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(Editor’s Note: Adrian Florido and Sam Hodgson are getting to know a different San Diego neighborhood daily.)
The recent drama that has played out at an otherwise nondescript intersection in Linda Vista just up the street from the University of San Diego has been anything but pretty.
On one corner is the Bayside Community Center, which Thursday morning was humming with a flurry of activity as senior citizens, immigrants and young people with developmental disabilities streamed in for lunch. While she ate, Teresa Thompson, 76, was strumming “Your Cheating Heart” on the ukulele, which she’s learning to play at an afternoon class at the center.
Across the street is Skateworld, the last remaining roller rink in San Diego. It occupies a World War II-era strip mall owned by the city’s Redevelopment Agency, and until last week it appeared ready to get its first renovation, including space for the community center to expand its services.
But on May 26, the developer pulled out.
“Our project was derided by the voices lead by a small group of closed-minded, self-serving individuals who were able to sow viral, unjustified seeds of discontent and misinformation about our plans,” Michael Weber, the developer, wrote in a letter to the city.
Sitting in his office Thursday morning, Jorge Riquelme, the community center’s director, lamented “a missed opportunity” to build a gathering place and technology center for residents of the surrounding neighborhood, which has experienced a dramatic influx of low-income immigrants and refugees in the seven decades since Linda Vista was developed to become the center of San Diego’s wartime aeronautical industry.
Riquelme had been working with developers for more than a year to come up with a plan that would have renovated the aging shopping center while fulfilling the city’s requirements that publicly funded redevelopment projects benefit the public. In the final plan, parts of the renovated roller rink would have doubled as public community hall. The rent that the rink’s owners paid to the developer would have funded operations of the nonprofit center, whose services the city considers a public benefit but which have been squeezed by budget pressures.
But the project encountered fierce resistance from roller rink supporters. They initially feared the rink would be closed but continued opposing the project even after it was announced that it would remain open. I couldn’t immediately reach Shannon Albinio, a leader of the Friends of Skateworld, a group that opposed the proposed plans for the roller rink.
But comments by supporters on the group’s Facebook page ranged from demands that the roller rink’s owner be given a long-term lease to concerns that the developer had “no interest in keeping Skateworld the way we want it.”
One supporter said there that redevelopment was “doing an injustice to the people who frequent Skateworld.”
At heated public forums in recent months, the issue pitted longtime Linda Vistans and skating lovers from across the county against Riquelme’s community center and many of Linda Vista’s newer lower income residents who use it.
In the early 1940s, large parts of Linda Vista were built to house wartime aerospace workers. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt dedicated the shopping center where Skateworld now stands. As the aerospace industry declined over the decades, the community changed, and many of the tract apartment buildings were occupied by refugees and immigrants, many undocumented. The community center, which was established in Little Italy 80 years ago, moved to Linda Vista 30 years ago to serve that population.
In October, Riquelme said, a hateful message was left on the community center’s front doors calling its leaders “opportunist dogs.” It never became clear who left the message, and the rink’s public supporters condemned it.
Riquelme believes the opposition that helped scuttle the project, led by a large group of rink supporters, many from outside of Linda Vista, came at the expense of satisfying the social service needs of residents who actually live nearby.
“The message became: save Skateworld at any cost,” Riquelme said.
But in a February message to supporters posted on its website, Friends of Skateworld said the issue affected more than just Linda Vistans.
“Whether you live in Linda Vista, or not, if you are part of the skating community, or a supporter of someone who is – then you need to let them know what you think!” the message read. “These agencies are making decisions that will effect (sic) us all – not just those who live in Linda Vista.”
Gary Stang, Skateworld’s owner, was not at the rink when I called Thursday.
Riquelme thought the final plans had been taking shape nicely and believed they should have satisfied the needs of the community center, the developer and rink supporters. So he was shocked to hear of the developer’s decision last week.
In announcing his decision to withdraw from the project, Weber primarily cited the organized opposition, but also said the “depressed economy” had frustrated his efforts.
Riquelme said the financially strapped nonprofit had made “a tremendous investment” in planning the project because of the benefits it had expected to enjoy.
“This is a community that is trying to pull itself together, and that is trying to bridge ethnic groups and generations that now live here,” he said. “And the saddest thing to me is that this was a missed opportunity to do that.”
I’m reporting from Linda Vista today as I explore a different San Diego neighborhood each day this week. Have a story idea for me? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at 619.325.0528 and follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.