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Some of Lisa Montes’ favorite things about her Solana Beach neighborhood – the smell of Mexican food whenever she walks down the street, the mariachi she listens to when she’s relaxing after a long day at work – have been distinctive to La Colonia de Eden Gardens since Montes was a little girl growing up there in the 1960s.
Indeed, La Colonia has preserved its distinct character since it was founded in the 1920s by Mexican farmworkers who worked on nearby ranches in today’s Solana Beach. Now, things are changing.
The neighborhood was settled back then by 30 families – the product of segregation at the time – and until roughly a decade ago, the majority of its residents were descendants of those same families.
Despite having lower property values, and higher zoning, than neighborhoods in the western part of Solana Beach, the community had been insulated from development pressures common to coastal areas. For years, the community dealt with gang-related activity and crime – something it battled on its own through youth programs and other initiatives.
Now the neighborhood is facing a quintessential Solana Beach problem.
Lesa Heebner, a city councilwoman, said developers have turned their attention to the area, and want to build homes more densely than the community is comfortable with.
“The community has come to not want density,” Heebner said. “It wasn’t an issue before because no one was developing it. Now we see people purchasing lots and putting three- to four-story buildings.”
But unlike other coastal communities, La Colonia de Eden Gardens is already zoned to allow the density that the community isn’t comfortable with. Developers, then, can propose modestly dense projects without asking for changes to local zoning.
Since there was little development interest in La Colonia in the 1980s when the city of Solana Beach was incorporated and other neighborhoods downzoned property, Eden Gardens never changed.
The new attention is leading many longtime residents to leave the community where their families have lived for nearly a century.
Developer interest is increasing property values and many of the descendants of the original families are selling their property in Solana Beach and moving inland to San Marcos or Temecula, where their money can go further, said Montes, a lifelong La Colonia resident and descendent of two of the founding families.
“There is pressure for people who have lived there for a while because they would love to receive high prices for their homes,” Heebner said. “But many community members don’t like what’s being built. It’s modern and not hacienda style.”
La Colonia is a special place in Solana Beach, Montes said. It’s home to legendary Mexican restaurants like Tony Jacal’s and Fidel’s, where celebrities like Lucille Ball used to eat before heading to the Del Mar racetracks, she said. It has an active community center with a painting featuring the names of each of the founding families. In the fall, the neighborhood hosted a massive Dia de los Muertos celebration, bringing in hundreds of people from the rest of Solana Beach and neighboring coastal communities.
“There are so many good memories here,” Montes said. “But people don’t know that. The sad thing is we don’t know these new people at all. We have to work harder to get them involved in the community.”
When Montes walks down the street, she points frequently to neighboring homes, whose residents mostly seem to be related to her or married into her family. And she knows most of the people walking past as she walks through the neighborhood, greeting them in both Spanish and English.
But every so often she’d point to a newer home.
“Look at these big mansions,” Montes said.
Tracy Weiss and her husband were some of the first outsiders to invest in La Colonia. They purchased property more than 10 years ago.
Since they were so early in, Weiss said, they faced little to no opposition, but she doesn’t think the office building they have fits in with the community character.
“They keep talking about keeping the atmosphere of Eden Gardens,” Weiss said. “There’s a lot of really old houses there. Some people think our project is too modern and they hate us. But us, as builders, hired a first-rate architect to do the building. We like our building.”
Montes said the most important thing Weiss has done is get involved with the community. Weiss is involved with the La Colonia de Eden Gardens Foundation, an organization founded by Montes and other residents to combat the gang violence and crime that once plagued the community.
“The community is definitely changing,” Weiss said. “It’s a great community. And it’s cheaper than west Solana Beach, so there’s a lot of interest.”
There isn’t much chance of relief. The city can’t downzone the area now because the state’s Housing and Community Development agency would come down on it for not providing areas of high-density zoning to accommodate the construction of affordable housing.
Joshua Lichtman has been trying to develop a couple of properties in the area more recently.
“The neighborhood allowed for more density,” said Lichtman. “When you’re in Eden Gardens, you’re in one of the most walkable and bike-able communities in a coastal city. And then the history – what is really amazing about Eden Gardens is the history. It’s just this beautiful pocket of land.”
Lichtman’s first property in Eden Gardens was a learning experience. The parcel of land was on Valley Avenue, the heart of the community.
He brought forth a plan to the City Council that included four housing units and one space for retail or office. Lichtman said he had gone door to door asking for feedback and input.
The property was zoned for five residential units and more square footage than what he was proposing.
So he was surprised, he said, when he got to a City Council hearing and found that many others in the community were against his project.
Lichtman ended up getting a smaller project approved; three homes and one space for retail or office. He also moved the building back farther from the street. It just took more time and money than he had hoped and he ended up selling the approved project to a builder.
With his second property, Lichtman said he was more proactive about reaching out to the neighbors and had a better idea of what kind of buildings the community wanted.
“The zoning says you can do this, but the reality is what’s around in the community,” Lichtman said. “We went through the process the second time and learned that the community wanted more input.”