Greater Logan Heights is searching for a voice. It is something that has long eluded the mostly Latino community east of downtown.

The absence of a united community voice — or some semblance of one — has come into sharp relief as plans arise that could make Logan Heights the next of the city’s redevelopment zones. The plans would pass control of development decisions there to the Southeastern Economic Development Corp., a city of San Diego redevelopment organization with a checkered past.

As SEDC moves forward with plans to capture a share of taxes generated in Logan Heights that it will use to promote development there and elsewhere in southeastern San Diego, the agency will have to seek community input. But how it will do that is an open question in a community that has historically struggled to unite residents and nonprofit organizations that work there.

Greater Logan Heights residents fear that the absence of local organization, combined with outreach efforts by an agency that admits it has little experience in engaging in them, could be a dangerous mix: How will SEDC know what the community wants if it has trouble identifying what the community is? And if the agency does not know what Logan Heights wants, how can it promote development that respects local visions for the community’s growth?

The conundrum is indicative of a problem that has long-plagued Greater Logan Heights, made up of five distinct neighborhoods with diverse interests but few active community groups that draw broad representation.

“There never has been a lot of community involvement here,” said Katherine Lopez, a lifelong Logan Heights resident and founder of the Memorial Town Council in the Memorial neighborhood.

That lack, Lopez said, has contributed to a public perception of Logan Heights residents as uninterested in their community, and enabled decisions to be made without resident support. She points to the recently opened Logan Heights Library, now a shining gem in the neighborhood. It occupies land that used to be playground area for adjacent Logan Elementary School.

For years before it was announced, active residents had sought to have the library built on an available lot on 28th Street and National Avenue. The proposal to build it on school property drew opposition from parents concerned about further overcrowding at the school. But when residents first heard about it, plans had already been drawn up. The City Council approved it and construction went forward.

“It was frustrating. They wouldn’t have done that in lots of other neighborhoods,” Lopez said. “If there had been a community organization in place, we could have fought it, but there were no groups we could turn to.”

Neighborhood councils, planning groups, and nonprofit organizations have long struggled to find common ground in Greater Logan Heights.

The largely poor community, bound by Interstate 5 on the west and south, Interstate 94 on the north, and Interstate 15 on the east, encompasses five neighborhoods: Logan Heights, Sherman Heights, Grant Hill, Memorial, and Stockton.

Other low-income areas, like City Heights or southeastern San Diego’s Diamond neighborhoods, have attracted influxes of philanthropic investment to try to improve those communities, sparked in both cases by the arrival of large private foundations that made long-term commitments to redevelop there. Those organizations with deep pockets have attracted other nonprofits and philanthropies encouraged by the work already being done.

That influx of money in other communities has created a need for resident organizations that can guide how it is spent. And although those decisions are rarely easy and can often be divisive, they have created opportunities for otherwise disparate groups in those communities to collaborate, and in the process, become acquainted.

Logan Heights has never attracted much money, and so has been left without that kind of catalyst.

“Logan hasn’t been that kind of community where people come to completely invest in,” said Vicky Rodriguez, who works with the Local Initiatives Support Corp., a national nonprofit that since last year has tried to organize residents in Logan Heights. “You have a great community out there that has all these great ideas but makes do with what they have.”

It is among the reasons that SEDC, and many outside groups, often have difficulty grasping the pulse of the community.

“Without that coordinating force, you’ll find that different organizations don’t talk to each other,” said Nancy Lytle, who as SEDC’s vice president of projects is coordinating the agency’s outreach in Logan Heights.

When the agency began its efforts there, Lytle said, it first approached the Southeastern Planning Group, which advises the city’s Planning Department on development issues like land use, traffic, and zoning in the area. Planning group representatives told Lytle that there was no need for SEDC to approach the area’s individual neighborhood councils, because the group represented them, she said.

But Lytle soon found that one of the local community groups, the Logan Heights Neighborhood Council, wanted an independent relationship with the agency. Members didn’t want the planning group to speak on their behalf.

The Southeastern Planning Group includes several business owners in the Greater Logan Heights area. The neighborhood councils are resident-based, and have considered forming a parallel, alternative planning group that represents resident interests.

Few efforts to envelop the wide array of community groups — like the neighborhood councils, community centers, and planning groups — have had sustained success.

In recent years, one umbrella group, Barrios Unidos Hoy Organizados, drew sizeable turnouts to its meetings.

If it did not always generate consensus among the community groups that attended, “it at least brought everyone together in the same room,” Lopez said.

The group was the most recent and successful effort to organize Logan Heights, but mostly dissolved after its chairman, David Alvarez, resigned his position to launch his campaign for City Council late last year.

Its member organizations have been searching for a way to regroup ever since.

Last year, the Local Initiatives Support Corp. convened residents and organizations to draft a “quality of life plan.” It included several long-term strategies that residents identified as important for improving safety, education, housing and employment opportunities in Logan Heights. Over several years, the organization, in partnership with MAAC Project, will work with local groups to fund small projects focusing on those areas.

The plan’s proponents say it is an important tool for convening residents and organizations to express their visions for their neighborhoods, especially with redevelopment on the horizon and markers of gentrification already emerging.

But even that effort has drawn skepticism. In the past, outside organizations have arrived promising change, said Ben Rivera, an active Logan Heights resident. Most have left after a few years.

Residents groups often have a hard time turning offers for help away, though, since there are so few in Logan Heights. They remain cautious of how outside funders and agencies, like the Local Initiatives Support Corp., MAAC Project, and SEDC, influence the community’s decision-making process.

“We want to be independent and work on our own, because we want to maintain our credibility in the community,” Lopez said. “On the other hand, these guys are here and have the money and experience. These are questions we struggle with all the time.”

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.

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