Arapostathis’ vision for La Mesa
Samantha Gianulis Thu November 20, 2014 06:37pm
Dr. Mark Arapostathis has always been a part of La Mesa. He grew up in La Mesa, his mother taught for 30 years in La Mesa, he attended La Mesa schools and San Diego universities. With a doctorate in education, he thrives in his element in the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District. He is invested in future generations. It seems that’s where his path was always leading.
The community service, commissions and volunteer positions that led Arapostathis to his near position as mayor, add up to equal the qualified, experienced, ingrained leader of La Mesa.
“Eight years ago I was elected to the city council and prior to that I served on the community service commission,” he said. “Prior to that I volunteered and helped start the La Mesa Arts Alliance with the assistant city manager, and when I was on the community service commission, people encouraged me to run for council and they were encouraging me then to run for mayor, I thought after serving on the council that would be the next logical step. So serving on the council after eight years and learning more about the city and the staff, I moved toward running for mayor.”
Arapostathis, 48, felt he had the knowledge and the time was right to take that next step. His knowledge of the city was also a factor in his decision to run.
“I’ve lived here my whole life, and I know the city very well,” he said. “I attended Lemon Avenue Elementary, La Mesa Middle School, and Helix High School, SDSU and USD for my undergraduate and graduate studies.”
While campaigning, Arapostathis said, he encountered people who knew him as a child. Whether it was through school, little league, or community, he knows the people of La Mesa, which is to have a deeper understanding of their concerns, needs, and issues.
“Each neighborhood has its own needs that they want brought to the city. We’re not a one-issue city. Knowing people in all the areas, people are able to communicate that with me. Most of my contact comes from people that surround the eight schools. I know the teachers and the PTA presidents and the parents, and from them I know their extended family, the grandparents, and the neighbors. It allows me to get adequate information that’s coming from all the areas. The nucleus is the school, it allows me to make contact with people that way,” he said.
Teaching at La Mesa Middle School gives Arapostathis a direct view into one of the most attractive aspects of La Mesa, one of the things that bring families to the city, and that is education.
“What I see for the future of La Mesa is we have a slightly changing demographic—we have younger families that are moving in, we also have people that are moving back,” he said. “Many of my classmates that have moved away are moving back, to take care of their parents, maybe. Some people are moving to La Mesa because it’s a place they want to raise their children and for young families, they obviously come for the city and the schools, the parks, the programs.”
Arapostathis praised LMSVSD as being out in front of education trends and rigorous in teaching to, and exceeding standards. His involvement in creating the La Mesa Arts Academy represents his passion for cultural arts, as does his work with Peter Pan Junior Theater and C. Hook Theater. Education and the arts are interwoven, and according to him, the arts are just as important to the citizens of La Mesa.
“I know that our city staff works incredibly hard to provide as many services as they can to the citizens, nothing dramatic needs to be done to keep the ship moving forward. But what we need to do is continue to listen to the citizens and implement things that they think are desirable to the city. I’ve been asked a lot about cultural arts, they know that I am someone who is involved in the arts. What can be done to enhance the arts scene in La Mesa?” he asked, with excitement and curiosity in his voice.
Enhancing the art would please La Mesans, he thinks, but it will not help if they don’t know about it. He wants to offer more programs for people, but wants the city to improve how it disperses that information, to “do a better job connecting people through information, through a redesigned website, maybe a community bulletin board, maybe we start offering people a way to have alerts on their phones so they know when we have programs and events at the parks, a community center, City Hall,” he said.
Education, the arts, communication. All good topics that are at the center of people’s attention and discourse. Arapostathis believes that moving in the innovative direction of the 21st century will aid in those areas, but what about the things that don’t warrant change, things about La Mesa that people wish to remain the same? One way, Arapostathis said, is to keep a small town feeling in La Mesa, while balancing progress.
“The other vision, is that we maintain the small town feel that we’ve had for the last 102 years,” he said. “How do we do that? We adhere to our city plan. We have a plan for the city and it’s updated every so many years and it accounts for types of buildings, density, height, what can be built where. We need to adhere to that because it’s been adopted. Citizens are noticeably aware and some are concerned that the city will change dramatically. They’ve been very vocal and have told me, ‘We moved here because La Mesa was this type of town.’ We do not want it to change underneath us. I hear that and understand.”
Arapostathis is assured on the topic of the character of La Mesa. The plan is to stick to the city plan, to grow and adapt, but not at the cost of upsetting the complexion of the “small town.” “There are many models across America that have been able to progress and move forward without wiping away whatever they have,” he said. “I think you do that with smart growth, mixed use. Residents above, retail below. And we have already designated corridors in our city that are designated for business use. Because of the economic downturn in ’08, potential developers have gone out of business or have not pursued building anything.”
Arapostathis said he is emphatic about citizens feeling they can discuss these types of concerns with not only him, but with the other council members.
“I really want to work with the City Council collaboratively, because we’re a body of five, my goal is in the next year to make sure the citizens understand who their council members are,” he said. “The mayor is one member of the council. He or she has responsibilities that are different from the council, but there are no other authorities. I don’t hire police chief, I can’t unilaterally put up stop signs, I have just as much authority as another council member. I would like the citizens of La Mesa to know if they’ve talked to another council person, it would be like talking to the mayor.”
Communication is at the forefront for Arapostathis, because it makes solving every issue that much simpler. Neighborhood Watch is an example of beneficial citizen and local government interaction.
“In the past eight years, I have worked with Councilman Ewin to build up neighborhood watch, to close the gaps for the police force, or any gaps that exist. People need to be aware, and when they see something, they need to say something,” he said.
Making neighborhoods safe and keeping them safer is a consistent concern and goal for any community, and La Mesa is no different. Crime on the streets is not the only threat to safety, the streets themselves pose risks. Arapostathis wants the streets to be a safe place for everyone, especially near schools. The Safe Routes to School Committee, of which Arapostathis was a member, along with parents of La Mesa school children have come up with Walk to School Wednesday, a day during which pedestrian students on their way to school are escorted by parent volunteers in yellow vests along school routes.
“Even though we were voted most walkable city in San Diego County, we can always get better,” he said. “And what Safe Routes does is allows the city to make capital improvements to sidewalks and streets that are within walking distance of the school. Which means, we can do it nearly everywhere in the city. We could improve the walkability of the city. Being a teacher obviously gives me unique insight into the challenges are around the school, in regards to traffic patterns and pedestrians. Schools were built fifty and sixty years ago when children walked. Now people drive from their curb to the schools curb. There’s always going to be an impacted neighborhood for fifteen minutes before school and fifteen minutes after school. We’re not going to get away from that until parents feel that it’s safe for their child to walk to school. How we change that is to make the streets as safe as possible. It’s going to have to be a huge change over time. More and more people are starting to believe us when we say you can drop your child three blocks away and we have adults along the way. I think the idea is if we can get that Walk on Wednesdays to be everyday—but it’s a good start.”
Schools and streets becoming safer are just two hot button topics. Recreation could use some help, too. Arapostathis said that people continuously ask about fixing the situation at Couiler Park on Palm Avenue. They want it cleaned up, he said, used for its intended recreational purposes. A park is a place where kids should run free, play sports, and feel secure. In short, the transient population has residents uneasy. How a city begins to do that, Arapostathis explained, is to fill the problematic area with the type of preferred activities the citizens want. Outnumber the bad with the good.
“More people in the park, less of that [transience] occurs,” he said. “I was talking to Supervisor Dianne Jacob about LaMar Park on Bancroft. They’ve made new improvements and they’re trying to get more people to be in the park. The more the park is populated, the less of an undesirable element will be around. I’m saying that from best practices. Common sense tells us that.”
The Boys & Girls Club planned for La Mesa will also serve to elevate the quality of life for the younger residents of La Mesa, giving youth ages 5-12 a positive, fun place to go.
“It’s going to be on the campus of La Mesa Middle School, scheduled to open by 2017/2018. It’s a $9,000,000 dollar project,” Arapostathis said.
It will be funded privately, with Ron and Mary Alice Brady of La Mesa’s Brady Construction donating the first $3,000,000.00.
“There is already a teen center on the campus. The intent is the entire area will be improved by having destination for the youth in this area. This is an area that residents have talked to me about, reducing crime, and to that point that I have said publicly, the day the doors open to the Boys & Girls Club, an immediate impact will be felt in the neighborhood. It will change the nucleus of this neighborhood, in turn, making it possibly more viable for business owners to open in surrounding areas on University,” he said.
Arapostathis has a bold vision for the University to La Mesa Blvd. corridor.
“I’d really like this entire corridor to be a more walkable, business friendly, with retail and restaurants. The more I hear people say they’re going downtown on a Friday night and they mean here and not downtown San Diego, that pleases me. The idea we can get some more restaurants like BO-Beau, I think it would be beneficial,” he said.
Now, while keeping his teaching position at La Mesa Middle School/LMAAC, he seems less phased by a new title, and more focused what more he can do for his constituents.
“Communication with the city is the biggest thing. I care about this city and the people of the city. I want people to feel that they can talk to the city and the staff and if there are problems, that our city staff is approachable. If you go to City Hall, you can have your questions answered,” said Arapostathis.