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City land purchase contested in council

VISTA — What city staff expected to be a routine parcel acquisition provoked a heated debate at the Nov. 18 council meeting as Councilmen Steve Gronke and Frank Lopez opposed the purchase of the property at 1315 N. Santa Fe Ave. for $125,000. The acquisition ultimately passed 3-2.
The city plans to use this land to site a mixed-use project. The development would include retail and living spaces. A large component of the latter would consist of affordable housing.
Gronke and Lopez lauded the intent of the purchase, but both expressed in no uncertain terms their concern that the purchase took redevelopment priority, and dollars, away from the revitalization of the blighted South Sante Fe Avenue corridor. The councilmen had made the redevelopment of that corridor a touchstone of their recent re-election campaign.
“Santa Fe has been going on for a long time, 20 or 30 years,” Lopez said. “All of a sudden we’re moving in other directions … It’s time to put our foot down. Either we do the corridor or forget about it.”
Gronke worried that purchasing the property would mandate buying three additional nearby parcels for the project, which would cost another $1 million. With the real estate market at a nadir, the councilman felt the project would stall, leaving the city holding the bill for an extended period.
“I’m fearful that … we’ll be locking up our money for three years when that money could be used in other locations,” Gronke said. “Redevelopment (is) supposed to develop poor properties. Yes, this is a poor property, but darn, South Santa Fe is a poor property that’s been promised for a long time.”
Redevelopment Director Bill Rawlings advocated the purchase, stressing that the time and price were right.
“We see this not taking from other priority projects but taking advantage of an opportunity that may not exist in the future,” he said.
Councilwoman Judy Ritter stated that the city can afford to develop both ends of Santa Fe Avenue. She said she particularly wanted to avoid the use of eminent domain should potential acquisitions go off the market.
The strongest comments were made by Mayor Morris Vance, who came out in strong support of the acquisition. The mayor said that all of Santa Fe Avenue was a redevelopment priority and that $125,000 was not going to make or break any existing projects.
“This is a piece of property that redevelopment was instituted for,” Vance said. “It’s simply one of the worst pieces of property that I’ve ever seen on North or South Santa Fe … I think we’re putting our head in the sand if we just say that we can’t proceed with projects that are good projects in other parts of the community.”