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For 18 months, a group of residents, activists and business interests kept a tenuous peace as they worked to hash out the first update to Barrio Logan’s community plan in more than 30 years.
That peace was broken last month when several business representatives on the stakeholder committee advising the planning department asked the city to strip long-time Barrio Logan activist Rachael Ortiz of her seat. In e-mails to the city, they said comments Ortiz made during a Sept. 9 committee meeting were racist and divisive.
The episode highlights some of the frustrations that have accompanied attempts to reach consensus in a neighborhood where competing visions for land use and development often pit residents and activists against the owners of commercial and industrial facilities that are their neighbors
Ortiz’s comments came during a presentation by consultant David Sorenson, who was discussing possible reconfigurations of street lanes and traffic flows.
“You’re tearing up our neighborhood again, and it doesn’t feel good,” Ortiz told Sorenson. “This is an ethnic community and it just looks like another white man’s plan to destroy us, to tear up our neighborhood, to push us out.”
The remarks elicited apologies to city staff from one member of the committee, and over the following week, several others e-mailed letters to Lara Gates, the city planner in charge of the plan update, charging racism and asking that Ortiz be removed from the committee.
“Racist remarks are NOT TOLERATED in the work place and they certainly must not be tolerated at a public forum,” wrote committee member Jerry Gray, president of an electromechanical service company in the neighborhood and a member of a coalition of business owners who have organized to promote their interests during the planning process. “She has done this repeatedly. I formally request that she be removed from the … Stakeholder Committee.”
In response to the letters, city officials, including planning director Bill Anderson, mayoral policy advisor Phil Rath, and Redevelopment Agency deputy director Janice Weinrick scheduled a Sept. 30 meeting to discuss Ortiz. The meeting, of which Ortiz was not informed, was postponed last week.
Anderson would not discuss the meeting, though he did say it is unclear how a member of the committee could be removed. Unlike most planning areas across the city, Barrio Logan lacks a formal planning group. The stakeholder committee was created specifically for the community plan update.
New Group Tackling an Old Problem
Social and environmental activists in Barrio Logan have long fought to reverse the ill-effects of decades of damage from patchwork land use designations and highway construction, and to mend the battered morale of the largely Mexican neighborhood that has perceived itself as the city’s perpetual dumping ground.
Parcel-by-parcel zoning across the neighborhood has allowed industrial facilities like recycling centers and repair shops to co-exist next to residential homes. Each of the neighborhood’s roughly 30 residential blocks contains at least one industrial or commercial zoned parcel, and most contain several.
But the city’s revision of the community plan, last updated in 1978, has presented an opportunity to bring conformity to Barrio Logan’s land use designations and finally address the quality-of-life difficulties arising from the incompatible uses.
The updated plan will designate swaths of the neighborhood as singularly residential, commercial or industrial, and smooth out the uses for those sections over time as existing industrial facilities close down in residential sections and give up their parcel’s industrial designation to a residential one, for example.
Barrio Logan’s is the first community plan to be updated since the city updated its own general plan last year.
Most on the committee agree that mixed zoning is untenable, but lines have been drawn between supporters of future development emphasizing residential uses and affordable housing, and those pushing land use designations with an eye toward facilitating the expansion of businesses that serve port and Navy operations.
Neighborhood business owners have organized as the Smart Growth Coalition, and said they want to protect jobs in the neighborhood by retaining the ability to expand.
“We’re advocating for smart growth planning that allows for a mix of business and industrial,” said Matt Carr a member of the coalition. “There’s a lot of different interests at stake in the Barrio because of the general mix in the community.”
Ortiz and her supporters have advocated affordable housing development and taken a clear stance that they oppose gentrification.
That stance was at the heart of Ortiz’s controversial comments. Specific proposals offered at the September meeting to realign traffic lanes and install bicycle lanes throughout the neighborhood, she said, had not been suggested by residents but instead were the impositions of city planners.
“I also see [bicycle lanes] as a threat of gentrification for us, because you don’t see our people on bikes,” Ortiz said at the meeting.
A Community Power
Ortiz, a powerful and long-time Barrio Logan activist who established the Barrio Station, a youth diversion and service organization, is known not to parse words and readily concedes that her brusque brand of diplomacy and impolitic remarks can be construed as offensive.
Throughout the plan update process, Ortiz has been unabashed about presenting herself as the voice of the Mexican community, and has been vocal in her criticisms of the planning department and its consultants.
District 8 City Councilman Ben Hueso said her style reflected her involvement in earlier Barrio Logan activism. “Everybody has strong feelings and that can get out of hand. She has strong opinions because she feels her heart is in this neighborhood.”
In an interview, Ortiz said the accusations of racism were unfounded. In defense of her comments, she invoked Barrio Logan’s transformation at the hands of city planners in previous decades, including the open zoning that allowed industry into a largely residential community, and the construction of the Interstate 5 through the neighborhood.
“You can say gentrification or you can say the white man’s taking our neighborhood. It’s all the same. So why be fake about it?” she said.
Her primary objective, she said, is to resist the influx of high rise condos and other markers of gentrification. She cites the recent placement of an affordable housing complex at the northernmost tip of Barrio Logan, on its border with downtown. The location was strategically arranged with the developers, she said. “We were saying ‘no’ to more downtown infringement.”
Members of the Smart Growth Coalition say she has gone over the line with uncensored commentaries that have hindered cooperative dialogue and frustrated other members.
“Here’s a group that’s invested a lot of time, and I feel it just sets everything back,” said Letty Silva, a member of the Smart Growth Coalition who also filed a complaint with the planning department.
“She does a good job of speaking for herself,” Gray said. “But if she’s going to make a real viable, valid contribution to the future welfare of the community, she has to get past her own personal biases.”
But Ortiz said fear for the neighborhood’s future, as much as all else, impels her provocative statements. “If you don’t speak up,” she said, “it’s going to go on record that no one was concerned or wanted clarification, or opposed certain parts of the reports. You have to speak up.”
“I may upset them,” she said, “but they understand the passion of Rachael Ortiz.”