LA MESA TO VOTE TUES. NOV. 25 ON WHETHER TO SELL CIVIC CENTER LAND FOR HOUSING DEVELOPMENT

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By Miriam Raftery

Kristin Hobbs-Kjaero

November 23, 2008 (La Mesa) — Should the site of La Mesa’s Police Station
be sold to the La Mesa Community Redevelopment Agency and turned into a housing
project?

La Mesa’s City Council will consider this issue on Tuesday, November
25th.  The hearing begins at 7:00 p.m.  The property is zoned “Civic
Center” in both the General Plan and in the Village Specific Plan.

Kristin Hobbs-Kjaero, a long-time La Mesa resident and correspondent for East
County Magazine, voiced concerns over the proposal.  “There are
a few limited, specific parcels designated Civic Center. Is housing really
a higher and better use for the community?” she asked.

Mayor Art Madrid said the city took back the old police station property from
a developer who purchased the property to build a mixed use development.  “Because
of the housing crisis, they wanted out and we accepted the property back,” Madrid
said.

Staff has recommended that Council adopt a resolution approving sale of the
existing Police Station (located at 8181 Allison Avenue, across the street
from City Hall). A new Police Station is being built on the site of the old
La Mesa Library.

“The recommendation for the city’s redevelopment agency to take
over the property is the correct decision,” Madrid said, “and what
we will do with it depends on the housing market, etc., but more than likely
when that decision is made, it could be mixed use for a number of reasons.”

Staff also recommends adopting a “negative declaration” for the
property based on an environmental impact study, however, no specific details
were given for what would be built on the site. Because a portion of the site
has been used as a police shooting range, lead remediation may be an issue,
some insiders have suggested.

Madrid called the negative declaration “appropriate because there is
no project to evaluate.”

In a resolution drafted by staff, a yes vote would authorize the “expenditure
of funds from Low and Moderate-Income Housing Funds of the Alvarado Creek and
Fletcher Parkway Projects by the Agency.”

If passed, this would shift $8.35 million over a span of 10 years from housing
funds to the general fund.  The City Council must determine whether the
immediate budget gains from such a transfer justify the longer term ramifications,
particularly given an incremental payment schedule over an extended period
of time.

Pre-election, the city anticipated a $4 million deficit for its
2007-09 budget, a figure likely to increase given recent financial market problems.
The new sales tax increase was based on the argument that the city can no
longer rely on its usual funding sources, yet the proposed sale of the Police
Station property relies on receiving projected housing funds for the next
ten years.

Long time resident Dexter Levy stated, “With the Passage of Prop L (which
implemented a ¾% sales tax increase in La Mesa) and the pending sale
of the Baltimore/ El Cajon Blvd. [property] for $ 4 million, the City’s
immediate need for cash flow should have been set aside for the time being,
thus the sale of the Police Station should not be needed for the support of
cash flow.”

Madrid said Prop L was intended to provide the city with a reliable income
source for vital services, not the city’s only income source.  “The
economy is in the tank for the next three to five years. Retail sales are way
down and will continue to be,” he noted, “and our portion of that
tax, even with the new salse tax initiative, is not the salvation of our city,” he
added. 

The Mayor said he does not consider the parcel to be civic center land.  “That
distinction belongs to our current campus which is all one piece of land including
the old Post Office,” he said, adding that he’d like to hear concerned
citizens’ ideas if someone has a better proposed use for the property. “Of
course entering into a joint development is not off the table, but developers
aren’t necessarily enamored with these types of deals,” he added.

Levy is concerned that once the property is sold, “the City will be
unable to use this property for anything that might benefit of the General
Public.” He would like to see the property used for much needed public
parking in the Village and next to the Trolley stop.

City Manager Sandra Kerl said the city will retain flexibility by selling
to the redevelopment agency. “At the time the property is developed,
a decision could be made. If there is a higher and better use at that time,
that still could be accommodated, the redevelopment agency could be repaid
and the property transferred.”

Kerl noted that La Mesa receives a higher percentage of tax revenues in redevelopment
areas and that such funds are required to be used for affordable housing developments.
She added that the negative impact finding applies only to the property’s
sale and that a separate environmental impact report would be done prior to
any development.

Councilwoman Ruth Stirling noted, “If you don't use housing set aside
funds within a certain time frame you lose the funding.”

Kjaero concluded, “It is important that the Council receive public input
on this decision, because it will affect the character of our Village for generations
to come. Once Civic Center parcels are gone, they cannot be replaced.”

Council Members can be e-mailed
via the City's website
.

Editor Miriam Raftery is a national award-winning
journalist and a native of La Mesa.