It was the winter of 1980, and the employees of the now-defunct Hafer Steel Company in Grantville had to go onto the roof. "A helicopter came and asked whether or not we wanted to be evacuated," says Ken Bernard, who now runs his own steel-reinforcement business several doors away. "We said no, because we knew that [the water] would be going down soon. It was five or six feet deep in the office."
Behind his office, Bernard shows me the cause of the flooding that for decades -- and as recently as last year -- has plagued the area not far from where Mission Gorge Road goes under Interstate 8. I climb onto a pile of clay to see water meandering between two banks of bamboo. It is Alvarado Creek, and on this sunny spring day, the stream is nothing but a trickle of water at the bottom of a tiny ravine. But when it rains, the creek rises and becomes a torrent. And should it rain half an inch or more in an hour, raging waters overflow the creek's banks and turn this site of several small industries into a lake. Bernard remembers the time he had an old 6000-pound station wagon parked on a slope leading up to one of the buildings; the waters lifted the car and it floated away.
Mission Gorge Road is built so high as it passes through Grantville that it acts as a dam on the southwest side of the site. A box culvert takes Alvarado Creek under the road and down toward Qualcomm Stadium, where it joins the San Diego River. "But the creek backs up," says Bernard. "The box culvert under Mission Gorge Road has two barrels, but it should have three to take care of increased drainage that has come about over the years." As land at higher elevations was paved over, drainage became heavier.
Near College Avenue, Alvarado Creek starts at Adobe Falls, whose waters originally come from Lake Murray drainage. Years ago the city of San Diego built a wide channel parallel to Interstate 8 below Adobe Falls to contain the water. Because of a sharp downgrade below College, water cascades rapidly through that channel during wet weather. The widely constructed channel suddenly ends in Grantville, right before it reaches the narrow ravine behind Bernard's business. Excessive water has nowhere to go but up and over the creek's banks.
Business owners in the low-lying area repeatedly asked the city for help. Then, in 1989, says Bernard, "The property owners here filed a suit against the city to clear up the situation. We lost the suit in superior court." The owners wanted the city to put another box culvert in the one link of the drainage system that had remained untouched since it was surrounded by farmland: the 600 feet of creek behind Bernard's business. Bernard says the estimated cost of the culvert at the time was $600,000.
And now, after refusing for years to lift a finger to help these Grantville business owners, the city is contemplating a redevelopment plan for the entire area. Redeveloping an urban area in California allows local officials to reclaim tax revenues that have been going to the state. In redeveloping Grantville, San Diego can look forward to receiving more sales and property taxes than the area now receives.
At its meeting on March 30, the city council allocated $635,000 for a Grantville redevelopment study. The first phase of the study determines whether the community has sufficient blight to justify a redevelopment plan. California's Health and Safety Code, which governs such matters, requires that an area be "blighted" before it qualifies for redevelopment.
Bernard drives me around Grantville and points out the small businesses, from light manufacturing and auto repair to fast food, financial services, and car dealerships. "To planners," he says, "having all these little businesses is inefficient as hell. 'Let's get rid of all this stuff and get something orderly and beautiful.' "
A few properties we see do look a bit slovenly. But as Bernard sees it, Grantville overall is hardly blighted. "Euphemisms," he says, "are the favorite tool of government."
The idea for redeveloping Grantville originated in the Navajo Planning Area, composed primarily of residents of Allied Gardens. Both Grantville and the more residential and populous Allied Gardens are part of San Diego's District 7. Jim Madaffer represents the district on the city council and has been behind the redevelopment plan from its inception.
What irks many Grantville business owners is that they learned of the redevelopment agenda for their area after the Navajo Planning Area had talked the city of San Diego into spending between $15,000 and $20,000 on a preliminary feasibility study. According to Bernard, the Navajo group did not invite the people most affected by the plan to their meeting.
But once the City of San Diego Redevelopment Agency commissioned Rosenow Spevecek Group, Inc., to do the feasibility study, Grantville business owners found out about the plan and founded their own group, Grantville Property and Business Owners Association. Philip Teyssier, whose property is a short distance from Bernard's company, leads the group of 53 business owners. Teyssier created and maintains a website (www.gpboa.com) to assist the organization's members.
The small-business owners' biggest fear is losing their properties to a new redevelopment district through eminent domain. "In eminent domain," says Bernard, "it's my appraiser against your appraiser, and no consideration is given to the legal costs you may incur in fighting the whole thing or even in engaging experts. The weakest suffer the most. And generally, they lose everything, because that's their life, that particular property -- whether leased, rented, or owned."
I inquire into the people behind the inception of the redevelopment plan for Grantville. "I don't know who's behind it. I'm not hurling any accusations," says Bernard, who nevertheless calls the actions a "stealth campaign." He does suspect that Kaiser Permanente -- which has a hospital, a major medical facility, and several other buildings in the area -- supports the plan. Philip Teyssier agrees, adding that H.G. Fenton Building Materials and the large area landowner Caster Development also support it.
On his website, Teyssier posts a letter he wrote to the city council on March 19 objecting to the Grantville redevelopment plan and "the covert manner in which the City has proceeded thus far." Included in the letter is a critique of the initial feasibility study by the Rosenow Spevecek Group. Among other complaints, the critique counters the study's assertion that 80 percent of the study area is urbanized (California's Health and Safety Code requires this percentage in order to qualify an area for redevelopment). To reach that percentage, according to Teyssier, the feasibility study included as "urbanized" a large sand-mining operation in Grantville. The reality, Teyssier argues, is that with the mining grounds, a golf course, and Mission Trails Regional Park, 65 percent of the proposed redevelopment area is not urbanized. "On this fact alone," writes Teyssier, "the study area does not meet the criteria for urbanization and therefore cannot be considered as a redevelopment area."
At further issue between the Grantville Property and the Business Owners Association and Jim Madaffer is the role of lot sizes and traffic congestion. Anyone driving along Mission Gorge Road before it reaches Friars Road is aware of traffic congestion. Teyssier and Bernard insist that redevelopment is already causing congestion in the area. They're referring to the recent building of Home Depot and Sav-on Drug stores right off the intersection of Mission Gorge and Interstate 8. Madaffer, speaking at the March 30 city-council meeting, implied that the redevelopment plan would eventually improve traffic conditions.
Regarding lot sizes, Madaffer contends that small parcels of land make economic growth in an area more difficult and contribute to physical blighting. But on his website, Teyssier writes, "A simple visual review of the proposed study area shows a large variety of parcel sizes, none of them being so ill-configured that [they] would constitute blight and prevent proper development." He also points out that Grantville is already "a very viable economic force."
"Redevelopment proponents minimize our concerns," says Teyssier. "They say that eminent domain is a last resort." They also maintain, he says, that it is not their intention to condemn properties. But a new Grantville redevelopment district may do it anyway. "And that threat of condemnation hanging over the owners' heads is intimidating," says Teyssier.
At the March 30 city council meeting, Teyssier gave a 15-minute PowerPoint presentation, and Ken Bernard spoke for two and a half minutes against the Grantville redevelopment plan. Afterward the council voted nine to nothing in favor of studying it further. "That's what happens," says Bernard, "anytime you have a councilman get behind a plan without consulting beforehand with the people the plan is going to affect."