Sara Butler | Editor
Community members gathered at the Uptown Planners’ meeting on Sept. 4 to express their thoughts about the agenda’s top-ticket item: The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) Normal Street field office.
Representatives from the DMV presented to the planning board and meeting attendees about their proposed redesign project for the Uptown-based site. Originally built in 1961, the Normal Street DMV is currently a 14,319 square-foot, partial two-story building, located on the corner of Normal Street and Cleveland Avenue.
Gil Topete, deputy director of Legislation at DMV, was joined by Project Director Chris Wicks of General Services Department. Wicks was contracted by the DMV to redesign the site and incorporate its needs into the facility.
The plan intends to create a “fresh, modern design” that matches the rest of the neighborhood. If approved, it will begin in January 2020 with a demolition of the old building and a construction of a new facility. The total process timeline is estimated to take 16 months.
The redesign would increase the size of the building to 18,540 square feet and decrease the height two feet. It aims to “have zero net energy consumption,” utilizing glass windows to allow daylight to enter the building, as well as all-LED lighting. The surface-level parking lot will also incorporate solar panels.
One aesthetic aspect highlighted were “crash barriers,” located in a plaza outside the building. These barriers are cement benches that allow additional seating for DMV visitors, as well as act as a safeguard to prevent vehicles from driving into the building, which Wicks confirmed has previously occurred at California DMV offices. Extending outdoors might also reduce the congestion inside the facility.
After the presentation, community and board members expressed their thoughts on the proposed plan. Perhaps the most contested element among the crowd was the fence, dubbed by Topete as “the white elephant in the room.”
This plan would add a seven-foot high fence along the site’s perimeter. Visitors would use motorized rolling gates — placed on the two driveways, planned for Normal Street and Cleveland Avenue — to enter and exit the site.
The fence would wrap around the parking lot, which is currently a neighborhood asset. Due to the high density and lack of parking spots in Hillcrest, the community often utilizes this empty lot for events or activities when the DMV office is closed. One of the biggest users of the parking lot is the Hillcrest Farmers Market — hosted by Hillcrest Business Association (HBA) — which occurs every Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
“A fence going through the Farmers Market would be devastating,” said Ben Nichols, president of the HBA. “It feels like you’re trying to wall off the neighborhood a little bit.”
“This [government] property should be inviting to the people of Hillcrest — to bring people here, to bring people to the businesses, to share,” long-time Hillcrest resident Mary added. “To barrier it off is not inviting.”
Topete said they plan to reach out to different organizations and businesses, such as HBA, to continue or negotiate parking agreements that would grant these groups access to the lot during requested hours. They also intend to plant greenery along the fence to soften the appearance and blend it in with the community.
“The color is negotiable … there’s no barbed wire, no spikes aimed at anybody,” Topete said. “The idea is that it’s intended to blend in with its surroundings. It’s there — but hopefully it’s not the ‘there’ that you’re focusing on. Hopefully you’re focusing on a DMV facility where you’re there to take care of your business.”
The redesign would provide approximately 141 parking spots, including five ADA spaces. Many attendees suggested incorporating an underground parking structure into the facility to increase spots, but Topete and Wicks said this is unlikely. In addition to increased cost, an underground lot may pose as a safety risk for the large demographic of those visiting the DMV: 16-year-olds learning to drive.
“You are the Department of Motor Vehicles — you got to have parking,” said board member Ken Tablang of Mission Hills.
Roy Dahl, board member of Hillcrest, added that the location’s close proximity of the Interstate-163 ramps and future Park Boulevard Trolley Line is a neighborhood asset that should not be ignored in the updated redesign.
“[Normal Street DMV] is like the most accessible site in all of Uptown, from a transportation point of view,” Dahl said. “It is the one place that can handle the density that we’ve been asked to handle … a surface lot in the middle of density doesn’t necessarily feel appropriate.”
Board member Tom Mullaney of Mission Hills noted his biggest reservation was the plan’s lack of integration with the neighborhood. Sharon, a Hillcrest resident in attendance, requested the DMV coordinate with the neighborhood with their ongoing plans for a community park along Normal Street.
Another issue discussed was the DMV’s noise impact on the neighborhood. Mary, a Hillcrest resident who attended the meeting, lives near the site and said the previous loudspeakers used for announcements damaged her eardrums, as well as increased her stress and blood pressure.
“What you did for six months was very harmful,” she said. “There should not be loudspeakers where apartments are stacked on top of each other and are densely populated in that area.”
“The speakers have been taken out of the current facility,” Wicks responded. “We’re working with acoustic engineers and basically we’re looking at more low, not broad, volume but small areas. … Nothing will be directed, as it is now, horizontally to the neighborhood.”
Other discussion points included a suggestion to move the site to Mission Valley, a community arguably more equipped to handle the auto-centric site; a suggestion to revisit a “mixed-use” model visited, but abandoned, back in 2007; and a concern about DMV visitors waiting outside in the sun on the “crash barriers.”
Among those in attendance was Assemblymember Todd Gloria. He echoed the crowd’s concerns, referencing a letter he wrote to the DMV on Aug. 24 as well as his previous meeting with the head of the DMV.
“Number one, we only do cute [design] in this district, we aren’t doing anything ugly,” Gloria said. “It needs to accommodate our existing uses [such as] on-site parking and the Hillcrest Farmers Market.” He also added that he hopes the new site can become a public asset to benefit the community.
“I think we can get this done better,” Gloria continued. “I think we have to.”
In response to the community and board comments, Topete said that if the community is not happy with the plan, he will consider pushing for a redesign with other considerations.
“You guys have an investment in this community,” Topete said. “You have plans to talk about a parkway. I’m mindful of the fact that if you plant this DMV [redesign] … and you put a fence around it, how does that look for the one area of your community that you’re staging to be this small green beltway next door?”
Topete added that he hopes a new plan can be drafted to match both the DMV and Uptown residents’ visions. He promised to talk to his higher ups about the concerns addressed at the meeting, as well as stay in communication with Assemblymember Todd Gloria’s office and Hillcrest Business Association through Ben Nichols.
“All I can say is going forward, we will consider everything that we have discussed,” he concluded. “I welcome your input … we’ll continue the dialogue.”
For those who could not attend the meeting, the DMV is encouraging individuals to comment about the plan through its online public forum at normalstdmv.com, which closes on Sept. 7 at 5 p.m.
Uptown Planners, who rejected the redesign proposal in a unanimous vote, intends to revisit the topic and invited the DMV to return at a later date. San Diego Uptown News will provide an update on the project once more details develop.
—Reach Sara Butler at email@example.com.