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San Diego officials will soon decide what the future looks like for a bleak stretch of Commercial Street in Logan Heights. Before they do, they’ll have to figure out what property owners in the area want.

City planners have recommended leaving the area near downtown as a home for industrial businesses, though they’ve made it possible for the City Council to instead elect to turn it into the sort of walkable, transit-oriented neighborhood that’s meant to be the template for future growth citywide.

But the possibility that the area will be left out of the city’s smart-growth push has some property owners in the area wondering what happened — and has spawned at least one conspiracy theory.

The city is set to release next week the results of an environmental study of the new development regulations in Sherman Heights, Logan Heights, Grant Hill, Shelltown and Memorial.

The primary subject of dispute is the stretch of Commercial Street between 28th and 32nd streets in Logan Heights.

It’s now home to long-term tenants who do heavy industrial activities like metal scrapping, sand blasting, car wrecking and recycling right next to nearby residences.

It’s also just two trolley stops east of downtown, but it hardly feels like it. If not for the trolley coming through every 10 minutes, you’d expect to see a tumbleweed bounce through the stretch of businesses.

Yet the new plan instead opts to keep those Commercial Street properties zoned for industrial use. That was a decision supported by the area’s community planning group, and many property and business owners.

Then another group of property owners spoke up, and said they’d prefer to see the area changed to the sort of mixed-use, walkable urban neighborhood that reflects its proximity to downtown and better serves residents.

Both options are included in the environmental report set to be released next week — which means the City Council will be able to make the final call when it votes around the beginning of next year.

Councilman David Alvarez, who represents the area, has said he thinks it should be rezoned for homes and resident-serving businesses, to make good on the city’s commitment to dense, walkable urban communities.

It’s important to remember that a zoning change on its own won’t change anything on Commercial Street, or anywhere else it happens. Today’s industrial businesses will have that use grandfathered into the new plan, and will have every right to keep operating that way well into the future. The new zoning would give them the chance to change to other uses, but it wouldn’t force them to do anything.

In the meantime, those who own businesses or property in the corridor are arguing over who has claim to the majority opinion.

Gene Myers, one of those property owners, says he’s tallied the opinions and found those who want to see Logan Heights become a place for homes and businesses to serve them represent the majority. His tally is based on total property value on the corridor.

Damon Stannard and Ralph Hughes have each done their own tallies that say most people in the area want to keep Commercial Street reserved for industrial businesses. The community planning group for the area has so far sided with them.

Both groups have sent their informal counts to the city, but city planner Lara Gates said she hasn’t spent much time parsing them.

City planners had discussed holding a hearing to discuss the two options. Gates said that plan was nixed in favor of simply following the established process: collecting public comments after the environmental report is released, and holding public hearings.

Last week, Myers sent a letter to the mayor and Council members advocating his position. Keeping low-employment, industrial properties so close to the trolley station, he said, would contradict the city’s reasoning for updating the plan in the first place – to make the area into a transit-focused urban village.

But Myers’ letter doesn’t just say he thinks the city’s getting it wrong. It says he’s starting to fear the city’s getting it wrong on purpose, to cut him and other property owners out of the financial gains that would come from changing how those properties can be developed.

Allowing those properties to accommodate homes or retail businesses would increase their value. Myers says he’s been buying property in the area for 30 years, and he deserves to benefit if those properties can suddenly be used for more profitable endeavors.

Here’s what he’s concerned is going to happen: The city won’t change Commercial Street into mixed-use zoning. That’ll keep the property values on the corridor low. Then the city will take advantage of those lower values by having Civic San Diego — a city-owned nonprofit dedicated to urban renewal — buy them up. And then, the city will change the zoning to make way for mixed-use development.

“We believe that this right (to benefit from increased property values) belongs to the property owners, and not to any governmental or quasi-governmental agency by reason of performing their duty on behalf of the public in implementing good ‘smart growth’ policies,” his letter reads.

Myers said he knows his concerns sound conspiratorial, but at this point he can’t see why else the city wouldn’t be pursuing the sort of urban neighborhood on Commercial Street that it has said it wants to build throughout the city.

“These people are too smart to be involved in a conspiracy to devalue our properties, I know that,” Myers said. “But we need affordable, transit-oriented housing, and our neighborhood is the right place to put it. And when I’ve been buying property and paying taxes on it for 30 years, frankly I’d like to be able to benefit from the property value increase.”

Andrew Keatts

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org...

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