Town vs. Gown
By Virginia Butterfield
We’ve been listening for years to plans to clean up the area around our local state university, to beautify—or at least normalize—the neighborhood surrounding the San Diego State University campus. Up to now, the chief spillover has been blight—run-down homes crowded with students, boarded-up frat houses, trash in yards and alleys.
Why not replace this unsightly neighborhood with a campus village—new shops and housing catering to the academic community—somewhat like what happened at UCLA with the creation of Westwood village?
At last, the first visible step is being taken in the creation of such a village. The site: Hardy Avenue, across the way from SDSU’s new Cox Arena. That gap you will see forming in a series of run-down buildings on the block between 55th and Campanile is the location for a new $7.5 million apartment building for student housing.
After 10 years of planning, more than 400 meetings between university and community and two false starts with developers who withdrew from the project, the plan for a campus village is finally coming to life.
Anyone who’s spent any time on or near the SDSU campus knows of the problems around the perimeter. Too many students crowded into little one-story houses. Cars, traffic, rowdy behavior invaded neighborhoods that formerly had been occupied by quiet families. Enrollment at San Diego State grew to well over 30,000 by the late ’80s (following a drop in the early ’90s, the number is close to 30,000 again). And as the college spilled over into the town, anger and frustration mounted among the citizenry.
Even students who live off campus add to the problem, sometimes driving back and forth for classes as many as four times a day. Congestion grows on the streets and in the parking lots.
The area most affected seems to be just south of campus, where single-family homes have been converted to rentals or fraternity and sorority houses. Families that have been there 40 years or more have become enmeshed in the university overflow. It is not to their liking.
A plan was needed, and the SDSU Foundation, a private, nonprofit auxiliary of SDSU, became chief backer of a comprehensive redevelopment plan, a sweeping move to create a buffer village between gown and town. The foundation acts as a kind of banker to the university. All substantial funds awarded to SDSU, including grants and contributions, are filtered through the foundation and applied to the needs of the university. So it is perhaps logical that this was the group then-Councilman Ron Roberts (now a county supervisor) called on to help solve the problem.
The new main entrance into the new redevelopment area on Campanile will create a ceremonial introduction to the SDSU campus.
The projected view, looking west along Montezuma Road, will feature new student apartments.
Harry Alpers, general manager of the SDSU Foundation, remembers the beginning of the plan this way: “In 1987, I got a call from Ron Roberts. We had discussed the impact of the university on the neighboring areas—parking, traffic, the mini-dorms, the cars, the music, the general deterioration of the area. Ron put a new idea in my head. The government was not able to provide financing, in his view, and certainly the university couldn’t. It was Ron’s idea that the private sector should be involved—along with a commitment from the foundation. I agreed to head up the project, then I said to myself, ‘What the heck do I do with this?’”
Alpers met with community leaders in the area, among them Brian Bennett, Jim Boggus and Patricia Hannum, members of the College Area Community Council, the local planning group. The city of San Diego became involved through Seventh District Councilwoman Judy McCarty. The group hired Sanford Goodkin, a prominent San Diego real estate expert, to do a marketing study.
After much attention to what the market would bear, the study revealed an intense, pent-up demand for retail services and apartments in that very area. Dubbed the Core Sub-Area, it is bounded by Montezuma Avenue on the south, 55th Street on the west, College Avenue on the east and the campus on the north. If the right product were provided—affordable housing, student-oriented retail—up to 10,000 students could be brought into living accommodations on the campus, thus removing them from the problem neighborhoods.
The new building on Hardy Avenue between Campanile Avenue and 55th Street, scheduled for groundbreaking in September, is the first step in this grandiose experiment. It will not be an ordinary dorm. Not a beehive structure with no personality, as dorms tend to be. Not a two- or three-to-a-room dorm with showers down the hall and 24-hour supervision by a university overseer. This four-story building was designed after a series of questionnaires were submitted to students. What would they like in a new housing development? What did they dislike about dorms? For the 3,000 who responded, privacy turned out to be the most important issue.
In the new building, to be constructed by Swinerton & Walberg, most units will have four bedrooms and two bathrooms to a cluster, divided by a shared living area and kitchen. No supervision. Accommodations for married students as well as single. The rent? $1,400 a month—which, shared by four, comes to $350 each —just about what they’d been paying in crowded cottages with every possible room in the house converted to a sleeping space and up to eight cars competing for the driveway.
The new apartments will have underground parking, plus an off-site parking lot. The building should be ready by late 1999, and applications for residency will be taken this fall. Availability for 200 qualifying students will be on a first-come, first-served basis.
Two hundred is a far cry from moving 10,000 students onto campus. But it’s a step. The first step. In addition to the student apartment building, Phase One of the renovation plan will see construction of six to eight new fraternity houses and a mixed-use complex adjacent to Aztec Center. This complex will consist of one floor of retail services and three floors of student apartments.
Once the Core Sub-Area is completed, other, more elaborate plans will unfold. Eventually 133 acres will be redeveloped, with plans for a hotel, movie theater, planetarium, coffeehouses and microbrewery. The dreams are that the commercial projects, when implemented, will stimulate jobs for students and others in the community.
After the Goodkin study, the land-planning firm Austin Hansen came up with an attractive physical model of a self-supporting village (think Hillcrest’s Uptown District). And McKellar Development of La Jolla was brought into the venture.
The irony of the ensuing years was that two developers, of which McKellar was the first, found it necessary to back away from the scheme. McKellar ran into financial difficulties in 1990 —as did many a San Diego developer—and had to withdraw, but not before putting in $2 million of its own money on the project, with the hiring of an architect and a land-planning firm. Fortunately for the university, when Chris McKellar backed out, he donated the result of his work to the SDSU Foundation. But the price of land was much cheaper then, and it seemed as if an era of opportunity had been lost.
Next, in ’94, came William Janss, the developer who had masterminded Westwood at UCLA. Janss was picked because the foundation liked the work he had done in tony Westwood village. But the foundation wanted a deal in which Janss would have a long-term ownership interest in the project, making money from a percentage of net revenues from apartments and retail shops.
Alas, Janss saw it differently. He wanted his company to be paid fees for its services, which would have been less risky for the developer and would have required the foundation to put up much more of its own money. The deal fell through.
“It was like The Perils of Pauline,” says Alpers, laughing.
Because they had acquired so much experience by then, Alpers and the foundation decided to push forward on their own, with the foundation acting as its own developer. “We didn’t have a clue what that would mean,” sighs Alpers. But so much work had already been done. By ’93, they had managed to get the area officially designated a redevelopment district by the San Diego City Council. The group had completed its environmental impact study, and it looked like full steam ahead. Foundation board members felt they themselves, with what they’d learned, could approach the bond financing community on their own.
Thinking back on the years that followed, Alpers says, “You know, sometimes developers make a lot of money. But believe me, they deserve it.”
Alpers and the foundation conducted more than 400 meetings with the community in an effort to win all participants to their side. They listened to everybody’s complaints. At first, they were met with skepticism, says Stephanie Boyd, community and public relations director for the foundation. Nobody quite trusted the university to act in their favor. But in time, community members began to realize that it would be in everyone’s interest to improve the environs: Property values would escalate once the blighted buildings were removed.
Everyone was happy, it seemed, except three single-family homeowners who would be displaced. Two of their cottages are now temporary rentals.
Other cottages are owned by sororities, fraternities and religious centers, who will be accommodated elsewhere under the new plan. The fraternities have gone downhill drastically (more so than the sororities) and are replete with trash-strewn yards and sofas dumped in alleys. In some cases, sofas ended up on roofs. Seven campus religious centers now occupying space in this core area will be gathered into another area, as yet undesignated.
Everybody seems pleased with the project except the lone holdout, the last single-family resident to remain in her home, a widow who wishes not to be named in this article. She is a sprightly ex-faculty wife who calls herself “the last confederate soldier.” This independent-minded woman stays put because two things are very important to her: proximity to the university library where, because of her husband, she has lifetime privileges, and the athletic field where she can walk her two puppies.
She says she is living in a slum—“like a zoo. The students are out of control. Friday nights are the worst. The drunkenness —they toss trash everywhere; they urinate in the alley. They are full of testosterone, I guess. Sometimes I think their parents are paying to have them stay away from home.” So on Friday nights this highly educated, trapped homeowner closes her doors and windows and plays opera recordings—loudly.
Her chief complaint is that the foundation “fails to oversee its own property. The degeneration of this neighborhood can be laid right at their door,” says this 38-year resident. “The weeds grow 5 feet high just one block from their new foundation building, yet they never seem to notice. I just have to hang in. The prospect of moving is horrible.”
In defense of the foundation, Alpers says it owns only about 25 percent of that blighted area. The fraternities, sororities and religious centers are the major owners. It will be a year or two before the plan relocates the “lone confederate soldier” by “friendly condemnation,” and at that point a price will have to be negotiated for her property. “I am not litigious,” says the holdout, “but this time [she has had to vacate a property before] I am not prepared to go out like a lamb.”
What will happen to her garden and waterfall, in which she has invested thousands of dollars? The same thing that happened to her swimming pool in the first house she and her husband occupied on the other side of the street, from which they moved so that a parking lot could be built. “I am rather angry,” she says, in what seems the understatement of the year.
While sororities are generally well kept, it is hoped that the newly built fraternity houses will not fall to the fate of predecessors. The boarded-up and rotted-out Delta Epsilon house, formerly at the site of the new apartment building, once served as a haven to wild partygoers. “They threw bottles at cops,” claims one witness.
Their charter was revoked by the national fraternity for nonpayment of dues, and the members were forced to vacate. The last of the Delta Epsilons angrily trashed the house, tearing down walls and stairs, staining the carpet and punching out the windows. Empty since 1994, the house has finally fallen to a wrecking crew.
With a 20-year construction time frame for the overall plan, SDSU’s vision calls for more than three dozen new fraternity and sorority houses and more than a million square feet of shopping, office and research-and-development space in various areas around the university, including Alvarado Road, 55th Street, Lot A (the proposed hotel and conference center) and Montezuma School. Another goal is to create attractive gateways to the campus—walkways for pedestrians or cyclists, parks instead of vacant fields and abandoned gas stations. As the campus grows into a unified entity, appealing to the eye, neighboring property values should improve.
The overall project is expected to involve a half-billion to a billion dollars, financed mostly through tax-exempt bonds. Four million dollars has already been absorbed in the planning.
Traffic problems will be modified in areas adjacent to the campus. And the coming of the trolley is hailed by one and all. An extension from Mission Valley to the campus already has been approved, and an eastward hook to Santee will complete the loop.
“We’re very excited about the thought of all this happening,” says Alice Buck, chairman of the Project Area Committee, which brings together all the interested parties—students, religious organizations, fraternities, sororities and community members. One result of this cooperation: “The community has a new respect for the university,” she says. “Oh, there are still soreheads—‘How dare they do these things?’—but once it’s finished, everybody will be grateful. When 100,000 SDSU alums look back, they’ll be really proud that we saw this through.”