What is the Future of the San Diego County Crime Lab Property on Mt Etna Drive?

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Site Map of San Diego County Crime Lab at 5255 Mt Etna Dr, San Diego, CA 92117
San Diego Sheriff Crime Lab in Clairemont

There are no affordable housing projects planned for Clairemont, said a representative from the San Diego Housing Commission at February’s community planning meeting. When someone brought up the proposed affordable housing project on Mt. Etna, it was quickly dismissed as a county project.

That same night, proposed homeless housing on Mt. Alifan was discussed by representatives from Wakeland Development. The latter never chimed in on Mt. Etna, so it was a bit surprising when on April 20, the county announced that Wakeland was in the running to develop the Mt. Etna project. Mt. Alifan and Mt. Etna are near the intersection of Balboa and Genesee, about one-half-mile from each other.

Map Mt. Alifan project to Mt. Etna project

Bridge HousingCommunity Housing WorksUSA Properties, and Chelsea Investments are in competition with Wakeland to develop Mt. Etna. While each has built affordable housing in the county, only Wakeland has done so in Clairemont. The Stratton Apartments on Caminito Aguilar (across from the proposed Mt. Alifan project) is operated by Wakeland. Many I spoke with have concerns about The Stratton. One local said, “It’s pretty well known for being a rough spot.”

While the county’s request for proposals won’t be released until April 30, some things can be gleaned from the request for qualifications that Wakeland responded to in April.

It states the affordable housing is for low and extremely low income vulnerable populations: seniors, persons with disabilities, persons with serious mental illness or substance abuse problems, persons with HIV/AIDS, military personnel and veterans, at-risk youth, survivors of domestic violence, persons who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, transition age youth, and families in need.

The winning developer will be expected to provide at least 50-percent affordable units with the rest approved for market rate (sale or rent). The county wants construction fast and for the units to stay affordable for 99 years. The county stated they will not consider selling the property and will be the developer’s landlord. A retail component to the development was recommended.

The irregularly-shaped 4-acre lot is currently home to the Sheriff’s crime lab. A new crime lab is currently being built in Kearny Mesa with a move-in date of sometime this fall. The current community plan doesn’t allow for residential on this parcel, so a community plan amendment may be required. The county is said to be initiating that this spring. As far as height, an exception to the 30-foot limit can be applied for as long as the proposed structure(s) will be compatible with surrounding structures.

The county’s affordable housing feasibility study from February proposed higher density than is currently allowed, as well as upping the ante by housing special need populations to have a better shot at tax credits.

Alma has lived across from the crime lab location for forty years. She is concerned about bringing more traffic to an already congested street. Her far bigger concern, however, are the homeless people she sees everywhere in her neighborhood, including sleeping on the side of the crime lab.

“It concerns me as a senior citizen. We never had a problem with drugs in our neighborhood ten years ago. It’s escalated with the homeless people around here. We’ve had a lot more break-ins, car break-ins mostly, and just all kinds of other little crimes.”

Charles moved into his Clairemont home near the crime lab in 1976. At that time, the DMV was a vacant lot and a hospital was where the crime lab is now.

Charles said he tried to get answers from Ron Robert’s office (county supervisor) about the Mt. Etna project, but said they were vague. He said they wouldn’t disclose the number of units or floors, or even if they would be apartments or condos. Charles has experience in development. He said the crime lab parcel has the potential for some stunning views if the developer goes high enough.

Charles also has experience managing properties. He told me a harrowing tale that can only be described as a “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” situation with two affluent sisters that ended with one threatening to shoot the other. Charles said it was almost impossible to get help from the authorities to do something with agencies not talking to each other. When they finally went in, one sister was armed with 500 rounds of ammunition. If something similar happens at Mt. Etna, he wants to know how it will be handled.

Jane Scanlon lives next to the crime lab. “I’m for the project. My concern is that the lot is small and there are strict height limits with being near Montgomery Field. If they only put 15 units and only half of those are affordable, that’s a lot of work. I want a bigger gain for my tax dollars.”

County documentation alluded to 116 units in the Mt. Etna request for qualifications.

The San Diego Housing Commissions budget for Fiscal Year 2019 (July 1, 2018 – June 30, 2019) has projected funds of approximately $62 million with the majority (about $55 million) budgeted for affordable rental housing production.

A $900 million affordable housing bond measure proposed by the housing commission may be headed to the November ballot. That is, if it gets out of the city council’s rules committee to the full city council for a vote in August. If passed by voters, it would fund affordable housing construction and help subsidize thousands of apartments for low-income families/individuals and the chronically homeless. It would be paid for by increased property taxes. It’s a move by the city to have more skin in the game to get access to more state funding that requires matching funds.

A 2018 housing commission document touts actions taken to address the housing affordability crisis, including incentives, deferring development fees, reducing parking requirements for granny flats and housing near public transit corridors, and shortening the entitlement process. In some cases, the latter could mean eliminating or drastically reducing public input. Other things being considered are to reduce the mixed-use commercial space requirements, release more city-owned land for affordable housing, and lower the environmental impact requirements when possible.

Gig Conaughton from the county said developers vying for the Mt. Etna project will have to identify funding in their proposal, along with a fully-developed concept for all components of the project.

The county is slated to roll out a Mt. Etna community outreach plan in April. Charles will be waiting to ask the county point-blank, “How will this benefit Clairemont?”

Julie Stalmer is a local freelance journalist