Locals battle Kensington Terrace

Adams Avenue could become "transient thoroughfare"

— Developer writes persuasion letter to the San Diego Development Services Department. What else is new? Read on.

"Today I was brought into the fold on the neighborhood uprising regarding the Kensington Terrace project," stated Jim Chatfield in an October 30 e-mail to Anne Jarque, the project's manager for the City. "As a real estate developer, one would certainly surmise that I am pro-development, which is generally true. However, upon [review], I am quite surprised to find that the City and the Kensington-Talmadge Planning Committee approved this project with such little community interaction, and [after only] performing a mitigated negative declaration. This is especially alarming given the seemingly obvious significant impact on Adams Avenue, the adjacent streets, and [the] neighborhood as a whole."

Chatfield, a Kensington resident, is vice president of construction for John Moores's JMI Realty, which in 1998 received rights from the City to develop Petco Park, hotels, condominiums, and retail space on 26 blocks in East Village. Local residents, artists, and small business owners fought the plan vigorously -- and unsuccessfully. But redevelopment, it was said, would help remove extensive "blight" and drive out the homeless population. Then there was the counterargument. It ran: The homeless who leave downtown will flock to peripheral communities. Opinions are mixed as to whether that has finally happened.

Chatfield's e-mail continued as follows. "As I'm sure you know, Kensington residents possess a strong sense of community and pride, partially generated by our bond over a beautiful haven adjacent to a challenging area (El Cajon Boulevard) and a major interstate (I-15). By allowing [the Kensington Terrace] project to proceed in its present form, you jeopardize the charm, tranquility, and above all, safety of this neighborhood. Additionally, Adams Avenue could transform from a pedestrian friendly street into a region serving, transient thoroughfare."

Chatfield seems to mean "transient" in the widest sense. But the word's suggestiveness may not be accidental. A new grocery store in the Kensington Terrace project is a possibility. As things stand now, it would be one of the closest to El Cajon Boulevard in that corridor. Could pristine Kensington become strewn with abandoned shopping carts? A fear about Kensington Terrace among some local residents is that its traffic effects will include movement back and forth from the "challenging" City Heights area. To understand this, consider the history and nature of the project.

The plan is first mentioned on the agenda of the Kensington-Talmadge Planning Committee for its September 2006 meeting. At that time, the plan, by architect Allard Jansen and Associates, was "to construct 14 residential for-rent units and 28,344 square feet of commercial space on a 0.47 [acre] site." That site is the location of the Emerald gas station, at the northeast corner of Adams and Marlborough Drive. The station has long been considered out of place and an eyesore, a sign of Kensington blight for many neighbors.

Over ten years ago, Jansen built a small development across the street, at the northwest corner of the intersection. Starbucks, Century 21, and several upstairs apartments are housed there. Was he then planning to buy the Emerald gas station site? And does he, wonders Kensington resident Maggie McCann, "already have designs on several vacant Adams Avenue properties on the south side of the street?"

Would that, I ask, be too much in the hands of one developer? "I don't know," says McCann, "but we don't want another Hillcrest going up here in Kensington."

On November 30, 2006, the City sent a Notice of Application to all residents within 300 feet of Jansen's project. McCann tells me that then, over a series of Kensington-Talmadge Planning Committee meetings, the full nature of the project unfolded in piecemeal fashion. She tracked its mention in the committee's minutes. On December 13, 2006, another property owner, Rick Vann, announced plans to put up a "new 9-unit building plus 4000 square feet of retail" immediately east of the Emerald gas station. It would later be called Kensington Lofts. And could he get a variance from the 30-foot height limit -- to 35 feet? Allard Jansen then said he would report on the status of his own plans at the next meeting. When he did so, on January 10, 2007, he happened to mention that, by the way, he would be a partner with Rick Vann in the Kensington Lofts project. And the retail space there will be 4156 square feet.

Not until the April 11 meeting was a more extensive partnership mentioned. According to meeting minutes, "Allard Jansen reported that he had closed on the Emerald Gas Station property on March 31. Both that property, and the one immediately east, will be developed in a partnership." The partners also announced "planning [for] 108 underground parking spaces."

In the Kensington-Talmadge Planning Committee minutes for May 8, plans to do a traffic study for Kensington Terrace were announced. The study "should cover area [from] Aldine to I-15, one block each side of Adams." A revised Notice of Application for the project went out to residents within 300 feet on June 21.

On July 11, Jansen announced in the committee the full nature of Kensington Terrace as "a mixed use development consisting of 16,560 square feet of office, 16,515 square feet of retail, and 19,200 square feet of residential (9 for-sale units) on a 0.78 acre site." The project would now take up the whole block on Adams between Marlborough and Edgeware Road. It would need a height variance of eight feet over limit. There would be 118 parking spaces, though the project requires only 87. "Gas station to remain until permit in hand," according to meeting minutes. "Traffic study indicates new light needed at Kensington and Adams Avenues [a block west of the project on Adams] and a four-corner crosswalk."

From here on, accounts differ, with Kensington-Talmadge Planning Committee members maintaining that residents were notified of the extent of the project and outraged residents denying it. The residents also say no meeting minutes have appeared on the committee's website. Maggie McCann writes that "around September 23, a resident distributed a flyer indicating that comments on the DRAFT mitigated negative declaration were due to the City by September 25." But the City sent the draft to only a selected group of individuals and organizations. Again, says McCann, "sometime in October a resident distributed a flyer that there was an agenda item [for Kensington Terrace to be discussed at an upcoming] Planning Commission meeting...to approve or deny the development permit for this project."

In the meantime, e-mails began flying back and forth among concerned Kensington residents. People who have finally seen the mitigated negative declaration say the project will make available 8000 square feet for a supermarket, 3000 for restaurant space, and 5500 for additional retail space. Many of the e-mails came to the attention of Allard Jansen, who wrote back that he would hold a public meeting on November 1 at the Kensington Community Church to explain his project.

I listened to Jansen give a smooth presentation to the huge crowd that filled the church's sanctuary. He touched on numerous points, among them an odd zoning division of the property; half has a 30-foot height limit and half has a 50-foot limit.Jansen said he wanted to keep the height of the building as low as possible. Still, he needed 38 feet. He would stay at 38 feet, he told the audience, but if he couldn't get a variance on one side, he would have to go to 50 feet on the other. As for following the City's rules and community notification, he was sure everything had been done properly. Before the meeting started, a Kensington-Talmadge Planning Committee spokesman said the night's meeting wouldn't have been necessary if residents would come to the meetings or become committee members.

Jansen also noted that, in their e-mails, community members were throwing around an incorrect number of "average daily trips" from traffic that his project would bring into Kensington. The correct number was 1400 instead of 2400. People didn't realize, he said, that 1000 daily trips already brought in by the gas station would have to be subtracted.

According to Maggie McCann, however, the traffic study was flawed. "Part of their calculation," she tells me, "involved an assumption that the convenience store in the gas station is 650 square feet. But we went in and measured it at 7 feet by 11. So the number of people going into the store is not nearly what they say. And the station's own figures show that only about 200 people go in to buy gas each day.

"Then the study didn't even do what they announced it would. It did not look at the whole stretch of Adams between I-15 and Aldine Drive, nor at the impacts on the streets to the north and south of Adams." One of Jansen's bragging points, McCann continues, was that visitors to Kensington Terrace would enter from an alley in the back. "Residents are now concerned," she says, "that drivers leaving the alley will see how much traffic is going out to Adams and will circulate through neighborhood streets to leave the area. This factor alone shows that the project should be required to produce an environmental impact report."

In his e-mail to city project manager Anne Jarque, Jim Chatfield brought up additional worries. Here is one. "The project," he wrote, "is significantly over-parked at one space per bedroom for the residential and 2.1 per 1000 square feet of commercial. This leads one to believe that the developer is vying for regional serving retail and/or will eventually combine all the parking to serve a 'big box' retailer or grocer. [In regard to] the residential portion of the project...I seldom see this amount of parking even in vehicle dependent suburban projects.

"If I can be of any help in finding a solution that better serves the community of Kensington," concluded Chatfield, "I would be happy to assist." He may get that chance. At last Thursday's Planning Commission meeting, the Kensington Terrace hearing was continued for a week. And the commission gave the parties homework. Meet before you come back -- and iron out some of your differences.

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