Kensington Business Balks at New City America

— Eight years ago, the Adams Avenue Business Association received a $600,000 "urban forestry" grant from the State of California to mitigate the pollution that would result from Interstate 15 traffic. Kensington business property owners chose an ornamental pear tree to plant along Adams Avenue. As they grew, the pear trees developed a blight that has provoked several Kensington business owners to draw up a new community-maintenance plan. But opponents of the plan suspect the pear blight is soon to join that more subjective neighborhood blight developers love hyping to get their way. Then high-density housing may be coming to Kensington, just as it has to surrounding communities.

Although not a local resident, Chance Billmeyer is the owner of Zen Body Mind Sanctuary and Studio in Kensington and vice president of the Kensington-Talmadge Business Association. On June 16, he gathered a group of 15 Kensington business owners at the Century 21 office on Adams to discuss ways to clean up Kensington. He says he invited local resident Marco Li Mandri, owner of New City America, the company that has revitalized Little Italy and other business locales in cities as far-flung as Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston. Billmeyer and Li Mandri subsequently prepared a 21-page report that includes photos and written descriptions of neglected areas in Kensington, including ones with the blighted pear trees. In the report's introductory section, Li Mandri discusses how a maintenance-assessment district might be the answer to cleaning up the neighborhood. But Kensington business property owners already pay $2.20 per linear foot of frontage -- around $300 per year for some -- into a maintenance-assessment district that extends down Adams to Texas Street. The district is supposed to keep up the trees, but business owners complain that the work has been neglected.

Li Mandri's New City America specializes in setting up business-improvement and maintenance-assessment districts as the vehicles for rejuvenating communities. Each of them comes about when business and/or property owners assess themselves money to pay for beneficial projects. Business-improvement districts promote such commercial activities as street fairs, while maintenance-assessment districts fund special local services, usually beyond those provided by the City of San Diego.

Peevey Jewelers owner Victor Vallejo attended the June 16 meeting. But the Hanfords, his neighbors three doors to the west on Adams Avenue, received no notification of it. The Hanfords have operated Kensington Video in the same location for the past 40 years. They became alarmed when Vallejo told them that at the meeting participants had discussed how business owners could assess themselves to clean up Kensington.

As a result, the family's son Guy Hanford, 53, drew up a petition opposing the idea. He circulated it to all 34 business owners in Kensington. He also sought out Chance Billmeyer for further explanation of what was going on. Hanford says that Billmeyer "told me that something had to be done because Adams Avenue in Kensington is filthy, unhealthy, and deteriorated." Hanford disputes the characterization, arguing that most communities in San Diego would love to be as "blighted" as Kensington.

On July 19, approximately 60 Kensington business and property owners attended an ad hoc meeting in the Normal Heights Community Center to discuss the idea. Like Hanford, several business owners complained that they had received no notification of the idea's initial discussion on June 16.

San Diego Business Improvement District Council chief executive officer Scott Kessler addressed the ad hoc meeting in Normal Heights. He reported that in late June the Adams Avenue Business Association "screamed foul" to his council about "a proposal" to start a new maintenance-assessment district in Kensington, which would address the pear blight and such other problems as weeds around the trees, excessive signage on businesses, and antiquated trash cans. The Adams Avenue Business Association administers the maintenance-assessment district that Kensington property owners already pay into.

"Questions came to mind at the Business Improvement District Council," Kessler went on, "since this was the first time we were aware that someone was attempting to start a maintenance district where there was one already in place. Do you do away with the existing district? Would you have to run a ballot to do away with it? Can you have two districts simultaneously in one place? Would you go to the administrator of the existing district to propose the new district? Meanwhile," Kessler told the gathering, "you all have circulated a petition that the undersigned business owners are not interested in the proposal by New City America."

Maintenance-assessment districts, Kessler told the meeting, occur if business property owners agree democratically (50 percent plus one) to tax themselves. The money can be used to pay for sidewalk maintenance or for decorative vegetation. Only those owners who vote have their voices heard. If only ten people vote on something, six carry the motion. "Your petition," Kessler continued, "had 60 percent of all Kensington owners for not assessing yourself additional dollars, as the new proposal calls for."

After Kessler's presentation, Chance Billmeyer complained that he had just spent two hours cutting blighted branches off the pear tree in front of his business on Adams Avenue. But he spoke up mainly to defend himself and Li Mandri, who did not attend the meeting. "I only wanted to meet with Alan Ellard [builder of the newest condominium complex in Kensington]," said Billmeyer, "to run my proposal by him, because something had to be done about the trees. I chose Ellard because the president of our Kensington-Talmadge Business Association leases property in his building, and I knew I could get a meeting with him. I wanted to show him some ideas. I could have run them by any of you in attendance tonight. And I thought if I'm going to meet with this guy, I'm not going to speak about fluff. So I also talked with Marco Li Mandri to come up with some specific ideas. I used to be a graphic designer myself, so I went into Photoshop and started creating some pictures of what Kensington could look like, my vision of it. I wanted to share that with other people and ask, 'What do you think it could look like? I'm open to your ideas too.' I was hoping that somebody else then would take over."

Billmeyer went on to defend the list of proposed changes -- and what they would cost -- that Li Mandri had put together. The list circulated with the original report describing a new maintenance-assessment district in Kensington. A $200,000 figure on the bottom line of the list is what alarmed many business owners. It represented what adopting all the changes would cost the community.

But "this list you've all seen has only examples," said Billmeyer. "It never was meant to be a proposal. It is a wish list and just gives an idea of what the costs [of various changes] might be. Marco was kind enough to put that information together."

Billmeyer also addressed concerns over the gas station in Kensington and the Kensington Library, which he calls "ugly as sin." He maintained that, being a big reader, he doesn't want to get rid of the library, only remodel it. Both the gas station and the library have figured into rumors that high-density housing is on its way into Kensington. Several local residents claim they heard Billmeyer say condominiums should be built on the site of the gas station. But Billmeyer denied that he wants to see the station go.

Finally, Billmeyer insisted that he tried to invite all the business owners in Kensington to his June 16 conference with Ellard and Li Mandri. But, Hanford tells me several days later, too many owners say they were never contacted. "They couldn't find me," he says, "and there I am in Kensington Video right on Adams. It smacks too much of the tactic developers use of sending out surveys of interest during the summer when many people are on vacation."

Even though Billmeyer told the July 19 meeting that he was the one to seek the help of Li Mandri initially, Guy Hanford thinks "there is some confusion about who approached whom" in their collaboration. The efforts do seem to express Billmeyer's "artistic vision," he admits. But he suspects a greater role by Li Mandri than simply estimating costs and explaining how maintenance districts work. He cites a tour of Little Italy that Li Mandri gave four Kensington business owners in early July to explain the maintenance-district concept. "Our community," says Hanford, "has nothing in common with a big business district like Little Italy." There are only residences on either side of the seven-block stretch of businesses on Adams Avenue that people know as Kensington, he notes. And Scott Kessler said at the July 19 meeting that the city is not interested in establishing separate maintenance-assessment districts in communities as small as Kensington.

"We now have hit the New City America proposal with a sledgehammer," Hanford continues, "and we'll do it again if we need to. But those kinds of pressure aren't going away. A year and a half ago, the city sent my parents [who own the property Kensington Video occupies] a letter encouraging them to support changing the zoning along Adams Avenue. But they're in their late 70s and have no desire to make big changes. The Mid-City redevelopment project in City Heights is going strong only a few blocks south of us. Kensington is not part of it, but there is little doubt that pressure for high density is heading up this way."

Chance Billmeyer refuses to judge the Kensington business owners' resistance to his ideas. But by phone, he does tell me that it was a "knee-jerk reaction. Just about everybody in Kensington knows we need some changes. More meetings like we had the other night will help us know what to do," he says.

Since July the Adams Avenue Business Association has replaced the blighted trees in Kensington. But the move may not have satisfied everyone. Peevey Jewelers owner Vallejo tells me that in early October he had a casual conversation with Marco Li Mandri, who told him that the effort to bring a new maintenance-assessment district to Kensington is not over.

In response, Li Mandri tells me that decision-making in Kensington "has neither begun nor is it over. It doesn't matter what I think; it is what the business and property owners want. If they like Kensington the way it is, then they should do nothing. Many believed Kensington needed to be taken to the next level. There are a few ways to do that. The most effective, quickest way to do that is through a [new] maintenance-assessment district, or what I call a 'community-benefit district.'

"The [recent process in Kensington] has been filled with misinformation," argues Li Mandri, who also complains that those who called the July 19 meeting to discuss his "initial budget" did not even have "the courtesy of asking me if I was able to make the meeting." The biggest-ticket item in that budget, he says, was to replace the Kensington neighborhood sign, which people could toss out separately if they didn't like. And the fears about Kensington being redeveloped are ridiculous. "Kensington does not even belong in a redevelopment district," he says.

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I am wondering why such an important issue as remodeling the Kensington Library is limited to the Business Improvement District when it is such am important issue not only to the residents of Kensington, Talmadge, Normal Heights and even the rest of the City of San Diego? Most people do not realize that inside the little building is an even smaller 1920s vintage Spanish style building that got incorporated into the current shape. The older building may actually have historical significance to the entire City of San Diego. In fact, I think any proposal to change the appearance of Adams Avenue ought to be classed by the City of San Diego as a legislative act subject to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the pros and cons of spending $200,000, alternatives to the proposed project,the cumulative effects on the greater community, and feasible mitigation measures ought to be circulated for public review. Changing the appearance of the public library affects us all, not just a few business owners.

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