Chula Vista, County’s 2nd Largest City, Has Problem With Image

Times Staff Writer

“I wouldn’t want to live there,” said Doris McCarty, a sales clerk in a downtown San Diego boutique. “In fact, I wouldn’t want to live anywhere in the South Bay except maybe Bonita,” an unincorporated hamlet hidden deep in the Sweetwater Valley.

McCarty admitted that her impressions of Chula Vista are based on occasional drives down Interstate 5 past the community on her way to Tijuana and a couple of round trips on the San Diego Trolley.

In other words, McCarty, a Clairemont resident, saw what thousands of others see of Chula Vista--the unsightly bayfront and a smelly marshland, the backs of buildings and trackside weeds. She has never been to Chula Vista proper, she admits, because “I don’t know how to get there, exactly,” and if she did, she wouldn’t go, because “what’s to see?”


It’s an opinion, or non-opinion, that many San Diegans have: Chula Vista is four off-ramps or two trolley stops on the way to Tijuana. It is a pink inkblot that spills over four pages of Thomas Bros. map books. A virtual unknown, a territory unexplored by most San Diegans and virtually ignored by tourist guidebooks about Southern California.

Yet, unacclaimed and with apparent ease, Chula Vista became the fastest-growing community in California, and probably the nation, this year. The city accomplished this feat by simply doing what it has done since its incorporation in 1911. It reached out and annexed a nearby community, in this case Montgomery (population 23,500) on Jan. 1, thus achieving an annual growth rate of 27.6% overnight and regaining its status (with about 114,000 people) as the county’s second most populous city by besting aggressive Oceanside.

The South Bay city has been gobbling up surrounding acreages with Pac-Man-like voracity since its creation as a “gentleman’s suburb” nearly a century ago. It has grown from a 5,000-acre plot to a 30-square-mile metropolis by extending its borders eastward eight

miles, nibbling at the lush Sweetwater Valley through annexations that have surrounded rustic Bonita’s village center and that threaten to outflank and envelop Sunnyside.

Within a year or so, Chula Vista Mayor Greg Cox expects much of the Sweetwater Valley and all of upscale Bonita to be within the Chula Vista city limits. Within the next decade or two, he expects the city to more than double its size, expanding to fill its present sphere of influence--69 square miles.

Still small by San Diego’s 330-square-mile standard, Chula Vista has its eye on some of the 34,000 acres owned by United Enterprises (Otay Ranch), land that could extend Chula Vista city limits east to the outskirts of Jamul.

If the city’s present steamroller expansion continues unabated, Chula Vista could grow to one-third of San Diego’s size and take control of future development in most of the southeast sector of the county.

One recent annexation at the extreme eastern city limits is the first phase of the massive EastLake development, a 3,073-acre planned community that eventually will house 30,000 Chula Vistans. More importantly, it will offer 11,000 or so new homes at prices ranging from $50,000 to $300,000 to balance out the South Bay’s abundance of moderate-rent apartments and subsidized housing.

Cox sees this expansionist policy as only a part of the city’s manifest destiny. He believes Chula Vista deserves both quantity and quality. He sees his city as a pleasant, well-managed, receptive contender for new industry and commerce, with affordable land prices and a wealth of space to offer, two commodities that aspiring North County competitors are running short on. The mayor believes the city is on a roll that will leave other fast-developing areas in its dust and will catapult his city out of the South Bay backwater stereotype.

It has been nearly 100 years--99, to be exact--since Chula Vista experienced its first building boom.

Early-day real estate promoters touted Chula Vista as the flower of the West, Pasadena’s twin sister, Paradise by the bay. Those 1880s hucksters also could have used the merchandizing slogan adopted by today’s EastLake developers: “City Close, Country Quiet.”

Chula Vista’s 5,000 original acres were cleared of brush, and 40-acre “blocks” were created, containing 5-acre sites reserved for estate homes and a surrounding income crop of fruit trees. Broad streets, 80 feet in width, were graded and lined with plantings of evergreens, pepper trees, oleanders, eucalyptus and palms. Developers bragged that more than $50,000 was spent on civic improvements to create “the finest spot on the globe.”

In May, 1887, land sales began and eager buyers lined up to pick their special spot, much as homebuyers today are lining up for new housing in the eastern Chula Vista suburbs.

The city’s first homeowner was Albert Barber, who came to the area late in 1887 and began the roller coaster ride of drought and heat, freeze and flood while establishing his fruit trees. But he bested the elements and helped establish Chula Vista’s early reputation as a major agricultural region, heavy on lemon production but diversified into subtropical produce such as guavas and drought-resistant crops such as celery.

In those early days, it was nature that was the enemy. The flood of 1916, blamed on rainmaker Charles Hatfield, breached the Sweetwater Dam and washed much of the Otay River valley out to sea. A 1913-14 one-two punch of heat and freeze left South Bay farmers without a cash crop and pitched the 3-year-old city of Chula Vista into deep financial troubles. On Aug. 1, 1915, the city clerk recorded that the telephone at City Hall “has been taken out in the interests of economy.”

Not until Fred Rohr moved his aeronautical business out of his garage and onto Chula Vista’s bayfront in 1941 did economic cycles replace the vagaries of nature as a guiding force in Chula Vista.

World War II turned Chula Vista into a boom town. Its population doubled from 5,000 to more than 10,000 in the half-decade of the war, while Rohr’s work force mushroomed to a peak of 9,200.

By the mid-1950s, Rohr and Chula Vista were as one. One of the county’s top five employers, Rohr Industries supplied good-paying jobs for the South Bay work force and provided civic leaders for Chula Vista.

In 1954, during a political spat involving Rohr executives’ growing control over city affairs, Chula Vista residents successfully recalled three of the five city councilmen, including one Rohr official. Rankled at the recall supporters’ claims that Rohr was trying to gain unfair concessions from the city, Fred Rohr ordered all Rohr employees to resign their civic positions and announced his intention to cease company contributions to civic projects. The Rohr founder expressed shock and surprise over his discovery “that many persons interpret these efforts (of financial support and civic participation) as a desire on our part to run the city.”

However, Rohr’s public wrath was much less effective than his secret plan to give the ungrateful city a taste of humility. During a dispute over tidelands improvements sought by the company, Fred Rohr mounted a hush-hush action designed to demonstrate his firm’s importance to Chula Vista.

He ordered Rohr paymasters to short each employee’s paycheck by $10, then assembled top executives at an all-night session at which they were ordered to make up the shortfall by sorting nearly $500,000 in silver dollars into $10 stacks, which were handed out to workers with their checks the next day.

Under orders to spend the silver dollars locally, Rohr employees inundated Chula Vista businesses with the unwieldy coins. Rohr’s economic object lesson struck home, locals recall.

Over the last decade, the signs of a new economic boom have been building, Mayor Cox said. Last year the city finally achieved what Cox believes is the key to erasing its image as just another aging South Bay town. After years of urging by city officials, the federal government finally agreed to rename its southwestern Border Patrol sector from “Chula Vista” to “San Diego.” Until that hard-won concession was gained, the Immigration and Naturalization Service broadcast nationally the alarming statistics on mounting border problems in the Chula Vista sector, creating the mental picture of hordes of illegal immigrants flowing down the city’s tree-lined streets at the rate of nearly 2 million a year.

Actually, those statistics on illegal immigration, formerly attributed to Chula Vista alone, belong to a far-flung region covering all of San Diego County and parts of Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Pulling the bureaucratic strings to shift the unbecoming spotlight of border crime and human misery off Chula Vista was a feat that civic leaders had to accomplish before they could hope to lure clean, tax-producing industry and commercial development into the city, Cox said.

Despite the city’s many positive points--a spruced-up downtown, a quantity of new, affordably priced housing, a $20-million bayfront marina--the specter of inundation by the “alien menace” soured the city’s chances for competition in the race for high-tech industry and pricey shopping centers, Cox said.

With the border-city label removed and the national economy robust, the city’s industrial parks have come to life, he said. One, a 100-acre development, “is going great guns,” with three new tenants and counting.

However, adversaries of Cox’s plans for an ever-bigger, ever-better city remain unconvinced that he is moving at the proper pace. A growing number of Chula Vista residents are awakening to the changes taking place and would prefer that Chula Vista stay the way it was before Cox took control.

Susan Watry, an odd combination of real estate saleswoman and environmental activist, is typical of the Chula Vista residents who don’t want the traffic, noise and pollution that accompany “big city” expansion.

“We moved here in 1961, refugees from Los Angeles,” Watry said. “We liked the small-town atmosphere then and we still do.”

In the early 1970s, city officials were being wooed and won by dentist Leonard Bloom, who proposed a 1,400-acre commercial-residential development in eastern Chula Vista that included a sports arena where Bloom hoped to house his professional basketball team.

Watry marshalled a citizens’ group that managed to defeat the sports czar’s plans by gathering enough petition signatures to bring the issue to a citywide vote--twice. Voters defeated the Bloom proposal each time.

Although that anti-growth group “won the battle, we lost the war,” Watry acknowledged recently. The rolling canyonland that Bloom coveted has since been carpeted with housing tracts by other, less controversial, developers.

Watry and others of that earlier anti-growth group have banded together again as Crossroads, an organization designed to throttle down the city’s growth rate, which members say already has turned many of the city’s streets into sluggish arteries.

“You can’t even drive Bonita Road after 3 in the afternoon,” she complained. “What’s it going to be like in a few years?”

With plans now in city files that would add thousands of homes and twice that many cars to the city, Watry is convinced that it is time to say “no” to developers, to rein in the galloping growth to a trot.

But Crossroads and Cox are on the same side of Chula Vista’s longest, toughest fight to clean up its public image and regain respectability.

The battle to renovate the city’s bayfront began in 1970 and is still being fought against an array of opponents ranging from the billion-dollar property holding company, Santa Fe Industries, to an obscure endangered plant, the salt-marsh bird’s beak.

Santa Fe Industries, which owns most of the city’s bayfront property, wanted to create a huge industrial complex on its land to house new customers for Santa Fe’s railroad freight business. City officials wanted a mix of parks, housing, tourist attractions and industry. A compromise was struck that shrunk Santa Fe’s industrial plans and added a waterfront hotel and convention center on Gunpowder Point.

Next came a decade-long struggle with state and regional coastal commissioners over preservation of the unsightly saltwater sloughs that were nesting grounds for endangered bird species and home to the homely salt-marsh bird’s beak.

One Chula Vista city official whose tenure spans the environmental struggle recalled bitterly that Chula Vista’s bayfront development plan predates the creation of the state coastal watchdog agency in 1976, and should have been grandfathered into the state’s coastal plan. The official, who requested anonymity because of the Sierra Club’s suit against the city, charged that Chula Vista has been “penalized and persecuted because we were the last wetland area in the bay that had not been built upon.”

Again, a compromise was struck that removed plans for a large convention center and whittled down the proposed 700-room hotel to 400 rooms. Regional and state coastal commissions gave grudging approval after extracting environmental guarantees from the city reserving more than 200 acres of the choicest marsh mud for the least tern and the light-footed clapper rail, two endangered bird species.

But the battle did not end there because the city, in order to build a resort hotel at Gunpowder Point, must first build a road across the wetlands area reserved for wildlife.

Two federal agencies, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Fish and Wildlife Service, have opposed the roadway. The only way out to the scenic point at present is on foot, via an earthen dike across the marsh.

The city also faces a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club, which opposes any development on Gunpowder Point because of its potentially harmful impacts on the last undamaged saltwater marsh habitat remaining on San Diego Bay.

Humans and wildlife cannot coexist, club spokeswoman Joan Jackson argues, especially when a road for the tourists would have to be built through the undeveloped marsh area reserved for the birds. Cox is championing construction of a nature center on the Gunpowder Point site, an environmentally sensitive project that would require an access road, albeit a narrow one, across the protected salt marshes to deliver nature lovers to the center.

If the nature lovers come, can the tourists be far behind? So wonder Sierra Club stalwarts, who find themselves opposing a nature center that personifies the purposes of their environmental movement.

Cox, confident that his plan will work, is predicting that the nature center--and the access road to Gunpowder Point--will be open by Oct. 17. That’s the date the city plans to celebrate its 75th anniversary with a Diamond Jubilee.

TUESDAY: Exploding schools, exploding myths--growth and education in the South Bay. Part II, Page 1.

Building permit applications for housing units in Chula Vista more than doubled from 1983 to 1985. Business, Page 2A.