Last week The Star-News ran an “In Memoriam” to mark the passing of Eugene V. “Gene” Coleman. He was 88 years old and lived out his life in North Carolina, and the Memoriam reflected this.
What the Memoriam did not touch on was the ever-lasting effect Gene had on Chula Vista — almost 40 years after the event I am going to describe, all Chula Vistans are enjoying the result of his efforts.
Think of Chula Vista in 1972. I-805 is being built but still three years away from being completed. What is now East H Street between I-805 and Southwestern College does not exist, it is just Rice Canyon between ridges, with branches of the canyon here and there. The thousands of acres between I-805 and Southwestern College are just ridges, canyons and bushes.
Then in comes Dr. Leonard Bloom, a San Diego dentist and developer with an option for those thousands of empty acres. The plan that he proposes? To build a 20,000-seat sports arena where the Terra Nova shopping center is now, and then to level Rice Canyon and all those ridges between I-805 and Southwestern College into two massive absolutely flat mesas!
The next time you drive out East H Street, note that all those canyons you see on both sides of East H Street would have disappeared — they would have been filled by scraping down the ridges that you also can still see. The mesas would have been used for residential developments.
The Chula Vista City Council approved this madness on a 5-0 vote. Gene Coleman was a retired Navy man, who upon retirement had gone back to college, earned two degrees and was now a geology instructor at Southwestern College. He was also the first and loudest environmentalist in Chula Vista, years ahead of his time. And, most importantly, he was a hot-head.
With other like-minded people he organized a referendum, gathered signatures of 15 percent of the electorate and forced the issue to a vote of the people.
Anyone who lived in Chula Vista at that time will remember that election. It was not a pretty sight. It pitted neighbor against neighbor, and even husbands against wives. Everyone had an opinion, and the chances were 50-50 that the person you were talking to felt just the opposite to yourself.
Dr. Bloom also owned the Conquistadors, San Diego’s team in the ABA at the time. He hired Wilt Chamberlain, the first seven-foot giant in the NBA, who once scored 100 points in an NBA game, to be the “coach.”
The media could not help but notice that Wilt never showed up at coaching sessions, just for the games. It was a publicity stunt to win that election. It did not work. Gene Coleman’s group barely won the election, but they won. The Sports World development was dead. It was the largest turnout for an election in Chula Vista history, and one of the closest.
Dr. Bloom came back with a less intensive but still objectionable development and the council approved it on a 3-2 vote.
Once again, Gene organized a referendum, and this time it won by a large margin. Goodbye, Dr. Bloom.
And finally the sensible developments you now see out East H Street were approved by Gene and others, and thus the land forms you see as you drive on East H Street were preserved.
And from then on, preserving land forms as much as possible became part of Chula Vista’s policy and that led to the wonderfully designed developments of EastLake and Otay Ranch that we all enjoy today.
All Chula Vistans have much to thank Gene Coleman for.