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City Councilman David Alvarez is demanding an apology after Voice of San Diego reported the city placed rocks under an overpass to deter homeless encampments in preparation for the All-Star Game, not at the request of Sherman Heights residents, as the city had previously said.
Alvarez, whose district includes Sherman Heights, believes city officials used residents as a scapegoat after people questioned the rocks project. Homeless advocates held a press conference condemning the project.
All residents wanted was better lighting under the overpass, Alvarez said — a request that’s yet to be fulfilled.
“I feel very offended on behalf of the Sherman Heights community for being used by a city spokesperson claiming all of this was at their request,” he said in an interview. “The request was very simple — it was about lighting. Somebody at some point made the decision to allow these rocks to be placed there. That was not what the community asked for.”
Initially, city public works spokesman Bill Harris said the rocks were meant to address safety concerns raised by Sherman Heights residents. But Sherman Heights is never mentioned in dozens of city staffer emails about the project, obtained by Voice of San Diego in a public records request.
Instead, the rocks were part of a larger effort to clean up the area and improve traffic flow prior to the July 12 All-Star Game.
Alvarez has said repeatedly he was unaware of the project until contacted by the media in April, after Michael McConnell, who runs the Facebook page Homelessness News San Diego, posted photos of the rocks being installed.
Shortly after our story on the connection between the rocks and the All-Star Game published Wednesday morning, the city’s public-records coordinator said she found additional records she hadn’t included in the initial batch of emails that the city provided just before 5 p.m. Friday last week.
Those newly found emails include conversations between Alvarez staffer Martha Zapata and city engineers. In the emails, exchanged in late March, Zapata asks whether the city could install lighting under the Interstate 5 overpass at Imperial Avenue. She wrote that residents were also hoping to paint a mural and add some landscaping.
In response, a city traffic engineer told her that a project to install rocks under the overpass had already begun.
“I was not aware of this project, great news!” Zapata replied. “Whom can I contact for more details about it. Best news of the week!”
In subsequent emails, Zapata again asked about the lighting and was told that because of time and budget constraints, it wasn’t part of the project.
That conversation suggests an Alvarez staffer knew of the project before the public learned of it a few weeks later. Alvarez said he recalls Zapata telling him residents had requested lighting. He said Zapata’s “great news!” response was because she thought the project included the lighting residents had asked for.
A project plan Zapata received mentioned “decorative rock landscaping” and mulch.
“The project was already happening” when Zapata first learned about it, Alvarez said. “We had no say.”
In an emailed statement today, Craig Gustafson, a spokesman for Mayor Kevin Faulconer, didn’t address Alvarez’s request for an apology, but said the rock installation was done with Sherman Heights’ residents’ safety in mind.
“Everyone deserves to feel safe walking down the sidewalk, and the dark underpass and narrow streetscape on Imperial Avenue posed public safety risks for visitors and residents alike,” Gustafson said. “There were many concerned about this, including downtown residents, baseball game attendees who walk to nearby Petco Park, and neighbors from Sherman Heights who use Imperial Avenue as one of their primary connections to downtown.”
Previously, in responses to media questions about, Harris mentioned only Sherman Heights resident requests for the project.
“The City believes Imperial Avenue is now safer as a result,” Gustafson said, “and will continue to reach out to homeless individuals to offer them supportive services to end the cycle of homelessness.”
Kelly Davis is a freelance journalist focusing on criminal justice and social issues. Follow her on Twitter @kellylynndavis or send an email to email@example.com