By Raymond R. Beltrán
Searching for Balance in Old Town, Part Two
(In part one, we looked at the community’s concerns regarding the mixed use of land in Old Town National City. In part two, the business community responds to these concerns.)
“They seem to be sympathetic like they’re trying to help, but we haven’t seen any tangible results,” says Carmen Roa, a member of the St. Anthony’s Organizing Ministry (SAOM). “They’re not concentrating on us, housing, pollution, or parking. We’ve seen some results like the trash getting picked up, and they’ve put up a stop sign, [but] the main thing we are asking the mayor for is to find a business district to build in.”
For approximately a year now, the SAOM has been steadfast in addressing their concerns to the city council about the industrialization of Old Town National City and the affects it has on the community residents’ health.
In a meeting with National City Mayor Nick Inzunza last month, the community addressed the city council about the living conditions they’ve endured in Old Town. Violeta Monroy, a concerned mother among many, has recently quit her job to care for her son, Brandon, who’s been held back a grade level due to his numerous absences related to a severe asthmatic condition. Kimball Elementary School principal, Dr. Nancy Waters, addressed her concern for other students dealing with the same health issues as Brandon Monroy, and the dilapidated school attendance records it causes. As former, long time residents seeking to resurrect a historic town they used to live in, Carmen and Refugio Roa have organized with the community in order to accomplish something never seen before in Old Town … change for the community.
It wasn’t until the 1940s that this historic residential neighborhood was classified as Light Manufacturing (ML). According to National City’s General Plan / Zoning Map Designations, an ML area is “intended for uses near residential, commercial or environmentally sensitive areas, [and] permits low density, high quality industrial activities.” This type of area is also subject to automotive businesses as well. In a letter from SAOM to the City Council, it was highlighted that the 1970s and 1980s saw a drastic industrial boom in Old Town. What seemed to be the City Council’s act of trying to balance out the industrial and residential communities almost a decade ago, turned out to be a new zoning classification for Old Town.
In 1996, the city replaced the ML classification to Light Manufacturing Residential (MLR). It aloud for more single-family homes to be built, and removed the manufacturing community away from Paradise Creek in order to construct an Educational Park. What the new classification did not do is separate industrial business’ toxic air pollutants from the Old Town National City residents.
As an auto garage manager for B & S Auto Body & Paint since 1999, Carlos Terrones says that Old Town is an ideal area for industrial business because the freeway is so accessible, and because automotive repair shops in Old Town work in somewhat of a reciprocal relationship. Car rental agencies, among other customers, send automotive body repair work to B & S, and the mechanical repairs they cannot fix are sent to fellow Old Town auto garages. He says the work is partly seasonal. In the winter business dies down, but in the busy summer season, B & S can paint up to thirty cars in one week.
The SAOM, the EPA, and the Environmental Health Coalition (EHC) attribute so many health defects to this particular type of business. According to a memo sent from EHC’s representative Joy Williams, there are over 200 businesses permitted to store hazardous materials, “diesel fuel, fuel oil, wood preservatives, gasoline, metal plating solutions, paints, welding gases, etc.” (Environmental Health Coalition: Summary of Air Quality Information and Concerns in National City, 10-24-03).
“I imagine they probably do [have a valid argument],” says Terrones about the Old Town residents. “I’m sure the residents are exposed to some kind of toxins. I could understand their argument, but we comply with all EPA regulations. I don’t see why it can’t continue this way.”
According to Terrones, B & S is under the heavy eye of safety regulators from the EPA, the fire department, and Quality Air Control. He says that all of his employees must wear the proper protection when painting cars, which, he highlights, is done in a spraying room. Working for one of the more toxic businesses in the area, Terrones says that his relationship with the residents has only reached the extent of struggling for parking spaces.
“There is a strong business community and they want to keep it that way,” says Director of the Community Development Commission (CDC), Paul Desrochers. “There is a preparation for a master plan, where the [residents] could participate in the planning and the mayor’s for that.”
The City Council of National City currently has three master plans, the development of Downtown, Highland Avenue, and Plaza Boulevard. Old Town lies in the west side of National City, east of the Interstate 5 Freeway, which Desrochers says is as much of a priority as the other projects. He also claims that nothing was done in the past because “the previous commission didn’t think it was appropriate.”
The plan for Old Town National City will have to be extreme in its endeavors to balance the relationship between business and residential communities, but Desrochers says that before decisions are made, there has to be a lot of discussion and research. He says that the CDC is currently working with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to attain $150,000 in grants. The money would go directly to a study conducted by the EPA in order to inspect the area for housing density and also to find out which businesses are compatible the residential neighborhoods.
According to Desrochers, so many businesses are attracted to this particular area because of lenient “grandfather state and county regulations” that reside over them, and a business can do almost anything they want.
“Auto body shops are undesirable,” says Desrochers about the compatibility issue. “Places where buses sit and idle exhaust fumes and other auto related businesses are undesirable.”
Roger Post, Planning Director for National City’s Planning Commission, says that rezoning businesses doesn’t necessarily mean a new area will be successful, and that land use will be a key issue in the preparation stages of their plan. According to Post, the new plan might gear towards creating and implementing contemporary regulations for industries. He also denies that there is a predetermined, industrial plan for Old Town National City.
“Any planning process has to consider input from all the community. That’s something we’re going to have to look at,” says Post. “But, if there are particular properties that folks think is causing a problem, we could refer that to the Air Pollution Control District.”
One of the issues somewhat resolved in 1986 was auto shops conducting business on a minimal amount of property, causing them to be planted feet away from residencies. The problem was remedied in an ordinance requiring that all auto shops must have at least 7,500 square feet of property to repair vehicles, but for residents today, the resolution acts as one of many tokens in dealing with the real issue at hand, the imbalance of the mixed use of Town National City, Post and Desrochers have both committed to the completion of the first step of examination in twelve to eighteen months, and have said that this project is a priority and will correspond with those of Highland Avenue, the Philippino Village on Plaza Boulevard, and Downtown.
“The community needs to get together with the planners,” says Desrochers. “They need to come with the business community to see how [the process] could be cooperative.”
The SAOM, elected officials, and businesses all agree on one thing, employment is a necessity. And even though it seems that there aren’t any notable resentments building between concerned residents and business owners, it will be up to the CDC, National City’s Planning Commission, and Mayor Nick Inzunza’s city plans to direct both the future of a struggling community’s health in Old Town and the security of employment in a parallel industrial neighborhood.