About a month ago, I received a letter from the city about a potential development of the old Pacifica Elementary property by Meritage Homes. This project would bring 164 three-story units to an interior portion of our neighborhood that has been an empty concrete lot since 2004. The letter informed us that a community input meeting would be held at the local library.
I was interested in attending for multiple reasons. I’m genuinely curious how these processes work, both the logistical piece and how community input is evaluated. I was glad to hear that an abandoned lot would be replaced with more housing. More homes would help our state’s housing crisis and the sale of the property would add money to the local school district. I did have concerns about how the project would impact our community. So despite a busy schedule that day, I made it a priority to attend.
The meeting was an interesting array of people. There were four people involved with the project already there when I arrived: the city planner, an environmental impact study consultant, and two representatives from the developer. About 25 community members attended the meeting, though there was some confusion around when it started. There was an interesting mix of people showing the various waves of residents. I have seen the economic and racial spread walking around the neighborhood and read the census statistics, but it was interesting to see a cross section of our community represented in one room.
The hosts of the meeting clarified that this meeting was only to raise concerns about what should be included as part of the environmental impact study and gave a few relevant categories. The city employee was the main moderator of the meeting but the report consultant would sometimes look up from his laptop to give some context about how these reports are typically made. One representative of the developer gave a short introduction about how they are one of the largest home builders in the country. She also would occasionally jump in to clarify facts about the process or project.
Some of the most vocal residents were the mostly white elderly constituents, some of whom had lived in the neighborhood since its construction around 1970 and seen its growth and decay. From their comments I gathered most of them lived to the north of the property. Then there were a group of more well-to-do neighbors. This group largely included people well into their careers and also very white. They described themselves as living on streets to the west which is a newer neighborhood with larger, more expensive homes. Then there were a few people of color, possibly hispanic. This was the smallest group represented despite making up half our neighborhood. They appeared to be young parents and at least one person described living to the south east of the project. He actually said he attended the now torn down school as a kid. I mention these demographics because the different viewpoints represented shaped what was discussed and how loudly. Everyone had different views as individuals, but groups clearly aligned on shared topics.
In the room everyone was concerned about traffic. How will our streets handle a dense development and the number of cars? Noise, parking, and accident prone intersections were especially emphaized by people that lived closest to the proposed entrance. People who had been in the neighborhood a while brought up concerns about the evacuation route, which had taken hours during a brush fire several years earlier. The older representatives in the room seemed the most concerned about why the city wanted to move forward with this proposal and how it would make things worse. The more affluent community also didn’t want more people driving through their streets, but seemed open to scaling down the size of the project or making it nicer for the neighborhood. A young woman living there brought up an array of environmental concerns about runoff drainage, native plants, and solar generation which I appreciated hearing.
I raised a number of concerns for the study, though it doesn’t sound like they would likely be addressed. I noted the stress of more cars on our already worn down roads, but this isn’t captured in a traffic report and is handled by a different office of the city. A recommendation about a trail to the local park was unlikely due to protections on a neighboring property.
More significantly, I was concerned that the city’s communications were only in English. A majority of my neighbors are hispanic, so it was odd and concerning that they might not be included in the process. The city’s representative noted that bilingual notices were not part of the city policy, but that they would consider that moving forward. I’m honestly surprised that this is not part of the process given the makeup of our city. Someone asked if a translator would be at future meetings and the city sounded receptive. Most of the room agreed that the communication should have been available in Spanish from the beginning.
As for people’s reactions in the room to the project, there was a lot of skepticism. Some wondered why the city even was moving forward with homes in this area. There was a lot of discussion of the state’s requirements for cities to build new homes which set quotas for cities to provide. There was also some discussion of how the developers would pay fees to cover the unmitigated impacts on the city and whether those essentially amounted to a payoff. Many people seemed concerned the community feedback meetings were just a formality and that the city council would ignore their concerns.
In my opinion, the city employee did a good job of engaging with the community’s feedback. She wrote down things people said. At times the discussion strayed or started to repeat. I would have preferred for her to challenge some of the more ranty or irrelevant discussions, but her permissive approach was probably appropriate given her role. I thought the representative of the developer was also good at addressing concerns though she naturally seemed more concerned with staving off any pushback.
After being a part of this process, it seems easy for a hyper-local project like this to pass under the radar. After everything is over, it’s likely only a small number of people will know even sliver of the conversations that went into this project. Even a bigger project that attracts media attention, like the nearby North River Farms development or the proposed wave park, will have few people who remember what the process was, what the concerns were, how people responded. The nuance will likely distill down to a few sentences. “Yeah, this all used to be farmland before they built these homes. It was supposed to be bigger but they scaled the project back.” Or the project becomes lore like “they tore down the old drive-in movie theater to build a campground, or maybe it was supposed to be a mall.”
That’s partly why I chose to write about this experience. There’s always a lot more to the story. There are individual people, and power struggles. Some people are highly motivated, others conspicuously absent. While often boring or drawn-out, I appreciate that we have opportunities to affect what happens in our communities. Living in a new neighborhood, I’ve often wondered what lead to where we are today; why places look like that; and who made these decisions. I’m not a journalist but I can note what happens in my community. Maybe it will provide accountability. Maybe it will be helpful to a currious soul. Perhapse it is simply interesting enough to me that I’d like to remember “why is that property that?”.