Civic San Diego says it can help improve quality of life in Encanto.

It’s got a plan to do so that it’s been pushing for almost a year, but it still needs decision makers to sign off.

But lost in the conversation around the former redevelopment agency’s proposal to create “transit villages” in low-income areas is a more basic question: What problem is Civic San Diego trying to solve?

The Encanto neighborhoods are old, and residents there have disproportionately low incomes compared to the rest of the county.

SANDAG estimates the planning area — which includes Chollas View, Lincoln Park, Emerald Hills, Valencia Park, Encanto, South Encanto, Broadway Heights and Alta Vista — had a median income of $46,678 in 2010. The median income countywide is $75,900.

That means private developers don’t have incentive (read: profit) to build projects in the area. Without those projects, the community lacks the grocery stores, independent retailers and restaurants that come with them.

It’s a long-standing concern throughout Council District 4, which includes Encanto. A 2006-study found less than half of resident spending on groceries, restaurants and clothing stays in the district.

Ken Malbrough, chair of the Encanto community planning group, which is in the process of updating its community plan, said he’d like to see the development of a village concept.

“It’s real simple for me: If I have six things that I have to do, it would be very nice to drive somewhere and get at least four of those things done,” he said. “I’d love to do all six, but I’ll take four for now. Many citizens in this area realize that they do have to drive and park everywhere they go, and it’s usually outside the community.”

Conversations around increasing density cause concerns, he said, though there is some openness to doing so in the right areas, such as around the trolley stop.

The Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation has been trying for years to address some of these concerns. It built Market Creek Plaza in 2001, though many businesses there have turned over in the years since. The nonprofit also purchased nearly 60 acres surrounding the property, envisioning some $500 million in development, including housing, restaurants and major retailers.

That land, and the Jacobs Foundation in general, figure heavily into Civic San Diego’s proposal, and its ultimate success or failure.

That Encanto residents must spend their money outside the neighborhood isn’t the only effect of a lack of private development. New projects bring development fees that can be used to pay for needed infrastructure. And like most older communities, Encanto’s infrastructure could use some attention.

Development impact fees only pay for a portion of needed infrastructure, so even with a surge of new projects, Encanto’s street, sidewalk, storm drain, and street light needs would still require more money from the city.

“Engagement with city leaders is an important factor,” Malbrough said. “The squeakiest wheel gets the grease.”

Encanto hasn’t been squeaky enough, but it is getting a lot of citywide attention now that it’s part of Civic San Diego’s proposal.

So, is the proposal a good way to address some of these needs?

The City Council is likely to decide in early 2014.

Civic San Diego CEO Jeff Graham declined to comment while his organization is negotiating with the city labor union over the issue; those negotiations are required before the City Council can make any decision.

The idea would have Civic San Diego institute one big environmental review for new projects around Market Creek Plaza, instead of a review for each project. That would lower costs for developers.

The proposal would also rewrite zoning regulations in the area to allow for bigger, more profitable projects. And Civic San Diego would try to subsidize projects through a public-private fund filled by state and federal grant money and investments from financial institutions.

But there’s also a degree of distrust around Civic San Diego – a group that’s mostly worked downtown – can really improve Encanto residents’ lives, or attract new residents.

“When you live in an area that really has not been not paid much attention, I believe, there’s always going to be distrust when any organization says it is going to come in and help your area out,” Malbrough said.

Given the situation, he said it’s time to engage Civic San Diego, and hear what it has to say.

“I’m at the point where, I need to have dialog, and see what they can do, and then maintain that dialog and hold them accountable,” he said. “I can’t just say, ‘OK, go do it,’ and then walk back to my house. I need to engage them, and we have to stand right by them and help where we can and provide our expertise from the community level.”

Joe LaCava, chair of the Community Planners Committee, an umbrella group for all the community planning groups in the city, has been critical of Civic San Diego’s proposal.

“They seem to have done a great job downtown, but the model used to make that work may not be transferrable in other neighborhoods,” he said. “You might have a community like Encanto, where people are hungry for some change, they realize there hasn’t been much investment in their community, they can’t shop in their community, so they want some change. The relevant question is how much.”

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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