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Felix Ramos stood up. It was a rainy evening and his hair was still damp, but the ship cleaner with broad shoulders was afraid. He had worked on the San Diego waterfront for 33 years, and he had something to say.
“Most of us are thinking we’re going to lose our jobs,” he told the crowded room. He was surrounded by men sitting in folding chairs, many straight from the shipyards and still in their sturdy industrial uniforms. “We’re just afraid of misinformation. That’s why we came over.”
Talk had been circulating that a city plan to rezone most of Barrio Logan was going to put their jobs at risk. So on Wednesday evening they came to a chic exhibition studio just a block from San Diego Bay, where city planners were hosting a meeting about the effort.
The planners tried to reassure them. The neighborhood’s rezoning plan, three years in the making, will attempt to separate homes from industrial businesses by changing the rules for where each can be built in the future, keeping homes in the heart of the neighborhood and moving industry to the edges.
Existing businesses in Barrio Logan, a long, narrow neighborhood bounded by Interstate 5 on the east and the port on the west, wouldn’t be forced to close. They would be grandfathered in, and could even expand their floor space by up to 20 percent.
Residents and environmentalists have seen it as their chance to begin ridding the neighborhood of recyclers and ship repair yards operating next to family homes. Business owners agree the jumbled mix isn’t ideal, but are fighting the effort because it would also reduce the total amount of industrial land there. And they argue that would hurt their ability to hire more workers like Ramos in the future.
The plan is a test for the city’s planning department and Mayor Jerry Sanders. More than three years ago, they trumpeted the creation of a committee of residents, land and business owners to advise city planners about Barrio Logan’s future.
With that group’s help, planners narrowed the options for rezoning the neighborhood down to two. One would allow more industrial businesses to serve the port, the other would allow more neighborhood shops to serve residents. In November, the advisory group voted for what residents and environmentalists wanted: More shops, less industry.
The vote was nonbinding, but it gave committee members their first chance to formally register their wishes after giving city planners input for more than two years.
But now, after industry representatives, who are a minority on the committee, lobbied Sanders, planners have released a third option the advisors had no role in developing. Meant as a compromise, it would allow some neighborhood shops but also more room for maritime industry, which residents and environmental groups hadn’t wanted.
The planning department will recommend one plan to the City Council for adoption, a choice that will shed light on how much industry lobbyists were able to influence the outcome. It could set a precedent for similar exercises in other neighborhoods. Barrio Logan is the first neighborhood to update its land use plan since the city adopted a new general plan in 2008.
Lara Gates, the city planner in charge of the rezoning plan, said the purpose of Wednesday’s meeting was to gauge the committee’s support for the compromise plan.
“This is what we would like to propose to see if it would get any substantial support,” she told the committee. But the committee was not allowed to vote to indicate its support.
Residents and environmentalists weren’t happy. They said the third option shouldn’t have been devised without their input. Norene Riveroll, a resident, said she was dumbfounded that the plan was sprung on the committee at the last minute.
“I feel like we’re circumventing the system,” she said.
Industry representatives haven’t openly supported the plan either. They still want more room for maritime businesses. Lee Wilson, who owns a company that repairs Navy ships, said the need for industry in Barrio Logan could not be ignored.
“Maritime is unique,” he said. “We can’t move the jobs to Lakeside or El Centro. These maritime jobs are here because they have to be close to the shipyards.”
Councilman David Alvarez, who represents Barrio Logan, said he wouldn’t decide between the proposals until they’d been fully studied. But he grew up next to a metal plating company in the neighborhood, and has long been an advocate for moving industry to the community’s farthest periphery. The compromise plan would allow maritime businesses closer to the center of the neighborhood than residents on the committee have wanted.
Planners will recommend one of the plans to the City Council next summer, but it will ultimately be up to the council to decide which one to adopt, and Alvarez’s wishes will carry significant weight with other members.
“You have gone through a process. I am not going to allow anything outside to derail that process,” he told the group on Wednesday. “The least we can do as elected officials is be responsive to the community that has invested so much time in this process.”
Adrian Florido is a reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego’s neighborhoods. What should he write about next?
Contact him directly at email@example.com or at 619.325.0528.
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