By Christianne McCormick
Photo: Project approved for 4757 Palm Ave. in La Mesa’s downtown village, courtesy City of La Mesa
January 23, 2023 (La Mesa) -- On January 10, La Mesa’s City Council ratified the Design Review Board’s approval of the Palm Avenue Apartments, which are slated to be built at the same site where the historic Randall Lamb building burned down during the 2020 George Floyd riots. The vote was 4-0, with Councilmember Laura Lothian abstaining because her office is close to the site.
The development has brought about much debate among La Mesa residents. The five-story building would house 64 rental units, with only 29 parking spaces – less than one for each unit. There will also be room for at least one business in the building, where apartment rents are expected to start at around $1,000 for units designated as affordable and run from $2,100 to $2,900 for other units, per the developer, Palm Street Ventures LLC.
Concerns raised in public testimony echoed those voiced in prior sessions. Lack of available parking spaces for tenants is a major concern for many La Mesa residents. Some project opponents argued that increased parking problems combined with the site’s location could tarnish the village’s charm. Some also showed concern over the affordable units being located on the bottom floor, subjecting those tenants to a higher likelihood of property theft.
Some residents have previously complained about lack of notice of the project, which was on the Design Review Board’s agenda, though no notices were sent to nearby residents or businesses. There is no legal requirement to do so, according to the city, though some other communities have broader mandatory or voluntary announcements of major projects.
City attorney Glenn Sabine reiterated to the public that the deadline had passed to make any appeals on the site’s location, so the Council could only make decisions on the new development’s design.
“Design review is basically what the project looks like. All the other authorizations that were necessary to put the project in place have already been acted upon and the appeals they have expired,” Sabine explained. “If you are asking the Council about the siting of the development or something related to the development standards such as parking or height, that’s not what’s before them today.”
Many public comments that were submitted that evening showed how most La Mesans are still deeply concerned over the Palm Avenue project. Gary Lorenz shared, “I speak to you tonight coming from the perspective of a La Mesa resident and a professional registered engineer regarding the Palm Avenue apartment project.” In the summer of 2018, he moved from the city of Irvine in Orange County to La Mesa. “The charm of downtown La Mesa and the Mt. Helix neighborhood impressed me,” he said, noting that this area stood in stark contrast to the master plan of Irvine. Lorenz continued, “I speak here tonight in favor of maintaining and growing that charm rather than seeing it diminished by ill-advised development projects.”
Lauren M. Cazares was one of a very few La Mesa residents who showed support for the Palm Avenue Project. “I just want to start by saying ‘community character’ is used as a cop-out for not building these affordable housing and mixed-use housing anywhere,” she said. ”It’s not something that’s just specific to La Mesa or the village but it is something that we see across the nation and especially in the State of California.” She continued, “We need to move this forward so that we can move forward with affordable housing in the City of La Mesa. There is nothing that is going to take away the character of La Mesa Village. La Mesa Village is not being threatened. This is an empty lot we are building on.”
Despite the dissent over the new apartment project, the Council also acknowledged some new efforts and achievements made by the city.
Councilmember Laura Lothian announced enthusiastically, “The Property Improvement Grant program is alive,” adding, “I’m hearing from a lot of small businesses they’re very excited to get financial help with canopies, awnings, signs, landscaping, and all that kind of thing.” She noted that it is a simple form to fill out, not like a tax return. “I encourage businesses to take advantage of it before the funds run out,” she told the meeting’s attendees.
Lothian recited an invocation which alluded to the new grant program: “Many communities have found ways to retain their small-town values, historic character, and sense of community yet sustain a prosperous economy and they’ve done it without accepting the kind of cookie cutter development that has turned many communities into faceless places that young people flee, tourist avoid and no longer instill a pride in residence. Successful communities have strong leaders and committed citizens. Successful communities have high expectations. They know that community identity is more important than corporate design preferences. Successful communities pay attention to aesthetics, they protect historic buildings and they encourage new construction to fit with existing community. Mark Twain put it this way, ‘We take stock of a city like we take stock of a man. The clothes or appearance are the externals by which we judge.’”
Lothian’s invocation she explained, was a quote from ‘Secrets of Successful Small Communities’ by Edward T. Mcmahon.
City Hall was filled to the brim with attendants that evening, many of whom were fire department personnel, to help to celebrate the swearing in of Chief Bent Koch. (Photo, right, by Christianne McCormick)
“I assume that’s why we are exceeding the legal fire capacity today?” Mayor Arapostathis said jokingly before the swearing in commenced. Koch stood before Mayor Arapostathis and City Council members with his hand raised ready to take on his new position. The swearing in process was performed by City Clerk Megan Wiegelman; after the ceremony concluded the attendants responded with roaring applause.
City Council also got to hear presentations from those who applied for the city’s Planning Commission and the Arts and Culture Commission. Those selected to serve for those commissions will be decided on January 24.
The elected officials who were present at the meeting were Mayor Mark Arapostathis, Vice Mayor Colin Parent, Councilmembers Laura Lothian, Jack Shu, and newly elected Councilmember Patricia Dillard. City Treasurer Matthew Strabone, City Manager Greg Humora, City Attorney Glenn Sabine, and City Clerk Megan Wiegelman were also present.