By Elizabeth White
Debbie Mrozinski's parents owned their auction house on Eighth Street [in National City] for more than 30 years. She took it over about 1½ years ago when they sold the property to the city.
Mrozinski now pays the city rent on a month-to-month basis. She wants a longer-term agreement, but the city won't give her one.
She believes that's because the city wants to be able to push her out on short notice to make way for a more upscale business. She said city employees have told her there are plans for a condominium development behind her big blue auction building.
Mrozinski feels vulnerable. And she is not alone.
Other business owners in National City fear they'll also be victims of the city's vast redevelopment plans, which include Filipino and Mexican villages, a new hotel and a revitalized downtown populated by specialty stores and sleek office buildings.
Several factors are driving their fears: a lack of information, the rapid pace of redevelopment planning and a proposal to expand the city's power to seize property. As the city undergoes a makeover, many small-business owners believe the city may lose its small-town, community feel.
"My parents only sold because they thought they were going to be pushed out," Mrozinski said. "It's all nice and good but they (city officials) forget about how many jobs there are here."
Mrozinski employs 19 people, and she says 75 to 100 customers come to her weekly auction at H & M Goodies to sell and buy furniture, clothes and antiques.
She and other small-business owners have employed workers and paid taxes in National City for years. Now the city has decided to revamp itself, and in the business owners' worst-case scenario, redevelopment will kill their livelihoods.
City officials say their concerns are unfounded.
Mayor Nick Inzunza said that while city redevelopment plans are moving fast, most businesses won't be affected.
"I wouldn't worry," he said. "I think that's a natural response, but small business wins big with redevelopment."
Ben Martinez, executive director of the Community Development Commission, which is overseeing much of the redevelopment process, said only undesirable businesses need to be concerned.
"The last thing we want to do is redevelop and move businesses that are thriving in the city," Martinez said. "It's easy to distinguish the types of businesses that need to go and those that should stay."
So who needs to go? Auto mechanics, if they're located on prime commercial real estate, check-cashing businesses and pawn shops, to name a few.
"There are winners and losers in redevelopment; let's be honest," Martinez said. "But we try to limit the losers to businesses" that don't fit in with the city's plans to bring in more retail and improve its image, he said.
And that means Mrozinski's auction house.
"The building is very old, very unattractive, dilapidated," Martinez said. "The sales tax from the building is very low."
Martinez said Mrozinski's case is unique – meaning she can be forced out more easily than others – because the city already owns the property. He said the auction house will have to move to make way for another development, probably condominiums above retail stores.
It's talk about situations like Mrozinski's that scares Glenn Batchelor, owner of the Sizzler on Plaza Boulevard near Interstate 805. Batchelor's parents bought the property in 1966.
"I have nothing against redevelopment if it's done right," Batchelor said. "But why can't the city show everybody what they want to do?"
Batchelor's fear is that he'll get pushed out so Filipino-themed businesses and restaurants can move in. A Filipino Village is planned for that stretch of street, but Martinez said the plan features streetscape and building facade improvements, not new businesses.
"A business that's well-maintained like the Sizzler is least likely to be moved," said Byron Estes, deputy director of redevelopment.
It's not just change itself some fear. They are wary of how fast the city is pushing its plans through the approval process.
At a December Community Development Commission meeting, the commissioners – who are also City Council members – were scheduled to certify an environmental impact report for a downtown redevelopment plan. The commission was then supposed to approve the "downtown specific plan," which sets guidelines for the revitalization of parts of National City Boulevard and Eighth Street. The City Council was supposed to take the same action that night.
But so many people showed up at the commission's meeting to complain that commissioners postponed a vote on the plan until February. They also scheduled a community workshop for Saturday so residents can ask questions about the plan.
If the pace of redevelopment isn't alarming enough to some business owners, the city's proposal to expand its eminent domain authority is whipping up even more fear.
This past fall city officials proposed an amendment to the general plan that would allow them to acquire – by seizure, if necessary – commercial, industrial and abandoned properties to make way for redevelopment projects. The amendment would expand the city's relatively limited power to cover the two-thirds of National City that lies west of Interstate 805.
With eminent domain, the city can negotiate to buy properties for a fair-market value. If owners don't want to sell and all possibilities are exhausted, the city can go to court and force property owners to take the payment and vacate.
The proposal has induced anxiety and outrage among business owners and residents alike. Again, Martinez said their fears are unfounded.
"The message is that just because two-thirds of the city is in redevelopment, that doesn't mean that that whole area of the city is going to see huge urban renewal demolition," Martinez said.
But his words ring hollow with a number of property owners. They simply don't believe that their homes and businesses won't be in jeopardy.
After the eminent domain proposal was announced, about 250 residents attended two city meetings in October and November to speak against it. Each resident who spoke told city officials he or she did not want the city to hold blanket power for the next 12 years over such a large portion of the city. The city held off on a vote, and now it is slated to consider the proposal in February.
Exactly when a city can use eminent domain is a question the U.S. Supreme Court is considering in Kelo v. City of New London, Conn. In that case, the court will address whether a city can seize property for a private development that would pay higher taxes, even if the area isn't blighted.
Inzunza has said he is willing to use eminent domain only to make way for housing. However, the city has used its authority – stopping short of eminent domain – to clear the path for other projects.
For instance, for the Education Village that opened in November on National City Boulevard and Eighth Street, the city closed an empty furniture shop, an adult bookstore and the Pussycat Theater, an adult theater that was a longtime landmark. The new complex houses a satellite campus for Southwestern College and a center for the county Office of Education.
"We've really only gotten rid of the businesses that were really problematic," said Martinez, the director of the Community Development Commission.
If the city decides to get rid of some businesses, it will deal with them according to state regulations, he said. Viable and successful businesses will either be relocated or purchased for what Martinez called a "goodwill value for fixtures, furniture and equipment."
Eminent domain is always a last resort, Martinez said.
Not all small-business owners oppose the city's plans. Nancy Estolano, owner of San Diego Leather on the corner of National City Boulevard and Fourth Street, said she thinks the city is moving too slowly. She's been attending meetings about redevelopment for more than a year, she said.
"It's actually going to be a benefit to everyone who's here but some people are just angry," she said. "And I don't know how anyone can honestly say they don't know anything about it because there's been meeting after meeting."
And while city officials make assurances that redevelopment will help, not hurt, local businesses, some still feel they haven't received enough information to back up that claim.
Even some council members say they don't know exactly what's going on.
At a December Community Development Commission meeting, Councilman Luis Natividad said he sympathized with residents and their fears about the city's plans, adding that he also felt in the dark about some development issues. He directed some of his comments at developers in the audience.
"If you're going to talk about anything in the city, you've got to talk to all five of us," he said of the City Council. "Because if I didn't hear from you, then the community didn't hear from you. I'll be glad to work with you, but not like this."
Councilman Ron Morrison said many people are confusing the issues of downtown redevelopment and expanded eminent domain, a power the city already has in the downtown area. He hopes the city's decision to delay the votes on those issues and to host Saturday's workshop will help residents work together "to get to the point where we want to be."
For now, Morrison said, the perception remains that the city "is on a train and the train's moving too fast and that the business people are being left behind."
San Diego Union-Tribune: www.signonsandiego.com