City council OKs plan for halfway house in South Bay

SAN DIEGO – A plan to convert a South Bay motel into transitional housing for ex-convicts who committed low-level crimes was approved by the San Diego City Council Monday, despite opposition by residents of Nestor.

The former Super 8 Motel at 1788 Palm Ave. will house the San Diego Misdemeanants At-Risk Track program, known as SMART, which has proved successful on a small, pilot basis, according to city officials. Now they want to expand SMART citywide and contend the 61-room motel is the best place to start.

City Attorney Mara Elliott is a big supporter of SMART, which provides chronic former offenders with substance abuse treatment and other supportive services. At a hearing in July in which the council voted overwhelmingly to purchase the hotel for $11 million, Elliott said the program gives low-level offenders “a fighting chance” to break out of the cycle of incarceration.

The motel had a history of low occupancy and a high crime rate, Elliott said. Councilman Chris Ward cited a recent occupancy rate of 25 percent.

San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman said the justice system has a “revolving door” with chronic offenders going from arrest to court to the streets and over again.

“Our officers at the San Diego Police Department, they see these results every single day — these chronic offenders are very well-known to our police officers, often on a first-name basis,” Zimmerman said. “They are often our most vulnerable community members.”

She said officers see the need for a long term solution for such people that provides an alternative to incarceration, and can make offers for the program on the streets.

Cindy Gompper-Graves, president and CEO of the South County Economic Development Council, said the plan will discourage investment that’s badly needed in the Palm Avenue Corridor, the gateway to South County beaches.

“We think the SMART program is a good program, we just think that you’re putting it in the wrong location,” she said.

David Alvarez, who represents the area, was the lone dissenter in a pair of votes. He said the issue was land use, not whether SMART is a good program.

He said the city’s Local Coastal Program, which was approved by the California Coastal Commission, specifies the retention of visitor facilities near South County beaches.

Commission staff has said if such facilities are removed, they should be replaced. Alvarez said there is no plan to replace the motel.

In a pair of 8-1 votes, the council granted a permit for the facility and determined that issuance of the permit is exempt from the state’s environmental review laws, and approved a funding source.

According to staff, the renovation work is scheduled for April through September, with opening possible in October. The facility will provide 42 rooms for the SMART program, and 84 beds.

The hearing began three days of potentially contentious meetings for the City Council before its holiday break. On Tuesday, council members take another stab at regulating short-term vacation rental properties, which beach- area residents say cause late-night noise, overcrowding and trash, but are supported as an example of the new “sharing economy” and a way for visitors to avoid expensive hotels.

On Wednesday, the council will take up revisions to the way recreation center fees are collected and spent. Elliott contends the current process violates the City Charter — the city’s primary governing document — but members of recreation councils worry that bureaucracy will endanger their programs. The city attorney said she won’t renew permits for the councils unless fee procedures are changed.