Developers hoping to capitalize on prime land within Allied Gardens and Grantville seem unfazed by the lack of tax-increment financing once offered by the state’s redevelopment program.

They are poised to invest billions in the old Grantville Redevelopment Zone. Their investment in high-density apartment complexes will yield millions to their bottom line. But it comes at a price to the community, because hanging in the balance is the very character of our neighborhoods.

At issue is whether the first of these projects will establish a baseline for all future development in our community. Current proposals include transforming our community’s skyline with 85-foot high skyscrapers, increased density, more traffic and amendments to our community plans. Other questions include whether the San Diego River will be further degraded to second-class status as developers ponder mitigation of past mining operations along the river.

Multiple developers are looking to build more than 10,000 apartment units along the San Diego River corridor as they march from Interstate 8 to the industrial concrete mine, Superior Ready Mix, over the next decade.

Change is coming.

That’s not necessarily bad, but it demands that our community be provided with a real voice and allowed meaningful discussion and input to determine how our community will grow in the future.

The proposed $1 billion Shawnee Project at Riverbend, a 23-acre site located on the San Diego River parallel to Mission Gorge Road at Old Cliffs Road, needs thorough analysis because it has a significant impact on our community. This proposal could attract 2,000 new apartment residents, 7,000 new car trips per day, and 90 new school children.

The developer, Urban Housing Partners, wants to build 996 apartments, 27 row homes, and 37,000 square feet of commercial space on the site. This will require a myriad of variances and amendments to the city’s General Plan, the Navajo Community Plan and changes to the current San Diego River Park Master Plan.

Major issues include population-based park space requirements, current height limits in our neighborhood, population density and permanently altering the course of the San Diego River.

According to city guidelines, Urban Housing Partners is required to include five and a half acres of park space based on the site’s projection of new residents. The original plan would have short-changed our community by three acres of park space. In return, the developer would pay the city a $5.4 million for park mitigation. Neighbors surrounding the site balked. The community was concerned that park mitigation credits would never circle back and be re-invested in the community. The developer capitulated, reversed course and included all required park space.

It seemed to be a great start.

Discussions between our community and Urban Housing Partners have stalled over the proposed 85-foot skyscrapers and what to do about the development’s effect on the region’s environmental treasure — the San Diego River.

The developer maintains that, in order to be profitable, it needs an 85-foot height limit for its apartment buildings. The community cried foul. Currently, there is a 30-foot height limit for residential buildings in the region. In 2008, Archstone, the development next door to the site, was granted a 65-foot height variance by the City Council, over the objections of the community, to build a 444-unit apartment complex.

Our community is weary of taller and taller structures as development moves northeast along the San Diego River. If another variance is granted, it’s a safe bet that the next developer will claim they need a height limit higher than 85 feet to maintain profitability.

Many neighbors whose homes are perched on a hill within Allied Gardens and the Old Cliffs Mobile Home Park have a spectacular view of the San Diego River, its wildlife and Admiral Baker Golf Course. Any 85-foot structure on the site would forever change the community character by permanently walling off their views.

There is no ideal solution for our community, but we know from past experience that simply saying “no” usually does not work. The developer should not be granted an 85-foot height variance for the proposed development. It seems fair to start the discussion at the current 30-foot height limit as stated in the community plan.

Limiting any proposed height variance would make a significant dent in the projected population density. Even so, the community has serious concerns about the increased density because they are not convinced that the funding necessary to mitigate the negative impacts from the development will ever be available.

The last issue is a bit more complex.

As proposed, Shawnee at Riverbend would make significant changes to the floodplain of the San Diego River. The developer is quick to point out that it makes no change to the current flow of the stream bed. Maybe not, but the San Diego River is more than the current path of water. We all know that it changes according to season and year-by-year. Sometimes the river is 10 feet across and other times its currents are hundreds of feet wide.

For construction purposes, the developer is seeking approval to grade approximately 110,000 cubic feet of earth to elevate their development above of the flood zone. Given the property’s location in the floodplain, moving this much earth is sure to have many unintended consequences, including changes to river flow, velocity, temperature, inviting invasive non-native plants and potential flooding to surrounding areas that may not otherwise have flooded.

Compounding the issue — this portion of the San Diego River has already been negatively affected by past mining operations. Mining operators of the 1950s left an environmental mess and walked away. It needs repair and the developer is taking a pass, claiming the firm isn’t required to restore the river to its original habitat. They didn’t cause the problem and they’re not going to fix it.

As a gesture of good will, they say they’ll replant native vegetation but will ignore the environmental quagmire left in the wake of the mining operation. That’s either a Band-Aid or a drop in the bucket, you pick the analogy.

Community leaders and those who are engaged in cleaning up the San Diego River propose a better solution. They have asked the developer to contribute less than half a percent of the value of the developed land, only $5 million, to a San Diego River mitigation fund.

This could go a long way in helping to improve that portion of the river. Future developers choosing to develop along this portion of the river could be held to the same standard.

Asking future developers to assess themselves a small amount (half a percent) for a clean and safe river environment adds financial value for the developer and benefits the entire community.

It’s time for Urban Housing Partners to come back to the table where there is room for environmental responsibility, community character and profitability.

Anthony Wagner is vice chair of the Navajo Community Planners, vice president of the Allied Gardens Community Council, member of the San Diego River Park Foundation and a third generation resident of Allied Gardens/Grantville. He can be contacted at anthonyjohnwagner@gmail.com or on Twitter @AnthonyWagnerSD.


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