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Who Owns Downtown


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Alonzo Horton believed in downtown San Diego; he bought 960 acres of it. Gina Champion-Cain believes in downtown San Diego; she bought a 10,000-square-foot plot of it.

Horton paid $265 for his first 800 acres. Champion-Cain paid $7.5 million for less than a quarter of an acre.

What a difference 136 years makes.

Horton, the founder of “New Town” San Diego, forked over 33 cents an acre for the once-barren land that’s now among the priciest real estate in the United States. Champion-Cain anted roughly $33 million an acre. Of course, her piece of downtown has been improved, somewhat. On it stands the Arte Building, a six-story office complex at Sixth and C. And it draws some pretty hefty rents.

“I love downtowns in general,” says Champion-Cain, a 38-year-old investor who has bought and sold millions of dollars worth of downtown real estate in recent years through her company, American National Investments. “I’m an urban girl—I believe if you look around the world, the heart and soul of every region is its urban core.”

Apparently lots of other people feel that way, too. Over the past five years, downtown property values have climbed an average 17 percent a year, says Gary London, a local real estate analyst who runs The London Group. And the buying and selling of downtown land has taken on all the drama of a heated Monopoly game, with property values in some suddenly hot neighborhoods soaring virtually overnight —and those fortunate, or savvy, enough to buy at the right time walking away with a veritable fortune.

Today, downtown property values range from $150 a square foot to upwards of $400 a foot—$24 million for a standard 200-by-300-square-foot block—in the ultra-hot Marina District, in plain sight of the bay. Little Italy, on the north end of downtown, has been the latest hot little comer, with land values topping out at about $300 a square foot. But now, “Even Little Italy is getting close to done in the foreseeable future; it’s pretty much all built up,” London says.

If there’s any opportunity left to turn a downtown dime, it’s in East Village, which, thanks to the Padres’ $458 million ballpark —slated to open next April—is steadily being transformed from a Baltic Avenue slum into a Park Place showplace.

“Realistically, the most affordable land base is still East Village,” says Russ Valone, president of Marketpointe Realty Advisors, a real estate market research firm. “But even in East Village, most of the blocks are already spoken for.”

Indeed, demand for East Village property is so great that land values there have been rising at an annual rate of 27 percent, significantly higher than for the rest of downtown.

“East Village, in the space of four years, has gone from purple to yellow to green to blue,” London says, alluding to the increasingly higher-priced squares on a Monopoly board. “There’s a piece of property we’re working on, a 20,000-square-foot piece near the ballpark on J Street, purchased by an investor just prior to condemnation for $43 a foot. It came out of condemnation valued at $75 a foot, and today it’s worth at least $175 to $200 a foot—and that’s just for a partial block.”

Just recently, the Padres’ development arm, JMI Realty, came under fire for wanting to sell three condemned blocks in East Village for twice the $17.7 million the team had agreed to pay the city in 1999. The Padres had intended to develop the land themselves but now want to transfer development rights.

Escalating land values have triggered a sea change in the makeup of the typical downtown property owner. Individual entrepreneurs like Champion-Cain and Gaslamp Quarter kingpin Bud Fischer are no longer the rule but the exception.

“I would say downtown is a gameboard that can only be played by the big boys, at this point,” London says. “As a result, you’re going to see large institutional investors and developers continue to have an appetite.”

GE Pensions Trust is one such institutional investor. The trust owns three San Diego skyscrapers occupying three complete city blocks—the 22-story NBC Building at 225 Broadway, the 20-story SBC Building at 101 West Broadway and One America Plaza, a 34-story monolith at 600 West Broadway—for a total footprint of 180,000 square feet.
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