They rolled into San Diego City Hall on Tuesday like a thunderstorm: parents fuming over abandoned schools sites, residents quietly hoping to save a canyon, community activists in open rebellion against what developers were doing to their neighborhoods.
Residents of San Diego's inner-city communities, they marched before the City Council to show support for their own separate issues and, in one instance, turn on each other.
But taken together, their complaints became a chorus of discontent about what urban growth is doing to the city's older neighborhoods, where schools are overcrowded, park sites are rare and developers are allowed by zoning irregularities to raze single-family homes and build apartment houses and condominiums.
Traditionally, urban growth has attracted the most attention when it has affected the thousands of acres of vacant land lying along San Diego's northern fringe. Former Mayor Roger Hedgecock, an environmentalist, staked his political fortune in large part on protecting those areas by warning of the impending "Los Angelization" if the fringes were prematurely developed.
On Tuesday, however, the City Council's agenda afforded an unusual closer look at what growth has been doing to the older neighborhoods. For three hours, inner-city residents filled the council chambers to seek relief from parking woes, burgeoning development, bulging schools and scarce parks.
The council responded with a series of actions. They included:
- Approving an interim ordinance designed to slow down development in North Park, the area bounded roughly by Balboa Park on the west, Interstate 8 on the north, Interstate 805 on the east and Upas and Juniper Streets on the south. North Park residents said they need the measure to put development on hold in time for an update of their community plan, which could change zoning to allow fewer apartments and condominiums in some areas.
- Approving the $940,000 purchase of property in the 34th Street Canyon. The oft-debated transaction was opposed by city staff members because the land includes a mesa top already approved for development, but council members instead backed arguments by Councilman Uvaldo Martinez that the property was needed to curb development and add to the open space in the inner city.
- Postponing a decision on whether to buy surplus school sites in Pacific Beach and Point Loma for parks. Residents in those already crowded areas have banded together to fight school district plans to sell or lease the property for development.
While it postponed the decision, council members Tuesday tried to allay community objections by forcing San Diego school officials to promise publicly not to sell off school properties while a special task force studies the issue. The council also instructed city staff members to prepare a plan for the possible purchase of the two sites and others declared surplus by the school district.
After the meeting, Councilman Mike Gotch blamed city government itself for Tuesday's welter of inner-city woes.
"If we had had in this city years ago a policy where you didn't go in and put (high-density zoning) in a single-family neighborhood and allow an ugly, 10-unit box to come in and decimate what was at one time a tranquil . . . neighborhood, we wouldn't be in the dilemma we were in today.
"Interim ordinances would not have been needed if we realized that older neighborhoods of this city--that are really the core that people are reinvesting back in because they want to be close to the excitement of the center of the city--are not the neighborhoods you wholesalely decimate by putting in nondescript boxes. The city made that mistake in the '60s, the '70s--and in the '80s it is beginning to learn the terrible price and the toll that it has taken," Gotch said.
The first evidence of that lesson Tuesday came when the council took up the issue of whether to exercise its option and buy at a discount Dana Junior High School in Point Loma and Farnum Elementary Schools in Pacific Beach.
Desperate for money to build more classrooms in overcrowded areas in other inner-city neighborhoods, school officials had declared the two sites, among others, surplus and considered leasing them for 99 years to developers. For instance, one proposal would allow a developer to build 89 apartment units on the 3.1-acre Farnum site.
Pacific Beach and Point Loma residents have mobilized to oppose the school district plan because they say the sites are needed as parks in their developed neighborhoods. They turned out in force Tuesday to say they can't trust the school district and asked the city to buy the sites for playgrounds. Under a state law, the city could buy as much as 30% of surplus school land at a 75% discount.