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One day last week, Jay Powell drove his turquoise Mini Cooper down a residential street in City Heights and stopped in front of a faded two-story apartment building. Its units faced away from the street, so the only things visible were windows protected by bars and sun-bleached letters identifying these as La Camilla Apartments.
“Look at it! It’s still a piece of crap!” Powell said, meaning he thought it always had been. Weeds flourished from cracks in the parking lot and old furniture was piled just beyond the security gate. “Even if there’s somebody living there, that building has been abandoned by the owners.”
Few things rile Powell up more than unplanned growth, and La Camilla Apartments exemplify it. So does much of the surrounding neighborhood, full of buildings just like it. For two decades, Powell, the 65-year-old director of the nonprofit City Heights Community Development Corp., has been trying to reverse what befell the area from the 1960s through the 1980s, when families left for newer subdivisions north of Interstate 8 and developers replaced their homes with high-density cookie-cutter complexes like these.
Powell is a bookish-looking professorial man who speaks about City Heights in extended monologues. They’re punctuated by tangents that reach back into history but remarkably, always come full circle. He’s led the CDC since 1992. From that post he’s coordinated the community’s patchwork revitalization by buying and renovating dilapidated apartment buildings and negotiating the construction of new parks and schools. He’s advocated for transportation and sidewalk improvements, things that were barely an afterthought during developers’ rush to squeeze more people into City Heights.
Now he’s retiring as City Heights confronts not only its ongoing infrastructure deficiencies but also at a time when philanthropic investment there is surging. The neighborhood has become a laboratory for community development initiatives trying to address the social problems that have plagued it since the construction boom flooded it with high density housing. Nonprofits have streamed in to focus on health and education and serve low-income refugees and immigrants who live in the community.
But tensions have also risen between the nonprofit’s bricks and mortar focus and the work of so many other groups’ initiatives aiming to improve City Heights in other ways. The CDC is moving to redefine its mission, and Powell is stepping aside. That it has to do so, however, is testament to the progress Powell’s group has made in transforming City Heights from a developer’s free-for-all teeming with density to a place on the forefront of inner-city revitalization.
“City Heights has been through a disaster,” Powell says. “But it’s been this attenuated, long-term disaster. It’s not like, bam! The tsunami came through. Or, boom! The earthquake came through and knocked stuff out. It’s the cumulative impact of allowing this rampant, unbridled and inappropriate densification. The cumulative impact of that was disastrous to the welfare of the community, and to the quality of life here.”
By the late 1970s, a cadre of longtime Mid-City residents decided it was time to intervene and to give City Heights a voice at City Hall. Their grassroots efforts evolved into the organization Powell leads, the first community-oriented nonprofit in City Heights, which today has almost too many nonprofits to count. Powell, who had worked for the Sierra Club, got involved in the mid-1980s to squeeze concessions out of Caltrans when the agency announced plans to build Interstate 15 through City Heights and demolish a huge swath of houses and businesses to do it.
He succeeded: The agency agreed to build parks nearby and stations for a future bus line along the interstate. The parks were built. The bus line still has not been, and Powell has been pushing for it ever since.
But the CDC’s founders were so impressed by Powell’s negotiating abilities that they hired him to become its director in 1992. In a community where turnover among nonprofit leaders is frequent and swift, Powell’s tenure stands out just by virtue of its length: 20 years.
When Powell first got involved, getting a handle on the unregulated growth seemed most pressing. The nonprofit started buying up old apartment buildings and renovating them. It helped establish the community’s planning group to stop the razing of single-family homes for apartments. It established a business improvement group to bring businesses back to University Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard, the community’s main thoroughfares. It pushed for the creation of a redevelopment area to fund improvements.
“When that happened, all of a sudden you had all these organizations coming in to work on the same issues the CDC was established to do,” said Jim Bliesner, one of the organization’s founders. In the mid-1990s, retail giant Sol Price’s charity moved into City Heights and in the years since has spent millions of dollars on building improvements and an education initiative. Two years ago, the California Endowment launched a ten-year project to organize residents and smaller nonprofits to improve community health.
Competition for grant funding has grown fierce. The CDC, which has long worked to improve City Heights’ housing and its physical infrastructure, is reconsidering its focus as funding streams have increasingly favored those that focus on social problems like education and community health.
For all the challenges so many new groups have posed for the CDC, Powell said the investments that have arrived in City Heights are fundamentally positive. The philanthropic attention has focused a lot of minds on the difficult task of improving quality of life in a community that is home to longtime San Diegans as well as immigrants and refugees.
But he also worries, hinting at the tensions between the CDC’s traditional approach to community improvement and the new approach of groups like the California Endowment, which have emphasized building leadership skills among residents as a strategy for improving community health.
Safe apartment buildings and street improvements — the CDC’s focus — are easy to see. Leadership, while important, is harder to measure.
Physical improvements, Powell says, will help City Heights move beyond what it is today: largely a community whose neighborhoods lack a sense of identity. The patchwork of dense apartment buildings mixed in with single-family homes doesn’t help.
The projects the CDC has completed under Powell’s leadership have subtly worked toward the goal of community. The apartment complexes that the CDC purchased and renovated have included courtyards with play areas. The laundry rooms face the playgrounds in most, so parents can watch their children while they wash.
In the early 2000s, San Diego Unified School District was planning four new schools in City Heights, a long-needed development in a community where overcrowding had started claiming recreation fields to accommodate row after row of portable classrooms.
But when the proposed locations were released, Powell was horrified.
“Instead of putting the schools in the neighborhoods where kids lived, they had kids crossing dangerous intersections to get to them!” he said. Powell worked with school officials, convincing them to build the schools in parts of the neighborhood where children could walk to them more safely.
“People move through City Heights,” he says. “They don’t come here to stay. But our focus has always been on making it a place where people want to stay.” Safe streets, good schools, attractive homes and apartment buildings are the first things people notice.
Creating a neighborhood that people call their own, he says, would make the money spent on social initiatives more effective. Spending on leadership training might actually help the community because people will decide to stay and work to improve their neighborhoods instead of leaving, along with their newly acquired advocacy skills.
Powell recently scored a final victory toward his goal. For years, it had been unclear when Caltrans would live up to its promise to connect the neighborhood to the long-promised Interstate 15 bus route, the first concession he ever won for the community.
But just last month, after a years-long campaign — one that included Powell leading rallies on the overpasses where his career in City Heights got started — Caltrans announced that it would build a route residents wanted.
“These are the kinds of things that start to make City Heights a community” in the true sense of the word, not just on paper, Powell said.