By Thomas Shess
There is a serene perfection to La Mesa Village best appreciated over a cup of tea, sitting at Jane’s Secret Garden Cafe and listening to a remarkable 80-year-old pianist play Gershwin. This central village is a throwback to the days when Starbuck was a character in a novel, Wal-Mart was a memo to some future billionaire’s marketing department and San Diego’s lower Broadway was the World War II–era equivalent of a strip mall.
Only 30 minutes from the Pacific Ocean, La Mesa Village has the aura of a small town in the Midwest. It’s tiny—covering just eight blocks of La Mesa Boulevard, east and west of Spring Street—but it is the jewel at the heart of the larger La Mesa, a revitalized La Mesa with big dreams for its role in the future of San Diego County.
"La Mesa is everyone’s hometown," says Maple Street resident Lorraine Iverson, a 14-year La Mesa homeowner. "You can’t say it any other way without it sounding corny." She echoes what most residents believe about this town: "It’s safe, the hills are beautiful, and you can walk into the village to find almost everything you need."
"I couldn’t agree more," says Jay LaSuer, a city councilman and lifetime resident. "La Mesa Village is a complete village in a complete small city."
Surrounded by the picturesque but pricey homes of the Mount Helix foothills, the village is home to the West’s leading Oktoberfest, attracting more than 150,000 revelers the first weekend in October. It also stages the long-running "Back to the ’50s" auto show, produces a month-long Christmas festival and supports a thriving certified farmers’ market.
The romance of the village, according to Judy Means, the current head of the Village Merchants Association, is its relaxed pace. Strolling with a significant other—while ducking into so many antique emporiums the word eclectic is rendered meaningless—is part of the joy.
Tea or coffee at Jane’s Secret Garden Cafe on the trendy east side of the village is a must. "That’s where La Mesans meet to catch up on the week," says La Mesa Councilwoman Donna Alm. Owner Jane Schmidt offers breakfast and lunch as well as a full-service bakery every day. Saturdays, there’s also high tea, complete with seasonal themes. Pick up free copies of the local press—La Mesa News, La Mesa Forum and the Union Jack—to peruse while you sip English Breakfast tea.
Next door, McCrea Music Company provides a wide variety of musical notes for those dining on Jane’s not-so-secret outdoor patio. On Saturdays and Sundays, Jane’s provides a stage for octogenarian pianomeister Forrest Williams, who’s been playing the village since Gershwin and Dorsey were whippersnappers.
You’ll find a huge selection of antiques in the 14 shops on La Mesa Boulevard. Stores range in size from the larger La Mesa Village Antiques to Norma Jean’s tiny but comfortable boutique. The village is a collector’s mecca that boasts specialty oldies like Antique Radio Store, Siempre Bella (antique lace and clothing) and the "we can get it for you, pronto" attitude of La Mesa Used Books.
On Thursday evenings, the village shines like vintage chrome. Cruise the boulevard in your spit-polished ’57 Chevy convertible or your cherry-red Ford roadster. Park it where everyone can see it, and slip into Banyan House or La Brioche Bakery Cafe for coffee, espresso or pastry.
For those seeking something with more kick in their sidewalk-cafe fare, there’s the cold beer and hot salsa at La Torta Cafe or nearby Por Favor. Other establishments, like Pete’s Place, are friendly neighborhood watering holes, where the village atmosphere is less buttoned-down.
Keeping connected to its East County agricultural roots, La Mesa Village holds a farmers’ market on Friday afternoons in the public parking lot along Allison Avenue. The Outdoor Marketplace, at the confluence of Fourth Street, La Mesa Boulevard and Allison, is a triangle of green space permanently dedicated to weekend outdoor markets, where friendly vendors offer flowers, crafts, custom jewelry and a few food surprises.
Strolling to the west side of the village, you’ll find more antique shops, small coffeehouses, delis and the venerable Sanfilippo’s Italian Restaurant. There’s even a classy recycled sporting goods store. La Mesa Sports Collectibles blends antiques with a refreshing mix of quality sporting goods like used wooden golf drivers and previously owned softball mitts with plenty of innings left in them. La Mesa Village Plaza, a large-scale retail, condo and office project next to the Spring Street Trolley Station, is nearby.
The crime rate here is among the lowest in California. Police Chief Walter Mitchell, a 27-year veteran of the mean streets of Los Angeles, runs a tight ship. The typical bust for his 60-member force is robbery, drunken driving or domestic violence.
"La Mesa—or any small town that has its own police department—is not a good place to raise trouble," says Chief Mitchell. "We have a lot of squad cars out there on the streets, and we only have 9 square miles to patrol. We’re very focused."
In many ways, La Mesa is to San Diego as Pasadena is to Los Angeles. Both small towns are east of Southern California’s largest cities. Both are charming, quaint, merchant-driven, fiercely independent, self-reliant and even a bit snooty. There’s no Rose Bowl in La Mesa, but Pasadena doesn’t boast California’s largest Oktoberfest, either.
As Iverson says, La Mesa is a little bit of everyone’s hometown—imagined or real. It’s user-friendly. And what’s there not to like? Even the parking tickets say, "Thanks for shopping in La Mesa—next time feed the meter." No charge, this time.
If La Mesa is California’s perfect small city, the weather is a key. Sunshine is a year-round resident. Moderate temperatures make for a short thermometer, bouncing between lows in the 50s to those 23 days a year when temperatures go above 90 degrees. Few can remember freezing temperatures in this enclave bordered by Mount Helix, El Cajon, Fletcher Hills, Lake Murray, Lemon Grove and San Diego’s Rolando/College area.
La Mesa is also the ideal size. "We’re at 57,000 in population, making us a very manageable-size city," says David Wear, a two-decade municipal employee who’s served the past eight years as city manager. All the urban-planning data he’s seen points to 50,000 as a utopian model for cities, he says: "Cities below that count are tougher to finance, because an adequate tax base isn’t there."
"If there’s a problem," says Alm, "the people here find solutions. As a local politician, you can’t walk too far in La Mesa without someone offering ideas on how things should be done."
"We like to think of ourselves as a complete, self-contained city, but in the larger sense, La Mesa is basically a bedroom community to San Diego," says populist Mayor Art Madrid, a councilman since 1981 and mayor since 1990. "But we do happen to have the finest public schools in the county."
Statistics bolster some of His Honor’s claim. Almost 60 percent of Grossmont District graduates enroll in a college or university. There are 11 high schools in the matrix, but Grossmont, Helix and Monte Vista high schools serve most of La Mesa. Inside La Mesa’s boundaries, the La Mesa/Spring Valley School District is responsible for grades K-8.
What’s impressive about the school districts, adds Madrid, is that the administrator-to-teacher ratio is the lowest of all districts in the county—meaning more money goes directly into the classroom instead of the bureaucracy. And for 11 of the past 20 years, he says, a teacher from the Grossmont High district has been named Teacher of the Year in San Diego County.
If the mayor sees La Mesa as a bedroom community, the strong La Mesa Chamber of Commerce and Village Merchants Association view the city as a vibrant mix of small merchants and big retail. La Mesa’s commercial nodes are divided by Interstate 8. Northwest of I-8 is an industrial section that is home to Dixieline Lumber and other smokestackless Quonset huts. Northeast of I-8 is big retail, made up of the Grossmont Trolley Shopping Center project, the vital Grossmont Regional Shopping Mall and Grossmont Hospital. Grossmonts all, but La Mesa on the map.
Supporting this large merchant base is the La Mesa Chamber of Commerce, which officially merges this summer with the El Cajon Chamber of Commerce. In addition to those two cities, the new East County Regional Chamber of Commerce will represent any other East County area that wishes to join, says Gordon Austin, executive director of the La Mesa Chamber since 1976. Austin, publisher of the monthly La Mesa News, the 16-page "voice" for area merchants and residents, came on board at the chamber to help stem the malaise that had enveloped "downtown" La Mesa.
Grossmont Center, Parkway Plaza and, to a lesser degree, College Grove Mall in the ’60s and ’70s helped create a glut of empty storefronts in La Mesa, as many merchants abandoned the city’s streets and headed for the glitz and parking slots of a mall. But leaders like Austin refused to see one part of town succeed at the expense of another.
Taking advantage of public works grants made available for cities during the Carter administration, La Mesa’s merchants and community leaders spearheaded a restoration of its historic downtown (village) area. La Mesa Boulevard was narrowed to one lane each way (down from two in each direction) by the continued use of diagonal parking and newly created tree islands. Businesses that were not mall-type attractions—antique shops, restaurants, bakeries, personalized-service companies like bookstores and small-business merchants such as insurance agents—were sought out. As a result, La Mesa was able to create a quaint and active downtown village while still participating in greater retail growth to feed its tax coffers.
oday, La Mesa is focusing on its partnership with El Cajon. It is also looking to redevelop the sagging commercial zone along its own stretch of El Cajon Boulevard. The future will see an emphasis on providing more moderately priced housing, with an effort to emulate the Orchid Award–winning Campina Apartments, according to Alm. CalTrans was a part of that deal, as the land was left over from the building of the S-125 connection from I-8 to Fletcher Parkway.
Revitalizing La Mesa’s civic center is a pet project of Mayor Madrid’s. He wants to improve some of the existing public buildings and reconfigure the current design to make it more efficient and user-friendly. "For the past six years, one of my top priorities has been to update our current City Hall [on Allison near Spring] into a complete civic center," he says.
Trolley-line development will also affect La Mesa’s future. The old San Diego & Arizona line was instrumental in getting the city developed, but the rail link to Yuma and beyond ended decades ago. The right-of-way is now leased to the San Diego Trolley. Since 1991, the trolley’s east line has been rolling through the heart of La Mesa. Councilwoman Alm says antique shopping areas are thriving today because the trolley line has provided needed tourist pedestrian flow from downtown San Diego. When completed, the Mission Valley line should provide a similar influx.
The trolley’s parent, the Metropolitan Transit Development Board, has also been involved in the real estate development of all three La Mesa trolley stops. MTDB entered into partnerships with the private sector and the La Mesa Community Redevelopment Board to create the Villages of La Mesa, a 384-unit apartment complex next to the trolley’s Amaya Street Station in south La Mesa. Two other major projects are the Grossmont Trolley Center, along Fletcher Parkway between Jackson and Grossmont Center Drive, and the mixed-use La Mesa Village Plaza at the Spring Street Station.
The most controversial has been Village Plaza. Betraying the traditional one-story limit for village shops—a heritage that dates back to the city’s founding in 1912—this four-story architectural Onion Award winner has legions of critics. Among them, Mayor Madrid. "I voted 14 times against the project, yet I was the one who had to go up on the stage and accept the Onion from the AIA," he sighs.
Still, the project is near maximum capacity for retail, offices and condominiums. And other development partners are being sought to build similar mixed-use projects along the trolley line.
While Village Plaza does stick out like a cowbird in a sparrow’s nest, MTDB prefers to focus on its unqualified commercial home run, the Grossmont Trolley Station project on the north side of La Mesa. That center, which includes a Bookstar, a 12-screen Pacific Theater, Costco, Trader Joe’s, Office Depot and other chain businesses, was built over a blighted drainage culvert along Fletcher Parkway.
Finding partners like MTDB to bring needed redevelopment to the north side of the city is a good thing. "Giving La Mesa commercial diversity in an area designed for commercial expansion is a win-win situation," says LaSuer, who’s considering a bid for mayor next year. "The trolley projects are examples of supporting La Mesa with quality retail while maintaining a lean and mean government bureaucracy. La Mesa is the perfect evidence that small government works."
The additions of the MTDB-supported retail projects and the growth of Grossmont Center in the ’90s have all given a big boost to La Mesa’s tax base. Sales taxes bulk up the general fund, in turn feeding the annual budget, which last year was about $18 million.
So how is paradise doing in the account books?
"It’s a struggle," says City Manager Wear. "We’re coming right out of a very serious depression. To balance our books, we had to trim city workers from about 290 to 240. No job was lost in public safety," he quickly adds.
If LaSuer and Madrid run against each other for mayor in 1998, the race likely will be free of rancor. It’s no secret that LaSuer and Madrid see La Mesa through different shades of rose-colored glass. But Madrid says he welcomes an election challenge because it would give the city "a chance to put the important issues on the table so we can discuss them."
As it is, there’s plenty of discussion in La Mesa. City council meetings are held twice monthly, and recently the council voted to have the proceedings shown on local cable television.
"Televising the meetings is something I’ve always wanted, because it broadens the base of public opinion," says Madrid. "My colleagues on the council need to realize that when a hundred persons fill the council chambers to the rafters, that doesn’t necessarily mean all of La Mesa agrees with that group."
LaSuer sees another possible side effect of the broadcasts. "It may put La Mesa to sleep earlier than expected," he quips.