Monday, Dec. 18, 2006 | If Starbucks is an indicator of a community’s health, Grantville’s in good shape. One of the franchises even has a drive-thru window.

Photos by Bronson Pate
VIDEO: A close up, multimedia look at Grantville

In this neighborhood, nestled near Interstate 8 and Mission Gorge, the green-canopied coffee houses are just one marker used by community members to fight the label slapped on their neighborhood recently – blighted.

“This just is what it is, a business area,” said Brian Peterson, a veterinarian who owns the Friars Road Pet Hospital. “It’s just obviously not blighted.”

But the city of San Diego says it is blighted, a designation that allowed the city to classify Grantville a redevelopment area in May 2005. The redevelopment label would allow the city to collect more tax money and invest it back in the community, and to use eminent domain. But parties ranging from community members to the county of San Diego think the city used a loose interpretation of the word “blight” to snatch tax money from the county, sanitize the neighborhood and create a windfall for developers.

Peterson’s practice sits in the middle of Grantville, across the street from one of the Starbucks. The pet hospital shares building space with several small businesses in one of the areas considered blighted.

While the community is far from a postcard destination, Peterson and others say it’s a considerable distance from a stereotypical picture of blight.

“When I think ‘blight,’ I think the 1980s in the Bronx with gutted buildings and people living in the street,” Peterson said. “I think, a place that’s just a disaster.”

The community seems to have evolved in pieces from its first settlement by Spanish padres in the 1750s. Today, national fast-food and family restaurant chains share lots with oil change stations and home improvement stores. Some businesses are mom-and-pop – a light blue brick building proclaims “Lug Your Rug” in peeling paint above workers who clean rugs outdoors. Others are more uniform, like Chili’s or Black Angus. Freeway entrances, busy thoroughfares and sidewalks that disappear unexpectedly discourage pedestrians. But cars stream in and out of the area – coming in to run errands in Grantville’s banks, shops and auto service stations, and going out to work or leisure activities by way of the nearby freeways.

Matt Adams, president of the Navajo Community Planners Inc. which oversees Grantville planning, said the neighborhood is “sort of tired, a little worn out.” Adams, also the chief lobbyist for the Building Industry Association, admits not everyone agrees on the severity of the problem.

“Grantville’s a place where you have to go; it’s never really been a place where you want to be,” Adams said. “I guess ‘blighted’ is in the eye of the beholder.”

Legal Trouble

In a lawsuit brought against the city of San Diego in July 2005, the county said many of the conditions cited by the city to evidence blight in Grantville – like Dumpsters in parking lots and irregularly shaped lots – are “common characteristics of virtually every city or incorporated area in the County.” Those conditions were inconclusive at best, the county said in its written complaint. The county stands to lose tax revenue from Grantville. If the neighborhood becomes a redevelopment area, the city can corral the tax dollars that would have gone to the county.

The suit is a rare head-to-head public agency battle that Tom Harron, chief deputy county counsel, considers a last resort. Some community members worry that under redevelopment, their small businesses and properties that have been in families for generations will soon give way to a “Main Street USA” feel, upending their enterprises and handing the area to powerful developers.

“Grantville’s a place where you have to go; it’s never really been a place where you want to be.”
– Matt Adams,
Navajo planner

Their concern come during a national backlash against the perceived misuse of the blight label. Redevelopment, as a concept, was formed to reinvigorate downtrodden or abandoned neighborhoods. Now, many say that’s been twisted, allowing the use of what they claim is an over-generous definition of “blight” to justify homogenizing older neighborhoods.

“They want Grantville to look like other communities,” Peterson said. “They want everyone in Starbucks, sitting at cafe tables and sipping lattes.” He contrasts that with the way Grantville patrons use Starbucks now – as an energy boost while they get their oil changed or purchase home improvement supplies or even have their cat immunized.

Adams, the Navajo planner, said he supports the redevelopment plan, largely because it would centralize the organization of the neighborhood.

“It’s evolved this way over the decades,” he said. “A hodgepodge of car dealerships and other stuff. There’s no clear vision.”

The Lure of Redevelopment Funds

When an area is given the “redevelopment” designation, a few things happen. As property values rise, the increase in the property taxes generated in the area is supposed to be invested back into that specific community in the form of grants, loans and other incentives to private business. That money would otherwise go to the general budgets of the city and the county. That’s called a tax increment. Redevelopment also paves the way for the city to use eminent domain, allowing it to seize privately owned properties for economic development. One of the chief goals in declaring Grantville a redevelopment area was to fund an update to its community plan – a blueprint for the neighborhood’s growth – which was last done in the early 1980s.

The county’s lawsuit, with Grantville business Atomic Investments Inc. as co-plaintiff, has not been settled yet. Harron said any planning done or funds collected by the city and private companies are efforts that could prove futile if the litigation is decided in the county’s favor.

Tracy Reed, a project manager at City Hall, said the city started collecting the tax increment last year and the money collected so far is sitting in a trust fund, awaiting resolution of the lawsuit.

The community activists who thought the redevelopment process had been tabled by the county’s lawsuit were surprised when two privately funded vision plans were presented in a community meeting two weeks ago. City officials were quick to clarify that the plans were commissioned by the business sector and only revealed to them recently.

But the community members – Grantville business and property owners, and residents from areas bordering the redevelopment boundary – are wondering what else has been going on behind the scenes. The plans showed major changes to Mission Gorge Road and the inclusion of several condo and apartment developments where no residents currently live, a traffic-creating, not a traffic-solving venture, opponents worry. They theorize the redevelopment classification was dreamt up to benefit the biggest business players in the neighborhood.

City Councilman Jim Madaffer is the biggest champion of the redevelopment process in Grantville. He initiated contact with HG Fenton Co., a major real estate company and owner of five Grantville properties, and some of the other local businesses to form the Grantville Redevelopment Advisory Committee a couple of years ago. The committee comprised representatives of the biggest businesses in the area – like Fenton, Superior Ready Mix, Kaiser Permanente – as well as community representatives and some smaller companies.

The main issues the group was hoping to address by creating the redevelopment area were traffic snarls, floods and other infrastructure shortcomings, said Mike Neal, the committee’s chair and the president and chief executive of Fenton. Though such issues would likely eventually come up for funding from the city’s general fund, the San Diego’s financial woes mean the improvements could take years. That led Madaffer and the committee to try to get at funding this way; they proposed the redevelopment classification to the City Council in March 2005. The council adopted the redevelopment plan in May that same year.

“If you look hard enough anywhere, you can find things that need work.”
– John Pilch,
Grantville advisory committee

“The redevelopment allows tax dollars to be available to that community to fix issues that are in that community,” Neal said. “The challenge is to get the dollars available.”

Madaffer declined numerous requests for comment for this story.

The Grantville of the Future?

Trees, shops and wide sidewalks lining the streets. People walking from their condos or taking the trolley from other communities to the Grantville Station, then strolling to the San Diego River.

Those constitute some of the ideals put forth in the two privately financed plans. Though the county-city legal kafuffle remains, several powerful business interests say they want to be ready to start redeveloping as soon as the lawsuit is settled – in favor of the city, they presume.

So, at least two major businesses, HG Fenton Co. and Superior Ready Mix, have hired private consultants to draft plans. Those plans include residential condos and apartments, better access to the river and better traffic circulation. They typify a fundamental shift for the community, moving it from a jumbled neighborhood of businesses of varying sizes to a more cohesively planned village – not unlike the City of Villages model adopted by San Diego in recent years.

Several community members said they felt overwhelmed by the influence of two or three major business players in something that the city, at least officially, can’t take action on until the legal issues are solved.

But there are elements of the redevelopment plans that appeal to proponents and opponents alike – such as reorienting the community to its proximity to the San Diego River, and to the trolley station. Those are just not aims Peterson thinks the community needs the “blight” label to accomplish.

“In this free economy, I’ve seen it often,” he said, pointing to a car service center that was a vacant lot when he started business 13 years ago, to the Starbucks across the street, to the Home Depot around the corner. The redevelopment plan is unnecessary, he believes – unaided capitalism could improve Grantville over time.

San Carlos resident and Grantville committee member John Pilch agrees. The area could use some sprucing up, he said – especially to fix its traffic problems. Though he voted for the redevelopment designation reluctantly, Pilch said he doesn’t believe the problems don’t constitute blight.

“You can pretty much rationalize anything,” he said. “If you look hard enough anywhere, you can find things that need work.”

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

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