As peace begins to break out in the Middle East, a quieter war could bubble to the surface over land surrounding San Diego's oldest active synagogue, a classic conflict pitting a well-connected development team against opponents of unbridled growth.
The epicenter of the debate occurs within the shadow of the recently remodeled Mr. A's building, just blocks from Balboa Park and an area known as Park West on maps but by residents and ever-expanding signage as Bankers Hill, once a tony neighborhood that the city's elite financial barons and members of high society called home.
Just two blocks to the west down Laurel Street, the historic Temple Beth Israel sits patiently awaiting its fate. Now the home to Ohr Shalom, a new congregation with close ties to Latin America, the 76-year-old synagogue is playing a pivotal role in a melodrama that could determine how San Diego treats its older neighborhoods, whether as charming residential pockets that deserve preservation or simply as a “dumping ground” for new residential high-rises, as one resident put it.
“There are people in the development community who would like to see this area become downtown,” said Paul de la Houssaye, a neighborhood resident and a member of the Uptown Planners, the volunteer group that advises the city on area development issues. “There's a lot of pressure in the area to try to extend downtown, even though we are not downtown! We have a lot of historic buildings that are single-family and two- and three-family-type places, and that's the character of the neighborhood.”
Enter Peter Janopaul and Anthony Block, partners in life as well as in the residential high-rise business. The duo, who gained local notoriety-and political friends-as the long-sought saviors of downtown's El Cortez Hotel (now a thriving apartment building), now have their sights set on the block where Temple Beth Israel sits.
Bounded by Second and Third avenues and Laurel and Maple streets, the 60,000-square-foot chunk of land is, to be sure, not a pretty site, save for the grandeur of the domed synagogue and its towering stained-glass windows. But even the temple has seen better days. Cracks blanket the temple's exterior. Boarded-up arches under the dome are beginning to lose their plywood protectors. A social hall and a school adjacent to the temple also could use some primping.
But as Raulf Polichar, president of the Ohr Shalom congregation, told CityBeat this week, “Of course it needs work, but now it is our home.”
The story of how Ohr Shalom came to inhabit the temple, after the much-larger Beth Israel congregation moved in 2001 onto a spacious new campus in University Towne Centre, is a tortured one. And indeed, much of the story remains shrouded in a hazy mix of diplomatic cordiality (on the part of congregation members intent on staying put) and curious silence (on the part of Janopaul and Block, who chose not to talk to CityBeat).
But at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, July 9, in the temple's social hall, that silence is expected to be shattered when the developers hold a community forum on their plans to develop the western half of the block adjacent to the synagogue-and everyone agrees, the proposal this time around is immense.
On the 30,000-square-foot sloping pad upon which eight dilapidated, ocher-colored apartments and a parking lot now sit, Janopaul and Block are proposing a narrow, rectangular 14-story, 167-unit condominium structure that would rise above even Mr. A's, opponents fume. While a 12-story condo tower and 10-story retirement home stand only a block to the north, these opponents argue that those high-rises would have never passed muster in today's development climate and even so, they will be dwarfed by the expanse of the Janopaul and Block plan.
When Janopaul unveiled a rendering of the plan at a recent Uptown Planners subcommittee meeting, some in the audience groaned. It was not long before Janopaul scooped up his rendering and a stack of informational flyers he had set out and left the meeting. According to meeting attendees, he had said that the first of two “community workshops” on the proposal would be held June 25, but that forum never took place. (Janopaul initially suggested the meetings be held at the El Cortez, more than a mile away, but he was convinced to move them to the temple's social hall, attendees added.)
Some at the meeting described the plan as “a long box” and “a lot of steel and glass.” CityBeat attempted to get a copy of the rendering, but like the interview requests, that appeal was also rejected. “Check in a couple of weeks,” an e-mailed reply suggested late last week.
The perception of defensiveness on the part of the developers has some area residents wondering whether the plan already has the nod of the folks who will likely be the ultimate judges, members of the San Diego City Council.
Janopaul, who became the first openly gay member of the San Diego Port Commission, got there on the recommendation of Mayor Dick Murphy, who has not exactly been the best friend of San Diego's gay community, a solid voting bloc that Murphy could use in his 2004 re-election bid. Janopaul quit the Port Commission last year after a little more than a year on the job, claiming he didn't like the back-room politics of the gig. Some commissioners, to this day, are baffled by his departure from such a plum appointment.
The fix may already be in the mix “to bring downtown uptown,” said Ernie Bonn, a long-time area activist and another member of the Uptown Planners. “That's one of the big problems we're seeing.”
Under existing zoning, de la Houssaye figures Janopaul and Block have the right to build about 35 condos to a height of 60 feet. With bonuses for the developers' desire to include affordable housing and to preserve the temple property, “maybe that number climbs to 70 units,” he added.
But Janopaul and Block have proposed a complex web of so-called density transfers and a density bonus, coupled with an upzoning of the property, to squeeze 167 units into 14 stories above ground and three levels of parking underground.
At the subcommittee meeting, Janopaul said 40 percent of the project would be affordable housing, an astounding percentage given that most developers scream bloody murder over the requirement to offer 10 percent of their projects as affordable. According to attendees, the developer said the price for the affordable units-he didn't say how small they would be-would range from $150,000 to $250,000, while the luxury units above would go for $400,000 to $800,000.
But opponents like de la Houssaye, who began a petition drive against the project last weekend, note that any developer could afford to provide that percentage of affordable housing if the sky's the limit on building height. Some residents believe such tall buildings belong closer to Balboa Park, along the major thoroughfares of Fourth, Fifth and Sixth avenues, as the area's community plan indicates.
“The issue is, is there such a thing as a community plan,” de la Houssaye wondered, “or do we just throw all of these things out the window whenever somebody with money who wants to build something big says, ‘I would like to'? The key is, this is a possible upzone in an area that needs to hold to the community plan, because we just don't have the services, the roads or the facilities to handle that kind of spot upzoning.
“This is a situation where a developer is coming in and virtually trying to blackmail the community by saying, ‘We're going to try to keep this synagogue.' ... It's putting the people who are using the synagogue right now in a bad position because they realize they're going to lose the site if this doesn't go through.”
Ohr Shalom's Polichar said his congregation has an agreement with the developers in which Janopaul and Block have agreed to donate the temple property to Ohr Shalom in September 2004, about when the developers hope to begin construction. That agreement came about again through a tortured process. One participant called the process “rocky,” with Janopaul at one point telling Ohr Shalom to look elsewhere, according to published reports.
Asked about the prospect of a wall of condominiums behind his place of worship, Polichar paused as if discomforted by the question. “I don't really have an opinion one way or the other,” he said. “We just don't want to see the developers fail.”