City Heights' freeway-friendly bus stop

They ripped up a neighborhood. Now they're building it back up.

Center Line express bus stop

Ramon Garcia used to board the bus right before El Cajon Boulevard as it came up the off-ramp from the 15 freeway. After picking up its passengers, Rapid 235 waited for a green light to cross the Boulevard and descend the on-ramp to get back on the freeway heading north as far as Escondido.

State Route 15 is no longer an Interstate this far south.

State Route 15 is no longer an Interstate this far south.

Now Garcia waits at freeway level instead of on the streets above. In the newly transformed Boulevard Transit Plaza, he takes an elevator down 22 feet to the platform where he boards. Having avoided the signal on the Boulevard, the bus quickly resumes its freeway speed in a bus-only lane on the freeway median. After a short stretch, it joins regular traffic.

The Boulevard Markeplace expanded from a small parcel of land left over from the freeway construction.

The Boulevard Markeplace expanded from a small parcel of land left over from the freeway construction.

The new development, called Centerline, includes identical infrastructure on the other side of El Cajon Boulevard and on both sides of University Avenue, where State Route 15 — it’s no longer an Interstate this far south — intersects it. Construction was completed for public use on March 11. It has been a $65 million joint project of CalTrans, the San Diego Association of Governments, and the Metropolitan Transit System. It was funded by TransNet, a local transportation half-cent sales tax, and by the Federal Transit Administration.

A 40-minute bus trip delivers Garcia to Rancho Bernardo, where he works full-time for a janitorial and security service company. I ask him about the advantages of the new arrangement versus the old.

City surplus property at 40th Street

City surplus property at 40th Street

“It’s not only avoiding the signal on El Cajon Boulevard,” he tells me as we await the next bus under a large half-roof slanting down toward the wall in back of us. “During rush hour, especially when I’d be coming home from work, the bus used to become trapped in the traffic backing up on the off-ramp. The new system saves me a lot of time.”

Since its first installation a few years ago, Rapid 235, like Route 7 on University Avenue, has used buses twice as large as most other MTS carriers. And they’ve always had cushioned seats and seatbacks. During the early morning weekday commutes, the bus is almost always full, with passengers sleeping for the longer rides.

Connecting housing to transit has been the dream of Gary Weber since 1985.

Connecting housing to transit has been the dream of Gary Weber since 1985.

Joanna Moctezuma uses Rapid 235 for shorter trips to Kearny Mesa and downtown. “The old bus stop’s shelter was too short and narrow,” she tells me.

I wonder how far she has to come to reach the transit plaza. “I just jump on the [Rapid] 215 that comes down El Cajon.” She is lucky to live across the street from the bus stop.

Erik Tilkemeier fears the city might accept a gas station, a fast food joint, or a 7-Eleven.

Erik Tilkemeier fears the city might accept a gas station, a fast food joint, or a 7-Eleven.

Connecting housing to transit has been the dream of Gary Weber since he wrote the Mid-City Communities Plan on a contract from the city in 1985. (The plan was updated in 1998). Previously Weber had worked in the planning department, where he designed the city of San Diego’s first community plans, those for several beach neighborhoods.

“It does rain here once in a while,” Weber tells me as we chat in his Normal Heights living room, “and for a long time, I’ve advocated better shelters at the bus stops.” But his Mid-City plan suggested the germ of a much more comprehensive vision, expressed in this sentence: “A mixed-use ‘Mid-City Center’ is recommended as a new hub for the community at the interchange of El Cajon Boulevard with the new State Route 15.”

Joanna Moctezuma: “The old bus stop’s shelter was too short and narrow.”

Joanna Moctezuma: “The old bus stop’s shelter was too short and narrow.”

CalTrans first proposed State Route 15 in 1968. Eventual construction of the highway tore into the Mid-City neighborhood of City Heights in more ways than one. It started with the demolition of countless neighborhood houses, then gouged out a ditch in the earth alongside 40th Street and wounded the community’s spirit in ways that have inspired the collaboration of many local activists ever since then to fight back. High on their list of goals has been replacing what was destroyed with new residential structures, especially affordable and low income housing.

Ramon Garcia: "The bus used to become trapped in the traffic backing up on the off-ramp."

Ramon Garcia: "The bus used to become trapped in the traffic backing up on the off-ramp."

In the early 2000s, says Weber, “I founded the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association.” By 2003, the organization had designed a Boulevard Marketplace project as one of Mayor Dick Murphy’s Pilot Villages. Expanding on a small parcel of land left over from the freeway construction at 40th and El Cajon Boulevard, the Marketplace was intended to provide “serious infill development,” according to Weber.

Teralta Park is located on top of the cover over 15.

Teralta Park is located on top of the cover over 15.

“We proposed building up to two blocks’ worth of mixed-use development from 40th Street west to 38th and practically all the way north to Meade, almost two city blocks,” he says. “The idea behind the plan was you put new development on the transit corridors and take pressure off the neighborhoods so that they’re not just ripped to shreds. After the rezoning of this area in the 1980s, the zoning on El Cajon Boulevard was very low density, 29 units an acre. Back in the neighborhoods, the density was very high, up to 140 units an acre. Our plan was to flip that. It put high density on the Boulevard, about as high as you wanted to go, and cut it back in the neighborhoods so that, instead of someone tearing down a single family house and putting up an apartment building, there would be an economic incentive to buy the house, build a couple of units in the backyard and maintain the neighborhood character.

“Here’s the irony. The city keeps harping about wanting to infill, and none of these neighborhoods want any of it. The El Cajon Boulevard group has long promoted serious infill development along the transit corridor. But the city has done nothing, and it’s been fifteen years.”

As the Reader’s Marty Graham documented in a November 14, 2017 story, the Boulevard Marketplace project eventually fell through, and more modest approaches to building housing near the freeway are now circulating among community leaders. According to the city’s real estate assets department, a total of five city-owned properties (called “surplus” from freeway construction) are situated adjacent, or close, to the 15 at the transit plazas on El Cajon Boulevard and University Avenue. Two are under the control of Civic San Diego; the one that would have anchored Boulevard Marketplace is actually two separate Normal Heights parcels, although city real estate maps show it as one. The other site has the Sally Wong Building on it, at University and 41st Street in City Heights. Senior project manager Jeff Zinner told Graham that Civic intended to sell the parcel at 40th and El Cajon, although it had yet to develop “concrete plans for it.” They would be free to sell it with or without defining any project it could be used for, he said.

The city’s real estate assets department controls the other three parcels, one on the north side of El Cajon at Central, another where the temporary fire station #17 was located on the northeast corner of University and Central and a final one catty-corner, on the empty lot in front of the “Love City Heights” mural.

Mary Carlson, who manages real estate assets, says the three parcels controlled by her department have recently been undergoing “predisposition,” a process that allows parties who have an interest in building affordable housing to bid first on buying the properties. Real estate assets states on its website only that Civic San Diego is holding its properties “for development.”

According to Erik Tilkemeier, those who are granted the first bids on the available properties controlled by real estate assets must be “housing sponsors,” certified by the California Housing Finance Agency. Tilkemeier is the economic and urban development director for the non-profit City Heights Community Development Corporation. He has kept in close communication with real estate assets lately and maintains that predisposition ended on February 20, after which the department could offer the properties to the highest bidder in case that no housing developer made an offer the city liked. Tilkemeier is one of many in the community who fears the city might accept the bid of a business like a gas station, a fast food joint, or a 7-Eleven store. He has been monitoring the fate of the properties to see what the city decides to do.

Community leaders familiar with the situation feel certain that Mayor Faulconer will make the final decision. Recently he showed up at the Lafayette Hotel for the the start of a developers’ bus tour along El Cajon Boulevard put on by the Business Improvement Association, according to Gary Weber. “But the mayor did not get on the bus. He went back home to Point Loma. I don’t think he understands the complexities of this area,” says Weber.

On February 24, as the construction of Centerline was approaching completion, a dedication ceremony was held at Teralta Park on Orange Avenue in City Heights. The park is located on top of the cover over 15 that CalTrans agreed to build for the community as at least some compensation for the damage the freeway construction had caused City Heights neighborhoods. “We asked for eight blocks and got two,” says Tilkemeier.

At the start of the event, a number of dignitaries and local leaders addressed the crowd of about 500 people, ratcheting up their enthusiasm and gratitude for the cooperation of CalTrans, SANDAG, and MTS to complete Centerline. Each of the agencies sent speakers to the dais. No representative from Mayor Faulconer’s office stepped forward.

Nevertheless, Erik Tilkemeier says he learned unofficially that, during predisposition, three housing sponsors made offers to develop one or more of the surplus properties real estate assets controls adjacent to the new Centerline transit stations. “The city is negotiating the offer they think is best,” he says. “Of course, they may end up rejecting both.”

It was on April 1, Easter Sunday, that I first noticed the sign “Land for Sale” behind the chain link fence surrounding the property at El Cajon Boulevard and 40th Street. real estate assets has sold one of its parcels, I thought, until remembering that Civic San Diego controls that one. Could Civic’s other property near 15 be for sale, too? When I checked, the same sign appeared on the front of the Sally Wong building. The signs announced that Jones Lang LaSalle Brokerage, Inc., would be handling the sales.

Erik Tilkemeier tells me by email that he noticed no request for proposals connected to the sales. In other words, Civic San Diego was not yet requiring any particular types of development to occur on the properties. Would there be any forthcoming?

I asked that question of Civic’s Jeff Zinner. “We have not completed the marketing,” he said. “I know there is community interest in housing, so we will be mentioning the opportunity for housing to be built on those sites. But, no, we are not going to require it, nor any other type of activity. However, whatever anybody wants to do there will have to conform to the local community plan. There is no getting around that.”

Zinner wanted me to know that Civic San Diego, as a non-profit auxiliary organization, strictly carries out the will of the city, and deemphasized any understanding people may still harbor that it is the successor to the now defunct redevelopment agencies. Those agencies had been tasked by law with working to increase the well-being of the communities they served.

The loss of redevelopment is often cited to help explain San Diego County’s failure to provide enough affordable housing, an unpleasant fragrance that was recently rubbed in the noses of its numerous municipalities by Ben Metcalf, director of the California Department of Housing and Community Development. But when, at the March 9 San Diego Association of Governments board of directors meeting, Metcalf threatened to take away from the cities their control of housing decision making if they didn’t shape up by 2028, the politicians in attendance fired back to defend their cities. Chief among their reasons for the difficulty of building new housing in the county were lawsuits and onerous California Environmental Quality Act restrictions.

To get a sense of whether the reasons were legitimate or simple excuses, I spoke with Stephen Russell, executive director of the non-profit San Diego Housing Federation. Russell is familiar with mid-city issues, having worked for the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association and the City Heights Development Corporation. He was an advisor to former Councilwoman Toni Atkins, now president pro tempore of the California State Senate.

So legitimate explanation or excuse making? “A little of both,” says the carefully spoken Russell. “A lot of it depends on where you’re talking about. In 2016, Encinitas voters rejected their city’s housing strategy.” The city of San Diego is probably one of the best actors in the region, he claims. “It can give a good example to Los Angeles, which has terrible housing problems,” he said.

But, at the SANDAG meeting, San Diego Councilwoman Lori Zapf put forth California Environmental Quality Act technicalities and lawsuits as major reasons why San Diego can’t complete very many new constructions. “Well, CEQA often does raise the costs, especially of smaller construction projects, to impossible levels,” says Russell.

The bad news the state’s Metcalf delivered at San Diego Association of Governments was that San Diego County needs to build 171,685 new homes between 2021 and 2028 to overcome its housing shortage. “That would mean building more than 21,000 units countywide each year,” wrote Lisa Halverstadt of the Voice of San Diego three days later, “nearly three times what the region has allowed over the past seven years.”

Given that severe a prognosis, why is Civic San Diego, at the behest of the city, refusing mid-city’s call for a seemingly ideal transit-oriented housing project that could contribute to the high density most urban leaders think is needed?

Unlike real estate assets when it sells city property, says Russell, Civic is not required to promote housing projects. Besides that, California surplus property law forbids them to single out a particular group of entities for first bidding on properties.

So the city has two options. Through its real estate assets department, it offers preferential treatment to housing sponsors, but does whatever it wants through Civic San Diego.

“In all the years the Business Improvement Association and the Normal Heights Community Planning Group have tried to convince the city to put high density next to the transit plaza on El Cajon Boulevard,” says a frustrated Gary Weber, “I’ve never been able to get a straight answer out of them. If the city is ever going to show any leadership on the housing front, it must assign planners to thoughtfully design projects. Admittedly it’s difficult in an environment where the costs of building and owning and simply living in housing keep going up.” [The San Diego Union Tribune announced on April 3 that the average rent in the county is now $1887 per month.]

“And that’s why something like redevelopment agencies are needed again. They had the resources to help communities,” says Weber.

But even without that help, the pressures that have been building on the city to facilitate more housing may finally be paying off. “In order to provide housing on those three remaining properties real estate assets controls,” Erik Tilkemeier tells me, “the city has decided to enter into exclusive negotiations with Wakeland Housing and Development Corporation. Our own City Heights Development Corporation will be working with them on their plans, since all those surplus parcels from the freeway’s construction have long been promised for the community’s benefit here.”

A final note on Centerline, the first component of the “new hub for the community” that Weber envisioned in his 1985 Mid-City Communities Plan. As I waited at freeway level to speak with Rapid 235 riders, cars came driving along in the dedicated bus lane. During Centerline’s initial planning, the crowd was told at the February 24 dedication of the line, the California Highway Patrol worried that automobile drivers might take such advantage and, if too many, might slow the buses’ passage, or even worse. However, the scofflaws are now facing their own problems. In each of the cases I witnessed, it took police, waiting in perfect position, only seconds to stop the offenders. From my vantage point, the officers could easily be seen issuing tickets.

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Great story, Joe Deegan. The Centerline is an amazing accomplishment. An urban marvel. And you did so well at drawing out and recognizing Gary Weber, whose commitment to what's right and to his community are gifts that keep on giving. Plus the work of the City Heights CDC and especially Maria Cortez, who never gave up the fight.

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