Canvassing the Neighborhood
By Rachel Laing
HERE’S A 10-BLOCK STRETCH of University Avenue in North Park that, at first glance, might look like any low-rent commercial district. The area has all the hallmarks of the euphemistic “transitional” neighborhood: pawn shops and check-cashing stores, bleak thrift emporiums and 99-cent stores, storefront job centers and crowded bus stops.
But a closer look reveals change taking place through an unlikely alliance of artists, developers, community leaders and city government, working to mold North Park into a model for urban revitalization in San Diego.
Until recently, North Park has been a different sort of model: the textbook example of a neighborhood battered by an economic trend that had played havoc with city centers all over the United States since the early 1970s. Housing sprawled out from the city core, giant malls sprung up to serve suburbanites’ shopping needs, and once-bustling shopping districts and nearby residential neighborhoods became host to blight and poverty.
Efforts to bring North Park back from the brink have not been focused on luring the national chain stores from Mission Valley or building shopping complexes. Instead, they’re about turning what were once the area’s weaknesses —old, vacant buildings, storefronts that hadn’t been updated in years, relatively low property values—into advantages in the redevelopment battle.
IN THE POST-WAR BOOM of the 1950s, University Avenue in North Park was a thriving commercial center, second only to downtown as a shopping destination. The J.C. Penney store at the corner of 30th and University doubled its originally planned size mid-construction, when an adjacent plot of land became available. Because business was so robust, the company had to open an annex around the corner for its furniture sales.
The residential neighborhood around the shopping district was thriving as well. The Craftsman bungalows, Spanish haciendas and occasional Victorians that line streets of the area—which lies to the north of Balboa Park between Hillcrest and Interstate 805—were well-kept and inhabited by middle-class families.
In 1969, the newly built malls in Mission Valley came recruiting, and North Park lost many of its better stores. For several years, the area held on as it cycled through retailers that would move in for a while before joining the others in the suburbs. By the mid-’80s, North Park property values were way down, and the neighborhood was in a deep economic and cultural slump.
Things started to turn around in the mid- 1990s, when the area was designated a redevelopment zone and a chapter of the Main Street Trust for Historical Preservation moved in. The organization was formed in the 1980s to protect architecturally and historically significant “main street” areas, but it soon took on an economic restoration component as well.
North Park Main Street director Jay Turner had a revitalization plan for the area that might seem counterintuitive: Forget chasing the money; woo the starving artists, and the money will follow. The logic behind this, Turner says, is that people like to live and work in arts districts. Arts and entertainment venues not only attract foot traffic to businesses located nearby, but the patrons tend to be well-educated and to have some disposable income.
Artists also make good neighbors. They strive to make their spaces beautiful and typically will improve any building they inhabit. They often work where they live, so they spend more time in their communities and frequent local businesses.
In 1998, Turner set out to implement his plan. His first job was to recruit a critical mass of artists from around San Diego—a task made easier by the region’s rising real estate values, which were pricing artists out of areas such as downtown, Little Italy and Hillcrest. Rents in North Park were rising far less significantly.
The 1998 voter approval of the Padres ballpark in the East Village, where about two dozen artists had studios in old warehouses slated for demolition or redevelopment, also helped. Turner held meetings to encourage these artists to consider North Park.
By staying aware of pending vacancies in North Park, Turner was able to help match artists with spaces. He also encouraged non-arts-related small businesses, such as hair salons, restaurants and coffeehouses, to display work by local artists in their shops.
NORTH PARK MAIN STREET’S EFFORTS are most evident on Ray Street just south of University, where a cluster of studios and galleries has formed. Three years ago, the Ray Street galleries began monthly Saturday-night art walks. Called Ray@Night, the event has spilled onto University Avenue and each month brings more than 1,000 culturally inclined people through the area for art shows, poetry readings and musical performances in a party atmosphere.
Ray@Night doubles as a recruiting tool for artists by showing the cooperative spirit of the burgeoning arts community. George Lofland happened upon the event one Saturday night while attending a ceramics show. At the time, Lofland was contemplating giving up his career in kitchen design to start a ceramics school downtown. But when he saw a vacant, boarded-up building on the corner of Ray and University, he decided it was a better space for his venture. He rented it, and soon after, what had last been a rehab clinic became the San Diego Art Department, a lively gallery and teaching studio where local artists hold ceramics, painting, drawing, sculpture and jewelry-making classes. Lofland recently leased another building down the block that houses an art-supply store and four studio spaces he rents out to artists.
The artists have improved the actual street, too. Using U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grants secured by City Councilmember Toni Atkins, Ray Street tenants worked together to design streetscape improvements that include new sidewalks, curbs and gutters, flowering street trees, benches, trash cans, light poles and planters.
Eileen Groth, one of two landlords for most of the buildings on the part of Ray Street now inhabited by artists, says she’s not getting top rents from the artists in her buildings, but there are clear benefits to having them as tenants. They give her ideas and help her fix up her buildings. They keep the buildings and the sidewalks in front clean, and they’ve made a once-rundown neighborhood a better place to own property.
“It used to be I’d put in anybody I could get in as long as they weren’t into drugs,” Groth says. “I had to get rid of a lot of people.” Plenty is happening beyond Ray Street, as well. Last year, the San Diego Lyric Opera began renovations on the North Park Theatre, which will reopen this year as a live-performance venue after sitting dormant for more than two decades. Community members asked that the theater’s parking garage incorporate art, so the structure’s façade will have 13 public-art spaces.
Arts-related businesses, such as music stores and galleries, dot University Avenue, and artists have turned dozens of somber gray utility boxes into pieces of street art.
CULTIVATING AN ARTS DISTRICT IN A BLIGHTED AREA is not a redevelopment tactic that historically has worked out in San Diego.
Time and again, a sanctioned arts community begins to develop in an area no one wants to touch, like the Gaslamp Quarter in the early 1980s or East Village before the ballpark. But every decade the real estate market heats up, and suddenly these blighted hinterlands become new frontiers. Big developers start to get big ideas, the city kicks in land and infrastructure, and pretty soon the area becomes too expensive—and too blandly commercial— for the artists.
Photographer Christian Michaels is one of the artists displaced by the ballpark. He moved to the East Village when the Centre City Development Corporation designated the gritty, highcrime area as an arts and warehouse district. Michaels had just completed a year of renovations on his warehouse when the ballpark measure passed, and he was crushed to learn he would have to sell his building or face eminent domain.
“East Village was like the SoHo of San Diego. There were artists everywhere,” Michaels says. “Then for them to do a 180 and call it a ‘sports and entertainment district’ was just like ripping our heart out.”
When he bought a new building in North Park, Michaels checked the zoning to make sure it wasn’t in North Park’s redevelopment footprint. While he believes Turner is sincere in welcoming artists to North Park, he doesn’t want to fall victim to the realities of redevelopment again.
“I really felt invited down there to renovate East Village,” he says, “but that was just until CCDC could make a better deal, I guess.”
But Turner insists there is no better deal for North Park, and artists aren’t just placeholders until the big guns move in. “The danger with gentrification is always that people come in and do the revitalization, then find they can’t afford to live there anymore,” he says. “We’re working on a number of ways to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
One measure is encouraging the development of mixed-use housing that is both affordable and practical for artists and smallbusiness owners. One new development, La Boheme at 30th and Lincoln, will have “condominiumized” retail space on the ground floor—meaning space will be owned, like the project’s other condos, instead of having the developer act as the landlord. This offers a lower-priced alternative to buying an entire building to gain ownership of a studio or gallery. La Boheme will also have shopkeeper units with ground-floor retail space and living space directly above.
Turner says North Park Main Street is actively seeking developers for more live/work spaces and retail condominiums. Tom Romstadt, North Park project manager for the city’s redevelopment agency, says his staff is open to any kind of strategy to encourage ownership in the area, and his staff would “be pleased to talk to someone about such a proposal.”
Romstadt’s office also contracted North Park Main Street to compile an historic-building inventory. Main Street identified 44 buildings Turner says will be off-limits for large-scale development and all but ensure new development in the area comes from infill rather than massive projects found in other redevelopment zones. (Only 11 buildings in the East Village redevelopment district were listed as historic.)
“Everybody has agreed that we don’t want this place to be rebuilt in one decade,” Turner says. “We have a plan, and we’re achieving what we set out to do.”