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Plan for Parking Lot Angers San Marino Enclave

The Mission Street area needs space for cars. But an effort to seize a site for the purpose has upset a tightly knit group of local people.

November 19, 2002|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

San Marino's Mission district is perhaps the city's best kept secret: an upscale enclave, catering almost exclusively to the locals, where you can have your hair tinted, buy a three-carat diamond and snack on lemon creme brulee scones.

But now, to hear some locals tell it, a city plan to build a 40-space parking lot along Mission Street has threatened the very nature of the district -- and brought out some very un-San Marino behavior in the process.

"We don't want any antagonism," Vice Mayor Betty Brown said last week to residents who packed the City Council chambers, spilling into the hall. "If everyone could remain civil, it would help."

For this cozy city of 13,000, where council members greet those who speak before them by first name, the admonition seemed, at best, out of character. But so did the boos hurled at one speaker.

"Quiet out there, you rabble rousers," Brown admonished the crowd.

Rabble rousers? In San Marino, where the average house sells for almost $800,000?

Well, yes. This is Southern California, and the issue is parking.

Residents and business owners along Mission say a lack of parking has been a problem since at least 1990. Nearby homeowners complain that shoppers crowd their streets and block their driveways, especially on weekends.

Owners of two of the boulevard's big-draw businesses said they have tried to find solutions. William Bell, owner of the Gates of Spain hair salon, estimated that he has paid $10,000 this year to the owner of a local gas station for extra spaces for his patrons and employees.

Sue Campoy, owner of Julienne restaurant, estimated that she had spent $8,000. "That's a lot of brownies," marveled the woman responsible for introducing San Marino to brownies of the espresso chocolate cream cheese variety.

In 2000, an ad hoc parking committee concluded that the area needed about 61 more off-street parking spaces. The next year, a consultant offered four pages of short-term fixes and five long-term solutions, one of which was to "explore the possibility of building a parking lot or structure in the Mission Business District."

But that would mean taking private land through eminent domain in a city that is famously conservative. Interim City Manager Rob Wishner said San Marino had never done such a thing.

Still, the plan for a parking lot moved forward quickly -- too quickly, opponents say.

The city zeroed in on property at 2410/2420 Mission, a narrow lot with two houses, one in front of the other.

Walter and Susan Reutimann, who also own the Mission Nursery down the street, rent out the houses, which they acquired from the city in 1999 as part of a land swap for a former gas station that is now an office and retail complex at the Mission District's eastern end.

After studying a few potential sites, the city concluded that the Reutimann property would be "on balance ... the most appropriate site for this parking lot project," according to a staff report.

The Reutimanns, however, are unwilling to give up their land easily. They and other critics say that razing the homes would destroy part of the city's legacy. The houses were built in 1908 and 1909, before San Marino incorporated, and are thought to be among the oldest in the city.

Before the council meeting, Walter Reutimann said he had never spoken with city officials about selling his property. The only communication he had received, he said, was a letter from the city offering to buy his property for $509,000 -- far less than he and his neighbors say the homes are worth.

Although it's difficult to find prices for comparable properties, in part because there are two houses on the lot, other homes in the area of similar size are for sale for $800,000 and up.

Wishner, who acknowledged that seizing the property "is not the best resolution," said the city had tried repeatedly to discuss the issue with Walter Reutimann.

"The mayor and myself paid him a visit at his business.... He just absolutely doesn't want to consider sale of property," Wishner said.

Opponents of the project say the city unfairly rejected three gas stations along the street as parking lot sites. At least two them are for sale. The city says those sites would be too costly or would yield too few spaces.

For the recent council meeting, opponents arrived with maps and petitions, fortifying themselves for a battle that might as well have been against the pending arrival of a 7-Eleven or Wal-Mart. They wore stickers on their lapels reading: "Homes Not Cars. Stop the Lot."

Paul Van Ness, who lives on the Reutimann property, told the council that the two Craftsman houses are among the more beautiful homes in the area -- and unlike the homes of various council members. "They are not gingerbread, or fake English Tudor," he said. "They're genuinely beautiful homes."

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