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Public comment deadline is January 19

By Mike Allen

January 6, 2017 (El Cajon) -- El Cajon is making plans to create nearly 5,000 new homes through a rezoning program that would amend zoning in four areas of the city, enabling formerly commercial properties to include future residential units.

The effort has been underway for a few years, but picked up steam in November when the City Council determined the city’s unmet housing number to be 4,909; meeting this demand could be achieved by applying an overlay zone to existing commercial zones. The designation gives property owners the ability to do residential development in addition to retaining commercial and/or retail uses.

Melissa Devine, the city’s senior planner, speaking at a public meeting Jan. 5 describing the zoning program, said the overlay zoning won’t change the commercial zone, but gives property owners new options for future development if they choose to do so.

“They can do either mixed use (commercial and residential) or just residential,” Devine said. “It really adds options for development rather than taking things away.”

The four designated areas for the overlay zone are the downtown core, the Fletcher Parkway corridor, Parkway Plaza and Arnele Avenue Transit Center, and the East Main Street corridor.

The city has prepared a preliminary environmental impact report outlining the proposed changes and how these changes would affect existing conditions as part of its update of its general plan. The EIR can be viewed at www.cityofelcajon.us/rezoning-program, or at the El Cajon and Fletcher Hills branch libraries.

At the meeting held Jan. 5 at the El Cajon branch library, 14 attendees got to view detailed maps of the four areas, as well as some possible ideas that could happen within those areas.

By creating the overlay zone to commercially-zoned properties, the city is hoping to attract developers to build new housing close to already developed commercial areas, creating a much different feel, said Tony Schute, the city’s deputy director of community development.

“We’re trying to encourage activity, and new life in areas like downtown and Fletcher Hills,” Schute said.

Some of those attending the meeting weren’t sure that the changes would benefit their properties.

Janet Pedersen, who with her husband owns a building on South Orange Street in the downtown core area, said more residents would mean more cars, and an increase of residents taking parking spaces now reserved for her customers.

“If (the current parking arrangement) isn’t working now, what are you going to do to solve it in the future?” Pedersen asked city officials.

She was told that parking in the area is now sufficient, and many spaces go unused, but Pedersen wasn’t buying it.

“We’re in the yellow area (in the downtown core). If there’s going to be denser housing what’s their plan for parking?” she said. “I don’t know if this is good for us.”

The yellow zoned area calls for mixed use, but requires a minimum of 50 percent of the floor space allotted to residential if owners redevelop their sites. A much larger red area calls for mixed use, with no minimum residential required.

Owners were assured they are under no mandate to do anything, and that their current uses aren’t changing. They were also told that the city no longer uses eminent domain power to acquire parcels after Gov. Jerry Brown ended the state’s redevelopment agencies.

Among the concepts city planners showed on enlarged renderings was one for a vacant lot on Avocado Avenue near the El Cajon Courthouse that featured a commercial office building along with one that could accommodate 10,000 square feet of residential space, or nine, two-bedroom units.

Another rendering showed how a strip mall at Garfield Avenue and Fletcher Parkway might be transformed into a parcel that holds five separate buildings, including two designated for residential.

The pictures were simply ideas for these sites, not specific plans, and how they could be configured was up to each individual owner, said Lorena Cordova, the city’s associate planner.

According to the preliminary EIR, the largest number of new houses, or 3,646 units, would go in the Parkway Plaza and Arnele Avenue Transit Center area.