San Diego County – Smart Growth advocacy group MOVE Alliance has endorsed the Park Station proposed project in the City of La Mesa, reported the La Mesa Patch on Febrary 17. The project proponents paid a $2,500 application fee to MOVE and after review were selected as the group’s first endorsement. MOVE liked the project’s high density, proximity to mass transit, mixed use, and pedestrian amenities. However, according to the Patch article, the group’s Executive Director Elyse Lowe conceded the EIR traffic study was not considered. That study, a report prepared by the proposed project’s consultant, found that the project would have no traffic impacts. The City rejected the finding as implausible and sent it back to the consultant for revision.
The project requires an EIR (Environmental Impact Report) primarily because it constitutes a massive divergence from the City’s plans and zoning. Amendments for the benefit of single projects are often referred to as “spot zoning” by urban design professionals. For example, the owners of the property, the Kitzmans, propose up to 19 stories where zoning restrictions only allow 4 stories. Currently, the most prominent features in La Mesa’s skyline are its church steeples and hills. Unusual in Southern California, the City exhibits an organic smart growth layout more often seen in older New England communities or Europe. The dominant urban features in “Old La Mesa” (south of I-8, near the proposed project) are a traditional ‘main street’ commercial district, several historic churches, minimal setbacks (even on many of the residential buildings), and a railway/train station, which is now used mainly by the Trolley. The City is already one of the most densely developed in the County, and the property at issue is already zoned for multi-family housing at a greater height than nearby structures.
In recent years, the City of La Mesa has demolished several structures in favor of more auto-oriented development, including the new civic center which is dominated by surface parking, large setbacks, and a fortress-like police station. Many City residents are concerned that the proposed project further erodes the “village character” of this part of the City.
There are also questions as to whether the plans presented to the City are a “straw man” project submitted primarily to eliminate the zoning restrictions on the property, and thereby increase its resale value. Most experts predict that financing for projects of such size will be difficult to obtain for as much as a decade even in areas where such projects have a proven track record such as downtown San Diego. It is likely that anything approved in the short term will be substantially amended before it is built.