Nov. 24 2010 10:19 AM

How a well-intentioned law messed with a community-friendly shop

The now-closed Latte Mi Corazon
Photo by kelly Davis
For seven years, Latté Mi Corazon was a Sherman Heights community hub. A funky coffeehouse with a large outdoor patio, it was where local artists displayed their wares, activists held meetings and political aides had first dates. Tony Young, a City Council member representing Southeast San Diego, often stopped by for a Meximocha. City Councilmember-elect David Alvarez, whose district covers the surrounding neighborhoods, celebrated his election-night victory there.

Two weeks ago, community leaders, politicos, activists and residents gathered at the shop one last time. Latté Mi Corazon was closing, tripped up by a zoning violation that the city had brought to the owners’ attention in 2003 but failed to follow up on until earlier this year.

Standing on a table and speaking through a microphone, co-owner Jerry Guzman-Vergara explained to the packed crowd what happened: Latté’s window-fronted coffee bar and vine-covered patio jut out from Guzman- Vergara’s house. The property is zoned for multiple use—it can be a business or residence, but not both—not mixed-use, which would have allowed it to be both a business and residence. Under the southeastern San Diego Community Plan, the official document that guides land use and zoning in the area, mixed-use isn’t allowed. Guzman-Vergara’s house is a historic property, and he could have applied for a permit that would have allowed him to keep the coffeehouse open, but it would have cost $6,000 to $14,000—too much for his small business.

“We had to make a very tough decision,” he said, “but we had to make a business decision.”

The irony is that the land-use rules that pushed out Sherman Heights’ only coffeehouse were meant to ward off a wholly different sort of business. When it was approved in 1987, the southeastern San Diego Community Plan banned mixed-use to prevent industrial businesses like exhaust-belching metal-plating shops from locating near residences.

“Do you want a plating company below and then [people] living above?” said Louise Torio, a historic preservationist who serves on the Sherman Heights / Grant Hill Revitalization Team

But mixed-use, when done right, is a smart way to revitalize built-out urban areas like Sherman Heights, a tiny neighborhood bordered by G Street to north, Imperial Avenue to the south and 19th and 25th streets to the west and east. It’s the largest historic district in San Diego, filled with some of the city’s loveliest turn-of-the-century homes. Yet the predominantly Latino enclave has struggled for years to support small businesses, and even basic services. There’s an elementary school that was built to reflect the neighborhood’s historic character, but there’s no bank or supermarket.

Almost as soon as the zoning change was made, it was identified as a setback to development in a neighborhood that, at that point, was wracked by crime and neglect. The Sherman Heights Revitalization Action Program, a community-generated plan for revitalizing the neighborhood that was approved by the San Diego City Council in 1995, noted this.

“Historic residential sites located along the commercial zones must be allowed… to be developed either commercially or residentially, or both,” the report said.

Outlawing mixed-use “was throwing out the baby with the bath water,” Torio said. “Mixed-use is a wonderful planning tool to have live-work situations, but because they’re not allowed in all of Southeast San Diego… we don’t have that tool.”

A city-commissioned study will take a hard look at the neighborhood’s land-use map early next year, with an eye toward fostering development along Imperial and Commercial avenues, the main corridors that run through five neighborhoods east of Downtown, including Sherman Heights. That study, funded with a $400,000 grant from the San Diego Association of governments, will be the first step in an effort to bring affordable housing and more small businesses into parts of the city currently populated with liquor stores, tire shops and junk yards.

But community leaders and city planners agree that any comprehensive changes to zoning in Sherman Heights won’t come quickly.

“Long gone are the days where people are just going to get together and march in protest over the changes they want to be made,” said Liliana Garcia-Rivera, vice-president of the Sherman Heights Community Center. “You have to go to the boring meetings.”

Alvarez, who’ll be sworn in to office on Dec. 6, said he’d like to see some iconic thoroughfares in his district.

“There’s a lot of potential to just bring a lot of interest into those areas if you can help maintain some of the current businesses that exist there, but also bring in new businesses and new opportunities with places that are attractive to people, like restaurants and nightlife,” he told CityBeat. “I think it could be really, really fascinating in the next couple of years if we could start working in that direction.”

City planner Karen Bucey said it will take a year or two to study everything—from big-picture issues like zoning to smaller details like the style of the area’s streetlights.

“Are there compatible uses? Incompatible uses? Is there industrial next to residential? Or next to a school? I don’t know,” she said. “Those things will all be studied and looked at.”

And that’s only the beginning of the process. That study’s conclusions will be used to update Southeast San Diego’s community plan. The plan update will be costly—up to $2 million—and could take a couple of years to complete. Right now, the city has no money to pay for it—last year, the state took the redevelopment funds that had been set aside for the plan update in order to fill its own budget gap. But, Bucey said, the state has recommended that the city receive a $1 million grant to update the plan.

Until then, proposed mixed-use projects like Comm22, an affordable-housing development on Commercial Avenue and 22nd Street, must ask the city for an amendment to the community plan—a faster process than a plan update, but one that still requires its own set of studies. Meanwhile, last Friday, Mayor Jerry Sanders said the city’s Planning and Community Investment Department might face staff cuts this coming June.

In the meantime, Sherman Heights has been doing its best to achieve the vision laid out in the Revitalization Action Program, which Torio referred to as “a living document.” When the 117-page plan was approved by the City Council in 1995, gunshots rang out at night, prostitutes plied their trade along Market Street and drug dealers made brisk business near the county welfare office on the corner of 25th Street and Imperial Avenue.

Torio said the community used the “Would they put up with it in La Jolla?” test to push out undesirable activity. The welfare office was closed down, and in its place went an attractive police station that includes a community center, a nofee ATM and public art in the form of grillwork with an African-mask motif on the parking garage. Residents filed restraining orders against known streetwalkers, organized a neighborhood watch and held bilingual meetings with the police every two weeks.

“When we got to the point of complaining about skateboarders, we knew that our problems were pretty much solved,” Torio said.

Though the revitalization plan envisioned full implementation by 2000, there’s still a lot to be done—from street improvements to plans for a plaza at Imperial Avenue and 25th Street—that will have to wait until the economy and the city’s budget are in better shape.

“I’d like to see some of the homes be restored—you know, the old Victorians,” said James Justus, who lives a couple of blocks away from James Automotive, the business he’s owned on Imperial Avenue since 1986. Up until recently, Justus served on the task force that oversaw the revitalization plan’s implementation.

As for Latté Mi Corazon, Guzman-Vergara said plans are to operate a coffee cart outside the Sherman Heights Community Center, where he works, as he scouts for new locations along Imperial Avenue. Members of the community consider the move a blessing in disguise, a way to spur development along the corridor.

“It’s such a small business district—we would like to see more of a variety of businesses along Imperial Avenue,” Justus said.

“We at the [community center] were kind of figuring out how we were going to revitalize Imperial Avenue,” Guzman-Vergara told the crowd at the shop’s closing. “We were thinking, We need to talk to the businesses that are on the street and we need to figure out what other businesses we need to bring to the community. I never thought I was going to be the example.”

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