Here’s why CarMax coming to National City is a big deal

National City is on track to bring South County’s first CarMax used-car dealership, a move the city anticipates will pull in about $1 million a year in sales tax revenue and address longstanding homeless and crime issues in the area.

Council members recently approved a zone change that will allow construction of the dealership. They had also previously accepted a final environmental impact report and issued a conditional use permit.

The site is a 15-acre undeveloped swath of land located east of Interstate 805 and north of Plaza Bonita and west of Sweetwater roads. It is directly across from the Westfield Plaza Bonita mall.

It had been zoned as open space, later as major mixed-use and now, under the council’s recent vote, a split between service commercial and open space. The changes come as developers tried to bring in different projects over the years, including a Costco warehouse and gas station. With the 2008 financial crisis, those plans “never came to fruition,” said city Principal Planner Martin Reeder.

CarMax first proposed its project in 2013 and officially applied with the city in 2016. Since then, the project has undergone several changes that aim to protect the natural resources onsite and minimize impacts to the riverbed area, which the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board had pushed for throughout the process.

As approved, CarMax will develop its facilities across 7.19 acres, including the dealership, service building, a non-public carwash, a parking lot with more than 150 spaces and the surrounding landscape. The business is estimated to generate about 85 new jobs and approximately $1 million every year in sales taxes, which city staff said could be used to target National City’s larger, systemic problems of homelessness, mental health and public safety.

“We’ve always looked to put something in there that would not be a direct competition with Plaza Bonita (mall) … and this is perfect,” said Councilmember Ron Morrison. “This is perfect because CarMax advertises heavily. There is no CarMax south of (Interstate) 8.”

Under the open space portion of the land (7.89 acres), the project will also redirect and widen approximately 2,000 linear feet of an existing channel around the dealership and connect it with its downstream portion.

Councilmember Marcus Bush, who was the only one against the project, expressed concern over National City’s loss of open space and the impacts the project would have on the local habitat.

Nick Larkin, who worked on the environmental impact report, said the project focuses not on capturing and relocating wildlife but rather restoring the habitat. Decisions made around the natural resources onsite came after the developer met with several resource agencies such as Caltrans and U.S. Fish and Wildlife “to ensure that we respect the proper river constraints,” Reeder said.

The site, known as The Jungle for its dense vegetation, has also been home to homeless camps and has suffered “from chronic issues associated with trespassing, dumping, and illegal encampments,” read a city report. Nonprofits such as the Alpha Project and Community Through Hope have frequented the area with the National City Police’s homeless outreach team to offer individuals services.

Since January 2020, there were 99 calls for service reported by the police department, with 48 related to fires started on site, according to city staff.

When land preparation for development begins, the police department’s HOT team will make contact with individuals who might be living on the site to notify them of construction and connect them with services to avoid further displacement, said Police Chief Jose Tellez.

“Obviously, it’s going to displace (the homeless population) and move them down further south, but we will continue to offer services in hopes that they take the services,” Tellez said.

The Alpha Project will be ready to assist those in need as the project comes to fruition, said Marissa Odanga, the nonprofit’s homeless outreach supervisor.

Nonprofits are hopeful that the dismantling of The Jungle will come with the possibility of an emergency homeless shelter as recently proposed by the San Diego Rescue Mission.

Grading and other work is expected to take a year.

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Written by: Tammy Murga, San Diego Union Tribune