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Grantville Is Split On Subject Of ‘Riverbend’

Aired 8/14/12 on KPBS News.

A plan to turn some beat-up industrial land along the San Diego River into the Riverbend housing development has won over the people Grantville... unless they are opposed to it.

— There’s a stretch of old industrial land between the San Diego River and Mission Gorge Road that some people call a big pile of junk. It’s located in Grantville, and some people in that neighborhood have welcomed a plan to put something different in the area.

Abandoned and industrial lands just north of the San Diego River in Grantville are slated for thousands of new homes. The housing projects include Riverbend, which has been approved by the San Diego City Council.
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Above: Abandoned and industrial lands just north of the San Diego River in Grantville are slated for thousands of new homes. The housing projects include Riverbend, which has been approved by the San Diego City Council.

The different thing they’re looking at is a proposed housing development called Riverbend. Last month it was approved by the San Diego Planning Commission. Next month, Riverbend goes before the city council.

Depending who you ask, it is either a model for urban living that will give San Diegans a rare chance to enjoy the San Diego River. Or it’s a housing complex that’s too dense, too tall and entirely out of place in the land of single-family homes.

Sherm Harmer is an executive with Urban Housing Partners, the development manager of Riverbend.

“This is going to provide a standard…. kind of a prototype of what all development should look like along the river,” said Harmer. “We've oriented the housing to the river. We've put parks and recreation on the River. It's just unprecedented in San Diego. So we're happy to be the first.”

Riverbend would be a community of condos and apartments that are housed in buildings rising to 75 feet. Imagine six to seven stories. There would be 996 housing units.

But its big selling point is the five-acre park the developer plans to build right along the River. Among other things, that won the crucial support of Rob Hutsel of the San Diego River Coalition.

“That's a big deal for us,” said Hutsel. “There's not a lot of park space along the river. When you think about it, is there anyplace along Mission Valley or in Grantville to go and enjoy a river experience? No.”

In fact, the land next to the river in Grantville currently gives no access to the river. It's literally fenced off. But the community of Grantville was not unanimous in its support of Riverbend. In fact its community-planning group, Navajo Community Planners, refused to endorse it.

The opposition is based on concerns about the things that more people, and more housing density, bring to a place, including an estimated 7,600 new car trips a day that could clog local roads.

A new housing project would hug the San Diego River in the neighborhood of Grantville.
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Above: A new housing project would hug the San Diego River in the neighborhood of Grantville.

“I think traffic is the worse part of this whole thing,” said Matthew Kastrinsky, who lives in the Grantville Area.

“Even in their own EIR (Environmental Impact Report), it says they don't deal with traffic mitigation. And as a person who sits in that traffic, just trying to bring my children to preschool, it's horrible,” he said.

Then there's height of the buildings, which the developer originally wanted to be 85 feet.

"It dwarfs the whole neighborhood,” said Rick Fahmie, a Grantville resident, as he spoke to the planning commission.

“I don't know how we get from a 35-foot limit, which Navajo Community Planners recommend, to 85 feet. How does that even get in front of you guys? I don't understand it!" he said.

To understand the concerns about Riverbend, you have to realize this is not an isolated housing tract. In fact, it's not even the first one proposed for the area.

Archstone is the name of a planned development of more than 400 homes. It's already been approved and it's going to be built just one block west of the Riverbend site. And Archstone is the first step in a much larger redevelopment plan that could bring as many as ten thousand new homes to the area near the San Diego River.

In other words, the development of Riverbend isn't just about the estimated 2,000 people it would bring to Grantville. It's also about the 20,000 additional people that could eventually populate the region.

Development manager Sherm Harmer defended the height of Riverbend. He said sometimes you have build higher, and block some views, if you want to leave enough space for a five-acre park.

“So when people just think about the impact of height, they're not thinking about the impacts on the ground,” said Harmer.

Anthony Wagner is a long-time Grantville resident and a member of Navajo Community Planners. He was disappointed the San Diego Planning Commission approved the project in its current form. But he insisted he would support it if community concerns were addressed.

“I'm not opposed to it. I'm not opposed to developing this land. I'm an advocate to developing the land properly,” said Wagner.

Wagner and the developer agree that Riverbend is a prototype for redeveloping the industrial lands that line the San Diego River in Grantville. But they disagree on whether it's setting the kind of example that should be followed in the many other housing tracts, that are expected take root here in the years to come.

The San Diego City Council will be asked to give their approval to the Riverbend project at the end of September.

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