By Hutton Marshall
Talmadge residents convened Feb. 11 for what one community planner described beforehand as “the most significant meeting in a generation on the future of Talmadge.”
The monthly meeting of the Kensington-Talmadge Community Planning Group, held in a packed room in the new Copley-Price Family YMCA, centered on a 60-unit, mixed-use development for low-income seniors near El Cajon Boulevard and Euclid Avenue. While its significance to the surrounding area might not be apparent on the surface, to Talmadge residents, it marked what could one day become Talmadge’s long-awaited commercial center.
Talmadge, an 8,000-person residential neighborhood named after silent film stars Norma and Constance Talmadge, lies on the eastern edge of Kensington, a smaller but more commercially prosperous area just east of Interstate 15.
Residents at the meeting said Talmadge has long been overlooked by its neighbors, and that this development, while only planning for 3,000 square feet of retail space, could serve as a “gateway to the community.”
Starting off the meeting, David Moty, the planning group’s chair, reiterated the significance of the project, pointing out that it would follow San Diego’s City of Villages concept, which promotes development that encourages residents to work, socialize and shop in their home neighborhood.
Preliminary plans for the aptly named “Talmadge Gateway” project were detailed by architectural firm Studio E, commercial developers Wakeland Housing and the City Heights Community Development Corporation, which will secure funding for the project’s senior housing component.
Studio E principals Erik Naslund and John Sheehan stressed that design elements presented were rough renderings subject to change. In their plans, a small commercial strip would occupy the northwest corner of El Cajon Boulevard and Euclid Avenue, while the building space further north on Euclid would serve as the residential component. With four stories in some portions, the building would be the tallest in the surrounding area.
Naslund, who formerly chaired San Diego’s Planning Commission, said the project relies on openness, transparency and connection to the community.
“All the work [by Studio E] is fitted hand and glove to the community in which it’s made,” Naslund said.
The project site lies on the cusp of Talmadge and a neighborhood often referred to as Little Saigon, a commercial district tightly packed with businesses catering to Vietnamese residents. The two areas are connected by El Cajon Boulevard, the main thoroughfare through the region. While the design puts the retail space on the corner of Euclid Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard — a midpoint between the two areas — several Talmadge residents expressed concern over the proximity of the retail space to the underserved, ethnically diverse and more crime-heavy stretch of El Cajon Boulevard.
Two times during the meeting, Moty urged the project’s architects to reconsider the placement of the retail space, requesting it be moved away from El Cajon Boulevard and further into Talmadge.
“I think you’re missing where your customer base is coming from,” Moty told the Studio E principals. “What’s on El Cajon Boulevard is not attracting the residents of Talmadge.
“I actually think the spot you have that’s most valuable is the spot that’s the farthest away from El Cajon Boulevard,” he added.
Others disagreed with Moty, saying that the larger community should be brought into the conversation, and that the development should not cater singularly to Talmadge, a relatively affluent and less diverse neighborhood. One Talmadge resident said moving retail away from the El Cajon Boulevard would hide it from much of the community.
“I’m not sure that people who didn’t live on Euclid [Avenue] would ever know there’s a retail area, since we’d never pass it,” she said. “I think if you want to attract people to it, you need to make it visible to the majority.”
Others brought up the needs of the seniors living in the complex. Project representatives said that they were more interested in catering retail space to the surrounding residents rather than the elderly tenants, since an assistance program led by St. Paul’s would provide for much of their commercial and social activities. Barbara, a Kensington resident, disagreed, citing past experience working with St. Paul’s seniors.
“They really do go out on their own and shop. They’re not really homebound,” she said. “So there isn’t a really good supermarket around here for them, and I know it’s really a sub-issue for you guys, but it’s something to consider.”
As with any other urban development, parking and traffic were commonly mentioned issues. Developers said they are required by the city to put in 27 parking spaces to accommodate the 60 seniors, many of whom they expect will not own a car. Because of this, a portion of these spaces will likely be open to public use. Still, Naslund said they don’t want it to be a car-centric structure.
“We’re not over-parking it,” Naslund said.
Other matters discussed were what variety of tree to plant along the building’s exterior (palm tree pods may cause health issues for seniors, while the Chinese elm was cited as the unofficial tree in parts of Talmadge), and Studio E architects floated the idea of installing a parklet — a removable mini-park — along Euclid Avenue’s sidewalk.
Moty closed the meeting by reiterating the need to recalibrate the project to be more Talmadge-facing, describing the trek for Talmadge residents to El Cajon Boulevard as “a bridge too far.”
“Bring it within the comfort zone and the safety zone of the people who want it,” Moty said. “I think leaving it on El Cajon Boulevard will not lead to success. I think it will be a missed opportunity.”
The project’s developers have reached an unsigned agreement with current owners of the property, but have yet to purchase the site.
“We are at the absolute beginning of this,” Naslund said.
—Contact Hutton Marshall at email@example.com.