Committee said there never seemed to be a clear idea where funding would come from.

“There was a perception, if we decide it will happen, money will come … the Housing Commission will find money, the Redevelopment Agency will find money,” Sprague said. “I sort of never could quite figure out from day one why that fundamental question was never asked.”

Critics of the project also say other school sites with flatter lands were better suited for the project and would have been less costly.

“It was a terrible site selection,” Sprague said. “I think they significantly underestimated how much developing canyon rims would cost.”

The agency, according to project manager Susan Riggs-Tinsky, anticipated a mix of funding mechanisms for the project. Sources included monies from the Housing Commission, tax increment dollars from the city’s Redevelopment Agency, as well as grants for “public improvement” programs.

Despite these sources, costs remained high and CityLink recommended the project be scaled back to approximately seven acres. The newer version would still include the same elements as the original plan with retail, housing and service facilities but on a much smaller scale.

And even with the scaled back project site, a remaining $24 million gap ultimately made the project impossible. William Jones, CEO of CityLink, said that with rising construction costs, high interest rates and land acquisition costs, it didn’t seem likely that the project would be economically feasible for the community.

Along with the financial gap, the agency grappled with two different proposals from CityLink and the City Heights Community Development Corporation, a non-profit group that owns part of the reduced project’s area. The CDC had always expressed an interest in the project and wanted to create mostly affordable and some market-level homes.

But by July of this year, a committee charged with reconciling the two plans was deadlocked. The CDC and CityLink submitted plans that differed on types of housing, whether more affordable or market-level homes should be built. As the community’s frustration rose, Carey finally raised the motion to dissolve the JPA.

Salas said an aura of uncertainty pushed many residents to the edge.

“A lot of neighbors got frustrated with us, they were kind of kept in a limbo,” Salas said.

Next Steps

While the dissolution of the JPA won’t be official until next month, supporters of the project remain hopeful that work can still be done in the area surrounding Florence Griffith-Joyner. Jay Powell, the executive director for the CDC, said they will continue to look at other ways to redevelop their property.

“It’s really unfortunate,” Jay Powell, who is the executive director for the CDC, said. “We’re at a point where we’re still trying to get something of benefit to the community.”

To Riggs-Tinsky, the model school concept is still realistic. She said there were too many changes that occurred within the agency’s board members, complicating the planning process. Riggs-Tinsky herself was only brought in this past June.

“Not that the initial members were more vested [in the project],” Riggs-Tinsky said. “But newer members got lost along the way.”

In the aftermath of the model school project, hope remains high that the idea of the model school project will be intact and used in the future. But looming ahead is Prop. 90, a measure limiting eminent domain powers in this November’s ballot.

“If Prop. 90 passes, it could dramatically change how this project could function,” Riggs-Tinsky said.

Please contact Marnette Federis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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