A little-used, city-owned parking lot in Barrio Logan has kicked up a lot of fuss.

For more than a year, Family Health Centers of San Diego, which has provided medical care to low-income or uninsured patients since the 1970s, has pleaded with the city to sell the land.

Important voices, like Councilman David Alvarez and the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, have made the same plea – or that the land at least be made available for someone to propose a better use for it. But until this week, the calls have fallen on deaf, bureaucratic ears.

For Family Health Centers, the situation is simple: There’s more demand for mental health care in San Diego than there are resources. It can provide those resources, but it needs to expand.

Demand for health care treatment is especially acute in Barrio Logan, where there are a disproportionately high number of patients diagnosed with mental health needs, according to a community needs assessment commissioned by the Hospital Association of San Diego and Imperial Counties.

Family Health Centers says a new facility would add 10 therapists, two psychiatrists and open the door for new clients.

San Diego would make money by selling its land to Family Health Centers, and save money it now spends when law enforcement reacts to mental health crises, the ACLU argued earlier this month in a letter to Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s office

Turns out, there’s a city-owned parking lot across the street from the counseling center that would work nicely. At the moment, the lot is barely used during the day.

Family Health Centers has a construction plan, and said the money for the expansion is attainable. Scripps Mercy Hospital is on board, and has promised to put money toward the project. Family Health Centers could apply for additional grants, and take money out of its general funds to pay for the cost of the land.

The city has a policy for this kind of situation. The mayor is supposed to consider how the land could be best used for the community’s benefit, and make it available for other opportunities.

Yet Alvarez, the representative for the area, says he’s sent memos to the last three mayors, imploring them to issue a public request for private parties to propose better uses of the property. And over a year later, nothing’s happened.

So if the demand is high, Family Health Centers has a viable plan to expand and the money for them to do it is within reach, why has the city dragged its feet for so long?

Last week, after Family Health Centers sent an email asking just what was taking so long, a Faulconer staffer responded that the city expected to issue a request for proposals shortly.

Minutes later, Faulconer’s deputy chief of staff jumped in, sending another email saying to ignore the previous message and that the city was still trying to decide how to proceed. Then, a week after Voice San Diego inquired, the mayor’s office spokesman said it expects to make something happen soon.

“The city is planning to release a (request for proposal) for this property in the next few weeks,” Craig Gustafson said.

But the mayor’s office didn’t explain why the situation had taken so long to move forward.

Gustafson, however, did email this response: “The Faulconer administration is taking action and moving forward with this RFP within the first six months of taking office – something that hasn’t been done over the course of several years and three previous mayoral administrations.  We are doing exactly what interested parties have requested in a timely and responsible manner.”

Right now, the lot is effectively controlled by Rachael Ortiz, a longtime political activist and informal power broker in Barrio Logan.

Since the late ’80s, Ortiz has used the space for parking when Barrio Station, the nonprofit organization she heads and which neighbors the lot, holds community events. And she’s said she’s not going to give up the land – not even a little bit.

She was pretty upfront about that in the 39-page packet she sent to Bob Filner in 2013, in which she outlined the reasons why she should keep control of the lot: “We need our parking lot and will NOT give it to (Family Health Centers) not even partially,” she wrote. For 39 pages.

Yet there’s been one small, inconvenient fact for Ortiz. It’s not her parking lot. The city owns it, so legally she really has no say over what the city does with the land.

Back in 1987, the city allocated $360,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds to purchase the property and build the lot. It was meant to provide parking for those headed to Barrio Station or its nearby pool, which was leased to the nonprofit a few years prior.

In what Ortiz says was a bureaucratic oversight, the city never included the parking lot in her lease.

Basically: Ortiz has controlled a piece of property that Family Health Centers says she barely uses, isn’t paying for and has no legal right to.

‘We’re Not a Community of Mentally Ill’

Ortiz is a political scrapper, entrenched in her ideals, who’s fought for decades to protect Barrio Logan from the threat of gentrification and encroachment of downtown interests.

Clearly, she sees the battle over the parking lot through this lens. To Ortiz, it doesn’t matter that Family Health Centers grew from community activism, or that it now serves poor and uninsured patients in the neighborhood.

Ortiz opposes the expansion for reasons familiar to any local land-use dispute. She says it’ll cause traffic, and bring undesirables to the neighborhood, like homeless, severely mentally ill and those recently released from incarceration.

“I know the community has done a lousy job serving people with mental health needs, but you can’t serve all of them in Barrio Logan,” she said.

And, she says the facility is more of a resource for the region than it is for Barrio Logan.

“You insist on serving the community, but we’re not a community of mentally ill. So this isn’t for our community,” Ortiz said.

Ben Avey, Family Health Centers spokesman, flatly rejected her argument.

“Yes, it affects some people who are homeless, and yes it affects people who are returning to their community after being incarcerated, but we are the support they need to rebuild their lives and not fall back into peril. We are the answer, not the problem,” Avey said.

“It is a local community issue, and frankly, it’s heartbreaking to hear someone use fear-monger tactics like this to prevent us from caring for a community we have served for more than 40 years,” he said.

Ortiz vs. Alvarez

There’s one more thing fueling Ortiz. She doesn’t like Alvarez.

Even though Alvarez isn’t advocating that the land should go specifically to Family Health Centers – he only says the city should determine how the land could be best used – Ortiz sees his involvement as personal retribution for her not supporting him in past elections.

Ortiz and Alvarez have a long history. She’s known Alvarez since he was a child – she hired his father as a janitor at Barrio Station – but threw her support behind his opponent leading up to his election to City Council in 2010. In last year’s mayoral race, she endorsed Nathan Fletcher.

She also opposed the compromise he engineered to pass a new community plan for the area last year, calling his negotiation a dictatorial move that ignored the community.

She sees Alvarez as a sellout, too willing to give away land that belongs to the Barrio Logan community.

Lisa Schmidt, who is Alvarez’s spokesperson but said she wasn’t speaking on his behalf, said Ortiz’s political connectedness might have something to do with why the parking lot issue has moved so slowly. Crossing Ortiz could mean losing an ally in Barrio Logan.

“I just don’t think anyone wants to deal with the aftermath of what she will do,” Schmidt said.

Changes in Barrio Logan have for years been determined by a web of alliances, a kind of informal power structure, Schmidt said. And Ortiz sat at the top. But all that’s beginning to change.

“The community is growing, and it’s passing her by. The days when you had to go to Rachael to get approval for anything are over. And I think that’s hard for her to grasp,” Schmidt said.

Correction: Faulconer’s deputy chief of staff sent a letter to Family Health Centers last week saying the city was still determining how to proceed with the parking lot. A previous version of this story misidentified his title.

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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