El Centro extends moratorium on downtown halfway house project

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El Centro citizens crowd into the city council chambers to voice their opinion on the possibility of the town allowing a halfway house in downtown El Centro.

EL CENTRO – In a jam-packed council chambers on the evening of May 2, El Centro council members voted to extend the ordinance regarding the continuation of mixed-use residential and commercial uses in downtown El Centro’s commercial and tourist commercial zones. 

“The extension of the ordinance potentially impacts a variety of possible projects,” said City Attorney Kris Becker. “We need to remember that this ordinance does not target those properties or projects, instead, those project comments are expressing the potential impact of the project on them. We also need to remember that the ordinance does not prohibit the process of applications for projects, but puts a hold on approvals for the remainder of the term of the ordinance,” clarified Becker. 

A proposal by BSS (Behavioral Systems Southwest Inc.) for a residential re-entry center (also called a halfway house by some) has created a sense of frustration and concern among local merchants regarding the already ongoing vagrancy, health, safety, and crime issues in the downtown area.

In 2008, a revitalization attempt proposed new zoning regulations that established the idea of permitting mixed uses in downtown El Centro of businesses on first floors, and residential housing on the second floors.

“The economics and housing needs (of 2008) were different than how they are today,” said Council Member Efrain Silva. “So, I think it’s time to readjust and to reevaluate what’s best for downtown and the extension of the moratorium is going to allow a window of time to truly analyze what’s best for downtown, what uses are appropriate for downtown giving the existing dynamics, the economy, and housing needs of the population,” he elaborated.

The community, as well as BSS representatives, were given the opportunity to address the council and voice their concerns surrounding the proposed ordinance of the moratorium extension.

“We are not a homeless shelter,” said  Steve Doran, a representative of Behavioral Systems Southwest. “This project is something where the persons who participate will have their movements restricted. They are totally supervised 24/7. We have a professional staff that we will be hiring from your community with their concerns about public safety, ours will be just as prevalent as your concerns about public safety.” 

“As far as revitalization of the downtown area, we will be spending approximately $2.5 million per year buying resources from other businesses in the city of El Centro,” Doran said. “We would not go elsewhere for our resources.  One thing to realize is that these people (parolees) will be coming back to your community anyway – so if you want them in a program where they have to be accountable and accounted for, and where they learn new skills to go out in the community or do you want the Greyhound bus to drop them off at the bus station when you don’t know who they are and they are just wandering around your community doing what they want?  With our program, they’d be identifiable.  We track their progress and if their progress isn’t appropriate, then they’d go back,”  Doran explained.

“We want to thank you for taking action on this moratorium,” said local business owner Albert Zavala. “And we ask that you extend, because I’ve been getting woken up in the middle of the night by calls from the alarm company with people trying to break into my business. I’ve had to air conditioning units stolen this week.  As a young business owner, we are really pushing for a new downtown.  I know that right now it’s in bad shape, but lots of downtowns have been in bad shape and have been turned around with young merchants and new ideas. We want it to remain a place for commercial, not residential,” Zavala said. 

 The ordinance passed in a 5-0 clean sweep. The council shared with the public that the extension would help the city better analyze downtown El Centro’s weak spots and continue to push forward on making the area safer and more family-friendly.

“It seems that the issues that we face downtown, we have not found the solution yet for the downtown we all dream of and that doesn’t involve residential housing,” said Cheryl Villegas-Walker, mayor pro-tem. “And I’m hoping that this is the new group that’s going to bring that vibrancy back.”