By Barbara Zaragoza
In the last two parts of my series, I reported that eastern Chula Vista will increase by 60,000 residents within the next 20 years. The area will include a new University, a downtown area called “Millenia” replete with 3.5 million square feet of office space and at least three hotels. The hope is that eastern Chula Vista will provide abundant new jobs, and that the city’s stereotype as a “bedroom community” will disappear.
City staff as well as developers envision a region that will include professors, engineers, highly trained athletes and international tourists. Boutique shops, gourmet restaurants and a transit system should bring even more people to this bustling downtown. An explosion of binational trade is anticipated, since the border is only 2 miles away and executives will be able to use the Tijuana bridge to go directly in and out of the Tijuana International Airport.
While talking to city officials and developers, I have found their excitement to be authentic. The hotels are certainly something community members in eastern Chula Vista have been waiting for, along with abundant local jobs and public transportation. But I’m a writer, not a marketer, and I have to ask myself: is there something wrong with this picture?
Community members need to get involved now. They need to know how the developments are shaping themselves. When community members don’t show up to City Council meetings to advocate for their interests, their viewpoints aren’t taken into account. Once the development is complete, there will be very little input available. So, the following questions arose while I listened, observed and researched. I have answers to some, but not others:
Will There Be Enough Water?
This is the number one question many community members ask… and I always wonder: why? San Diego County does not have enough water — and it never has had enough water. We live in a semi-arid environment where drought has been a problem since the early 1900’s. The County of San Diego currently imports at least 80% of its water.
Eastern Chula Vista, specifically, is part of the Otay Water District. Back in March 2015 I wrote a 4-part series that included an interview with General Manager, Mark Watton. In summary, he explained that he has worked hard to secure water rights from many different sources. The Otay Water District also has a recycling plant, which provides irrigation to golf courses and city property, among others. Additionally, Watton is looking into the Rosarito Desalination plant, which could be one of the largest water resources in Southern California. He has known about Chula Vista’s eastern expansion for a long time and has planned all along to secure greater water rights in order to accommodate the new influx of residents.
Will There Be Enough Parkland?
I also interviewed Supervisor Greg Cox who showed me the large amount of land set aside for parks, recreation and also a nature preserve in the Otay area. You can read the entire interview, but in summary, Supervisor Cox explained that of the 23,000 acres of Otay Ranch land, 62% will be left in permanent open space. For every acre of land that is developed, the developer has donated 1.188 acres of open space.
What’s more, the Otay River Valley Regional Park will be close to 9,000 acres when opened and the vision is to create a highly sought-after outdoor recreation destination right next to the Olympic Training Center.
Will There Be Enough Schools And How Will They Be Paid For?
Now this should be the greatest concern. Currently, many western Chula Vista schools stand in dilapidated conditions. Meanwhile, the state-of-the-art schools in eastern Chula Vista are considered to be severely impacted.
The Long Range Facility Master Plan (pg. 3) of the Sweetwater Union High School District projects that by 2030 there will be another 1,500 Middle School students and 3,500 high school students. The District currently owns 27.18 acres of land along Hunte Parkway where a facility could be built. Is it enough? Is there money? Can the construction be expedited in a timely manner?
The Chula Vista Elementary School District is also gearing to build another 10 to 11 elementary schools before completion of all Otay Ranch villages. (Remember Villages 3, 4, 8, 9 and 10 are still under development.) The land is owned by the developers who then give it to the schools.
Todd Galarneau, Executive Vice President of Planning & Land Development for Meridian Development, explains: “The mandatory state school fees only pay a portion of what is necessary to build schools. We go out and form what are called Community Facilities Districts, so it’s a public financing district that funds that school construction on a much higher level. It’s usually several times what the school fees would otherwise generate, which allows the school district – and they’ve been incredibly efficient at this – to pool those dollars. For a period of time they were averaging, and it’s just absolutely incredible, they were building a new school every year out in Otay Ranch.”
Landfills, Western CV, Affordable Housing & Binational Developers
Otay Landfill. Is the Otay Landfill a problem? I asked Eric Crockett, Economic Development Director of Chula Vista, this question during one of his power point presentations. He explained that the Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs) say the landfill is not an issue, since it is a very far away from the Otay Ranch development. The landfill is also surrounded by industrial businesses, which provides a buffer to residential communities.
I tried to get an interview with someone at the landfill to find out more. I called several times trying to set up an appointment, but nobody returned my calls. We community members deserve to know about our nearby landfill — who dumps there, what gets dumped there, how much, how is it processed and are there are plans for expanding the landfill? Those are all unanswered questions that could significantly impact the Otay Ranch community over the next twenty to fifty years.
Western Chula Vista. While development continues in eastern Chula Vista, what about the historic western half, known to begin West of the I-805? Western Chula Vistans complain of run-down parks, roads in shambles, an increasing homeless population and many other infrastructure concerns. With money, such as the $5 million the city spent on affordable housing units at Millenia, as well as the money Chula Vista may have to shell out each year to maintain the Olympic Training Center (the number may hover in the millions), does that mean western Chula Vista’s infrastructure will be neglected? Where will Chula Vista’s taxpayer money go — to the East or West?
Affordable Housing. Todd Galarneau explained that the Millenia Project will include 210 affordable housing units. Is that considered enough? How much affordable housing should we be integrating into our communities? And what about a homeless shelter? Should eastern Chula Vista welcome far more people of all income levels and advocate for compassionate social services for the unfortunate?
Eastern Chula Vista is already considered the wealthiest part of the South Bay. Some estimates show that the average salary in the Eastlake area is $90,000. So far, city staff and developers describe an upscale, high-end, La Jolla-type community.
As Todd Garaneal explains, the Millenia project envisions a hybrid community of urban & suburban features. You have everything mixed together — offices, retail, apartments, a library, schools and a fire station. Should the development also include homeless shelters, social services for battered women and large comfortable public restrooms in parks?
The Selected Developers. Galarneau also explained that Meridian hand-picked their developers. You’ll recall him saying:
“Instead of going out to the market and just taking the highest bidders and letting them come into the project, we’re very selective in our builders. Throughout this project we found very quality builders. Early into the project we wanted to see the retail, the hotel and the office. There just really wasn’t a market for any of those land uses out there, so what we did was we went out there and identified very specific builders that we wanted to be part of our merchant builder program in Millenia.”
Sudberry Properties, for example, has well-known retail establishments throughout San Diego County and most people can see that their projects are of exceptional quality. Galarneau certainly has a point.
However, has there been true diversity and fairness by hand picking developers?
If Eric Crockett says the city wants a binational region, with a binational university, exchange students from Mexico and executives who use the Tijuana International Airport, shouldn’t the developers involved in Otay Ranch’s construction also be ethnically diverse and/or have a large number of females who are CEO’s of these companies? The companies mentioned that have the most invested in the Otay Ranch development had websites showing all-males at the helm, mostly white. Stratford Land Company. Sudberry Properties. Lee Chestnut of Chestnut Properties. Roam around these websites to see what I mean.
Otay Ranch will, above all, be an ethnically diverse minority-majority region. (Eastern Chula Vista already is.) Are these developers properly representing the executives and residents who plan to move in? One thing I immediately noticed was the lack of a grand Plaza that could have been integrated into the design.
What Community Members Can Do
Community members, city staff and developers do have some mutual concerns regarding eastern expansion: they wonder if this vision will indeed take off. To be successful, there are some things community members could do already:
Buy From Non-Chain Stores. In order to have more people stay and work within eastern Chula Vista, locals need to succeed with the small businesses they own. That means, residents need to buy local. Chain stores abound, but it’s also obvious that “the little guy” still struggles. Whereas an area like Little Italy thrives on small businesses, in eastern Chula Vista the Denny’s and Walmart are packed, while the small restaurants and shops often can’t seem to attract customers. Buy from the non-chain stores. In the long run, it will make the eastern Chula Vista vision a success.
Find Ways Not To Use Your Cars. Transportation has to be a priority. How can habits change so that residents ride bikes, walk or take public transportation? As the influx of residents grows, will eastern Chula Vistans continue to get into their cars and glut the roads or will they seek out other options? Right now, Meridian worked with SANDAG to put the Bus Rapid Transit into the first phase of the development. It’s a bus. What about a trolley line or a train station?
Advocate For City Property To Be Turned Into What’s Beneficial For The Community. Finally, public property is your property. Don’t take it for granted. The City, the County, the school districts, the public transportation systems — they all hold property. Those properties don’t belong to private owners, they belong to us. Activate those properties. Clamor to see them used constructively. Do you want a park? A nature preserve? A private owner building another Aquatica? A homeless shelter? More affordable housing? Whenever there’s public property, know that it belongs to the public and if residents have enough community support for a vision that activates that property, it can happen.