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An Encanto community group did a lot to make its modest plan to revitalize a neglected neighborhood space happen.
It got Home Depot to donate materials for four wooden planter boxes and two benches to turn the small island at the corner of Euclid and Imperial, a notorious intersection with a history of violence, into a welcoming pedestrian plaza. It threw a block party at the plaza to bring people together to celebrate the new features. Local breakdancing groups and singers performed on an access road that was shut down for the day. Venders sold rum cakes and soul food, kids drew pictures that were hung up in a temporary art gallery in a vacant store front and local artists painted utility boxes in front of a live audience.
What the group, called the Urban Collaborative Project, didn’t do was get a permit.
Since the island is city-owned, that was a problem. It got a special event permit, but not one that would let them make permanent changes to the plaza.
A night before the big celebration, Barry Pollard, the group’s director, got a letter from the city’s code enforcement division. The group needed a permit to make permanent changes on the city’s right-of-way. That would also give the city a record of who was responsible for ongoing maintenance.
Since it hadn’t done that, the group needed to remove everything it had built, or enforcement actions would follow, the letter said.
Fittingly, that happened the same week that a city audit showed code enforcement fails to prioritize major infractions affecting the health and safety of residents over trivial violations.
The group acknowledges it built the benches and planter boxes without permits, but says it reached out to the city months ago to figure out how to get the project done right. They were hoping to get a hand from Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s office, to walk the group through the byzantine world of city permitting.
“That’s not what we experienced,” said Keryna Johnson, a volunteer with the group, at a recent community planning group meeting where tensions between the group and the mayor’s office boiled over.
The group reached out in August, asking what it needed to do to build the benches, tree planters and to repainting the crosswalk with music notes to further beautify the area. A staffer from Faulconer’s office, Darnisha Hunter, forwarded the request to city staff.
That’s when the group got caught in the city’s bureaucratic quagmire.
A staffer in traffic engineering said he could look into the benches. The crosswalk proposal would need to go to another section, for which he provided contact information. A different staffer in traffic engineering said the proposal should go to Development Services for further review. A third staffer in traffic engineering responded with crosswalk signaling guidelines from the federal government and suggested they drop that idea entirely.
A representative for Councilwoman Myrtle Cole convened a meeting with the neighborhood group, the mayor’s representative, a representative for Civic San Diego and a representative for the area business improvement district.
At the meeting, the group determined it’d need to get a permit to do the work on the city’s island. Pollard submitted the permit request on Oct. 8 to Linda Marabian, the city’s deputy director for engineering, and included representatives for Cole’s office on the email.
Marabian said the permit application needed to go through Development Services, not the traffic division. But she suggested they work through Civic San Diego, a nonprofit agency that handles permitting in certain areas of the city, to make the process easier. A Cole staffer forwarded the request to Development Services.
The hope was Pollard’s group could install the improvements and commit to temporarily taking care of them. Then Civic San Diego could work on getting a permanent fix.
But that’s the last they heard from anyone about their permit, Pollard said.
“I agree it takes too long to get things done in the city,” Hunter said at a recent community meeting. “Your mayor agrees it takes too long to get things done in the city. But we can’t do it overnight to make it the way you want to get it done faster.”
Pollard says he likes Faulconer and has had positive experiences with his staff, but he’s exhausted by what’s required to make simple improvements to his neighborhood.
“This isn’t ‘neighborhoods first,’ this isn’t ‘One San Diego,’ unless those things mean ‘One San Diego and neighborhoods first for everything except southeast San Diego,’” Pollard said, referring to the mayor’s One San Diego initiative that’s intended to improve basic infrastructure and services in neighborhoods across the city.
“You have to go through the city’s process, just like everybody else in this room, in this community,” Hunter told the group at the Encanto planning group meeting. “When you don’t, you open up the door for anarchy, and we cannot have that.”
Johnson was quick to point out that the group reached out three months earlier to see what it needed to do.
“We showed you the state of that corner, and for those of you who have lived in the neighborhood know it’s been that way for a very long time,” she said. “We agree there should be an easier city process, and the city should work with the community to help those things happen. But unfortunately that’s not the case. And I think this is showing you there is work to be done to improve that, so other community groups can do the same thing down the road, and it shouldn’t be so difficult.”
According to city permitting data, the right-of-way permit that code enforcement says Urban Collaborative needed takes an average of 88 days to be issued.
The median time to issue the permit, however, is shorter. A lot shorter. In fact, the city routinely issues those permits the same day a request comes in. The typical permit for doing work in the right-of-way ends up costing $586 in fees for project review.
It’s possible that could still be how this plays out.
As of Tuesday, Pollard was getting ready to remove the benches and planter boxes when he got a call from Felipe Monroig, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff.
Hold off on removing everything, Monroig said.
“I just said I was calling (Development Services) to see if there’s something to be done,” Monroig said. “But whatever it is, it has to be based on following the rules.”
He said he doesn’t yet know if city staff can figure out how to retroactively make the plaza legal. He’s waiting to hear back from Development Services.
Luckily, it wouldn’t be at all uncommon if the city could cut a permit right away.
Update: Late Friday afternoon, Pollard received an email from Monroig reiterating that the benches and planter boxes needed to be removed.
“Unfortunately, I don’t see a way you can keep the structures which you previously placed without approvals,” Monroig wrote. “I recommend you correct the violations as outlined in the letter from (Development Services) by their stated day of Nov. 20, 2015.”
Pollard said the group plans to submit suggestions to improve the process so it’ll be easier for other communities to comply with the city’s regulations, and so they can be applied equally to all communities.
“Too bad, the community’s loss,” Pollard wrote in an email. “So the area will remain the same on the corner. No support from the mayor’s office. Very disappointing.”