Civic San Diego is one step closer to completing an important development project in southeastern San Diego, an area where it’s long tried to take on a larger role in driving urban renewal.
But some in the community aren’t pleased with the process that led the organization to choose the new project developer. The complaints are stirring up the same issues that have kept Civic San Diego from expanding its authority outside of downtown for years. Namely, many in the community just don’t trust the organization.
The project is coming to an eight and a half acre lot at the corner of Euclid Avenue and Hilltop Drive. The dirt lot has blighted the Encanto area for years, and is something of a gateway to the Market Creek Plaza area that city planners have targeted for development of new housing and job opportunities for the community.
Plenty of community members are happy something is happening, but not everyone’s pleased with the way things are playing out.
Civic San Diego is a city-owned agency that regulates development downtown and in parts of southeastern San Diego. It selected Affirmed Housing to develop a new mixed-use project on the property. The project will include homes for sale and rent geared toward a mix of incomes, plus retail geared toward community needs. It hasn’t released other details.
Affirmed Housing won the project through a competitive process facilitated by Civic. Civic asked for plans from interested developers in March 2015, and asked for more details from its five favorite responses. Three submitted ideas, and Civic formed a selection committee of community members and experts, which recommended Affirmed Housing’s proposal.
Civic followed the standard process for selecting a developer, but some folks say because the project is in the historically underserved neighborhood of Encanto, the process should have included more public input.
“Who’s coming to our neighborhood? Are they culturally sensitive? Are they economically sensitive? I’m just concerned for the community,” said Elida Chavez, a community advocate who lives in Webster, a neighborhood that’s near the vacant lot just across the 94 freeway. Chavez said she attended community meetings about the project.
Murtaza Baxamusa, a Civic board member, is critical of the process, too. He said Civic leaders had promised the Encanto project would be developed through an open collaboration with the community.
“The most public transparent process ever – Civic kept saying that,” Baxamusa said. “I think the developer they’ve chosen is actually fine, but the process was just not respectful of the community.”
Chavez said Civic made promises it didn’t keep.
“They promised a lot of things,” she said. “Mostly that the community was going to be involved and would be able to find out from each proposer what they were proposing and how we could collaborate and contribute different ideas before a developer was chosen.”
In the end, she said, Civic selected a winner in closed-door meetings without community input.
Others welcome the attention and say the community has been fully involved.
Ken Malbrough, chair of the Encanto community planning group and a member of Civic’s selection committee, said there’s been outreach overkill on the Hilltop-Euclid site. There were a flurry of meetings over the new community plan update for the area, plus meetings over the years on the specific property.
“That might be the reason we haven’t seen anything done there in over 20 years,” he said. “Outreach for this project has been done several times since 1990 starting with the writing of the original community plan. There’s been a lot of community input. You can only do so much.”
Malbrough said lots of his neighbors are just happy something is finally going to be built on land that’s been fenced off and attracting graffiti and trash for so long.
Community organizer Barry Pollard is one of them. Pollard said he’s glad a major project is planned for Encanto after commercial developers have long overlooked the low-income community. He said Encanto needs affordable housing and new commercial businesses – two things Civic required developers to include in the project in its request for proposals.
Pollard said as the project moves forward, he expects to hear from more naysayers opposed to affordable housing and increased density.
“But we need to start building stuff,” he said. “We can outreach this to death. But the bottom line is that some people are trying to slow this project up because they didn’t get their way.”
Civic San Diego President Reese Jarrett said there’s no need for a community kerfuffle yet. The selection committee’s choice is just a recommendation. Another Civic committee has to give the developer the thumbs-up on June 8. On June 22, the entire Civic board has to greenlight it, too. And the City Council has final say and can send Civic back to the drawing board if it doesn’t like the project or the developer.
If everyone says yes, there will then be more community meetings where Affirmed Housing presents the project and gets more feedback before finalizing the project’s design.
Jarrett said Civic took extra steps on the Encanto project it doesn’t normally take, including inviting the other teams who submitted ideas for the Encanto site to both of the June meetings so they could present to the community. He and Civic project manager Sherry Brooks also held a community meeting at Lincoln High School in Encanto before putting out the request for proposals, and included community comments as an attachment in it. That’s also not standard, either.
“We kind of felt like we went out of the way to get community input for this project,” Brooks said.
Chavez, though, is unrelenting in her criticism.
She said inviting the development teams to the meeting was Civic’s attempt to placate the community. She said the decision has effectively been made, because the selection committee’s recommendation will influence people to think it’s the best project even though others might be a better fit.