Growing Pains Spread to Mid-City Groups

Times Staff Writer

They rolled into San Diego City Hall on Tuesday like a thunderstorm: parents fuming over abandoned schools sites, residents quietly hoping to save a canyon, community activists in open rebellion against what developers were doing to their neighborhoods.

Residents of San Diego's inner-city communities, they marched before the City Council to show support for their own separate issues and, in one instance, turn on each other.

But taken together, their complaints became a chorus of discontent about what urban growth is doing to the city's older neighborhoods, where schools are overcrowded, park sites are rare and developers are allowed by zoning irregularities to raze single-family homes and build apartment houses and condominiums.

Traditionally, urban growth has attracted the most attention when it has affected the thousands of acres of vacant land lying along San Diego's northern fringe. Former Mayor Roger Hedgecock, an environmentalist, staked his political fortune in large part on protecting those areas by warning of the impending "Los Angelization" if the fringes were prematurely developed.

On Tuesday, however, the City Council's agenda afforded an unusual closer look at what growth has been doing to the older neighborhoods. For three hours, inner-city residents filled the council chambers to seek relief from parking woes, burgeoning development, bulging schools and scarce parks.

The council responded with a series of actions. They included:

- Approving an interim ordinance designed to slow down development in North Park, the area bounded roughly by Balboa Park on the west, Interstate 8 on the north, Interstate 805 on the east and Upas and Juniper Streets on the south. North Park residents said they need the measure to put development on hold in time for an update of their community plan, which could change zoning to allow fewer apartments and condominiums in some areas.

- Approving the $940,000 purchase of property in the 34th Street Canyon. The oft-debated transaction was opposed by city staff members because the land includes a mesa top already approved for development, but council members instead backed arguments by Councilman Uvaldo Martinez that the property was needed to curb development and add to the open space in the inner city.

- Postponing a decision on whether to buy surplus school sites in Pacific Beach and Point Loma for parks. Residents in those already crowded areas have banded together to fight school district plans to sell or lease the property for development.

While it postponed the decision, council members Tuesday tried to allay community objections by forcing San Diego school officials to promise publicly not to sell off school properties while a special task force studies the issue. The council also instructed city staff members to prepare a plan for the possible purchase of the two sites and others declared surplus by the school district.

After the meeting, Councilman Mike Gotch blamed city government itself for Tuesday's welter of inner-city woes.

"If we had had in this city years ago a policy where you didn't go in and put (high-density zoning) in a single-family neighborhood and allow an ugly, 10-unit box to come in and decimate what was at one time a tranquil . . . neighborhood, we wouldn't be in the dilemma we were in today.

"Interim ordinances would not have been needed if we realized that older neighborhoods of this city--that are really the core that people are reinvesting back in because they want to be close to the excitement of the center of the city--are not the neighborhoods you wholesalely decimate by putting in nondescript boxes. The city made that mistake in the '60s, the '70s--and in the '80s it is beginning to learn the terrible price and the toll that it has taken," Gotch said.

The first evidence of that lesson Tuesday came when the council took up the issue of whether to exercise its option and buy at a discount Dana Junior High School in Point Loma and Farnum Elementary Schools in Pacific Beach.

Desperate for money to build more classrooms in overcrowded areas in other inner-city neighborhoods, school officials had declared the two sites, among others, surplus and considered leasing them for 99 years to developers. For instance, one proposal would allow a developer to build 89 apartment units on the 3.1-acre Farnum site.

Pacific Beach and Point Loma residents have mobilized to oppose the school district plan because they say the sites are needed as parks in their developed neighborhoods. They turned out in force Tuesday to say they can't trust the school district and asked the city to buy the sites for playgrounds. Under a state law, the city could buy as much as 30% of surplus school land at a 75% discount.

But the residents' arguments became part of a growth-induced tug-of-war when some Mid-City representatives complained that buying the land for parks would leave the school district without the tools to alleviate crowded classrooms in North Park, Golden Hill, City Heights and other areas.

One speaker said that increased density in the Golden Hill neighborhood has pushed enrollment at Brooklyn Elementary School up from 800 to 1,000 students in the last 10 years, forcing year-round use of the building.

Steve Temko, president of the Normal Heights Development Corp., said before the meeting that having the council purchase the school sites would be an "unmitigated disaster."

"The entire program of revitalization of the Mid-City, Southeast, Golden Hill and North Park are dependent upon schools equal to those in other parts of the city. If you don't have decent schools, people are going to pick up and move away when their kids turn 4 1/2," Temko said.

Gotch, whose district includes Pacific Beach, cautioned inner-city residents not to fall into the "trap of pitting neighborhood against neighborhood . . . I don't believe that you expand an educational facility in one neighborhood at the expense of sacrificing a recreational facility in another neighborhood. So don't fall into that trap, where in order to save Mid-City we're going to sacrifice San Carlos, Point Loma or Pacific Beach."

The conflict between inner-city interests was eased for the moment, however, when the council decided to throw the question over to a task force consisting of three council members and two school board members.

And under questioning by Gotch, school board President Susan Davis promised that the district would not lease the Dana or Farnum sites before city staff members report back to the council with a suggested plan for buying up surplus school property.

The council then quickly moved to buy open space in another inner-city neighborhood, approving the $940,000 purchase of 7.5 acres in the 34th Street Canyon in Golden Hill.

The property, owned by developer Mike Foote, is at the mouth of the canyon and includes a mesa with a view of San Diego Bay. Since January, 1984, Councilman Martinez has advocated the purchase of Foote's property to preserve the canyon and forestall the construction of 51 planned homes in an already crowded neighborhood.

When the unanimous vote of the council to purchase the land flashed on the board, Golden Hill residents, urged on by Martinez, applauded.

The council's focus then shifted to a third inner-city problem--overcrowding in North Park, where residents say parking is at a premium and the schools are bulging.

Residents in the Mid-City were asking council members to approve an interim ordinance to stave off development while they put the finishing touches on their updated community plan, the official document that establishes guidelines for growth.

North Park residents told the council that growth has pressed in on their neighborhoods since the nearby communities of Uptown, Golden Hill and other stretches of the Mid-City have recently benefited from interim ordinances and new community plans restricting development. In North Park, however, developers have been able to take advantage of outdated zoning to replace houses with bulky, sterile apartment and condominium complexes, they said.

City statistics reflect the surge in growth. Between 1984 and 1985, developers built 28% more dwelling units throughout San Diego than the year before; in North Park, the increase was 113%, says a city report. Building permits issued for North Park development jumped from 388 units in 1983 to 933 units in 1985.

And since the City Council announced in January that it would consider the interim ordinances, city staff members say developers have rushed into the city to apply for the construction of 626 units before the ordinances is passed.

One of the last-minute applications came from Allen Hall, who told council members Tuesday he has already spent $6,000 on plans for two eight-unit buildings on two lots at Illinois and Kansas Streets. He said the interim ordinance, which would require especially close city scrutiny of any project larger than four units per average city lot, would "probably wipe me out."

Despite that argument, the council sided with growth-sickened residents, acting unanimously on the interim ordinance. "I think we have a wildfire running through there right now," said Councilwoman Gloria McColl, whose district includes North Park.

McColl said after Tuesday's meeting that the city's 1979 Growth Management Plan is partly to blame for the strains caused by growth in established neighborhoods.

The plan is detailed when dealing with neighborhoods such as Tierrasanta and Rancho Bernardo, outlying areas under development now.

"We know how many homes are going into an area, we know what the commercial development is going to be like, we know the placement of the schools, we know the placement of the parks, we know the placement of the roads," McColl said. "It's all planned out."

And while the council has a relatively tight control over development in the outlying areas, construction is guided in the established neighborhoods by community plans and zoning patterns that are often out of date, she said.

The result: council meetings like Tuesday's.

"Therein lie the seeds for what we are seeing happening right now," McColl said.

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