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Reinventing a City


Grab a hard hat and get set for a bumpy ride. It may have taken the last quarter-century to develop $2 billion worth of downtown San Diego property. But in a relative eyeblink, another $3.5 billion of growth—in the form of at least 80 projects—is about to take place.

Two dozen residential projects (representing 2,000 units). A dozen hotels. One million square feet of retail/commercial space. The list is still growing. Just keeping track of the names of new buildings, developers and architects is a full-time job.

In the next five years, the urban core will undergo the jackhammer version of a major facelift, not to mention liposculpture, rhinoplasty and breast-enhancement surgery. By 2005, all the major cosmetic enhancements should be in place. No one can be quite sure if the end product will look like Pamela Anderson, Michael Jackson or some combination thereof. It’s hard to predict right now (and disconcerting to imagine).

City officials, private business owners and the general public (for the most part) are looking positively at the new-construction influx. There’s a $54 million North Embarcadero Alliance Visionary Plan gaining momentum. South Embarcadero—conceded to the tourism industry—gets a $216 million convention center expansion, a new hotel and an expansion of the existing Hyatt Regency. The Marina District will see an influx of new housing projects, as will Little Italy. The Gaslamp Quarter is growing; so is the core business district.

And then there’s that $700 million big-ticket item involving the Padres. It takes an East Village. Literally. The amazing spectacle of growth will affect all 1,500 acres of downtown—but the battle lines are drawn in East Village and its 26 blocks earmarked as the Ballpark District. East Village is more like Angst Village this year.

To wit: On January 20, a public meeting is held in the East Village’s Fritz Ahern Warehouse. Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC) presents its Draft Relocation Plan for the 69 businesses and 27 residential property owners who’ll have to vacate to make room for the new Padres ballpark. The question-and-answer session is no love-in.

“I live in the Candy Factory lofts,” says resident Chris Michaels. “And I’m proud of the aesthetic beauty of the place. How can you factor in that kind of loss when you’re compensating displaced residents?”

Compensation is done by the letter of the law, he’s told.

Later in the meeting, angry questions center on what will become of the area’s homeless population, and whether CCDC is trying to lowball residents on property values. “I got a hunch that somebody’s gonna get ripped off!” one resident bellows.

An hour into the meeting, Dave Brown, who’s carrying a briefcase and wearing a blue pinstriped suit, walks out. “We’re not getting answers to our questions,” says Brown, an information technology consultant. He owns an East Village loft and can’t understand why the Draft Relocation Plan bases a payment formula on a unit’s number of rooms, rather than square footage. (Number of rooms in a loft? One.) “I’m not satisfied with the rhetoric we’re getting,” he says, agitated. “I’m just going to get legal counsel and that’s that.”

During interviews with San Diego Magazine days after that meeting, CCDC officials promise to show compassion in relocating businesses and residents.

“Unfortunately, eminent domain is part of the American capitalistic process,” says CCDC board chairman Peter Q. Davis. “I think this all goes under the heading ‘No good deed goes unpunished.’ Many of the loft owners knew that East Village lofts were set up for short-term use. Some of the major opponents [of redevelopment] who live down there are acting like they’ve lived there forever. They haven’t.”

It sounds cold. But credit Davis (a possible mayoral candidate) with being more straightforward than some local politicians who dance around the short-term discomfort and focus on the long-term benefits of redevelopment.

One national expert—recently flown into town to address San Diego’s downtown business leaders—says when it comes to large-scale changes that affect a city, angst is a good thing.

“Remember how hard it was to get the ballpark passed by voters?” asks William Mosher during a San Diego Downtown Partnership luncheon at the Hyatt Regency. “Well, the real work starts after the vote.”

President of the Downtown Denver Partnership, Mosher offers a comparison of his experience in Denver to his San Diego audience. His organization oversaw the construction of a downtown ballpark for the Colorado Rockies and the eventual development of businesses and residences in the city of Denver.

“Condemnation cases were in the courts,” he says. “People were bad-mouthing the site, the neighborhood, the homeless situation and everything. It seemed like everybody hated this idea [to build a ballpark]. But today, you can’t find somebody who doesn’t love it.”

Mosher says there has been a 28 percent increase in attendance at downtown Denver museums and at the ballet and symphony since the ballpark came into being. “Four million baseball fans was the key,” he says.

But Mosher adamantly insists disharmony in the process along the way was good. “Why is angst good? Because it means people care. It means people have a sense of place. Remember, what’s being created is a place—and people need to have a sense of the place. Conflict is an essential part of the process.”

So far, then, so good.

The East Village is by no means the only downtown friction point. (Keep repeating the mantra “Conflict is good.”) A year ago, CCDC issued a request for qualifications and proposals for residential sites in the Marina neighborhood. More than 30 proposals were received. Last August, eight development proposals—representing 1,150 units—were selected for implementation. One project, bounded by Market, Union, State and G streets, is off on a bad foot.

CCDC got an offer of $4.5 million from the Olsen Group to develop the block into 109 condominiums, including 133 parking spaces. But the building’s owner, the Cushman family, balked at the price. The subject was debated during a January city council meeting. CCDC’s Davis argued that to allow the building owners to circumvent the city’s eminent-domain process would mean an invalidation of the whole process.

“The Cushman family says they have a bid for the property of $8.25 million,” says Davis. “If that’s the case, then where’s the check? It’s not unheard of for a business owner to try to maximize the worth. This is standard. We will continue to negotiate with the Cushman family—but we have the right to put a fair value for the property into escrow.”

How quickly this project moves ahead remains to be seen. But several components of what will become a Market Street residential corridor are on track to break ground this year. Intracorp has the go-ahead for its 235 Market Street plan. Located on the south side of Market and bounded by Second and Third avenues, this 20,000-square-foot site includes 57 condos and 86 parking spaces.

Other residential development that could break ground in the Marina neighborhood this year:

* A block bordering First Avenue and Front, Market and G streets. Reliance Development Group has proposed building 252 condos in twin towers, 360 parking spaces and 12,000 square feet of retail space.
* The block bounded by Market and Island, First and Second avenues. Designed by Rob Quigley Architects and developed by the Morgan Group and SAS Development, it would have 151 apartments, 186 parking spaces and 11,000 square feet of retail space.
* At Market Street and First Avenue (across First from the Children’s Museum), Bosa Development Corporation plans 214 condos, 430 parking spaces and 13,400 square feet of commercial space. The twin-tower design is by ARC Design International.
* Just off the Market Street corridor (on the north side of J Street between Third and Fourth avenues), Prowswood Companies and property owner Bud Fisher expect to break ground this year on an assisted-living senior apartment complex. Plans call for 101 units and 110 parking spaces (the majority to be dedicated to residents of the nearby Pioneer Warehouse Lofts).

On one block in the middle of all this condo-mania is the Children’s Museum. According to City Councilman Byron Wear, a proposal has been floated to relocate the museum into the Ballpark District. He says a combined Children’s Museum and central library might be a good mixed-use project. If the Children’s Museum does move off its Market/Front Street site, look for another residential plan to spring to life.

One other residential bloc of note: Little Italy. (We’ll get to residential plans for the Ballpark District later.) The Little Italy block bounded by Kettner, India, Beech and Cedar streets contains 16 Kettner Rowhomes designed by Jonathan Segal, and a nearby project called Beech Street Lofts, by Ted Smith & Others. Barone Galasso & Associates has begun construction on 37 low- and moderate-income apartment units (designed by Quigley); Segal will develop 42 loft apartments adjacent to the Waterfront Bar (named best dive bar by San Diego Magazine, so take that under advisement).

Don’t look for new residential property in the North or South Embarcadero. The pompously named North Embarcadero Alliance Visionary Plan calls for “residential opportunities that enliven the area.” But don’t hold your breath. And don’t expect North Embarcadero development to be on the fast track. The Ballpark District and other areas will take precedence.

The Port of San Diego, the Navy, city and county politicians and CCDC formed an unprecedented alliance to come up with the Visionary Plan. But unresolved issues regarding North Embarcadero include acceptance of environmental impact reports and financing the construction of the public improvements. The financing package—to be shared by all five entities—totals $54 million, including streetscape, parks, a new bulkhead, new piers and enhancements to the whole area, says Councilman Wear.

Though the macroeconomics will take some time, some work on creating a “pedestrian orientation” in the area could start soon. When this area does get a major makeover, it could include:

* Emphasis on using Pacific Highway for traffic flow; greater emphasis on pedestrian traffic on Harbor Drive.
* Esplanades, promenades and plazas. There would be significant open space and room for new retail along the waterfront. Forget high-rises.
* A build-out of the Grape Street piers for boaters.
* An expansion of the floating Maritime Museum to include a land-based museum.
* Retention of Anthony’s restaurant. A plan was floated to move the venerable eatery; owners said hell no, we won’t go.
* Significant build-outs on the B Street Pier, where cruise ships now dock. Wear says the pier would get new eateries and retail and could conceivably dock three (!) cruise ships at one time.
* The Navy Pier as docking site of another floating museum. The 1,000-foot-long U.S.S. Midway would drop anchor there, much to the chagrin of the owners of the nearby Tuna Harbor–based Fish Market restaurant.

While North Embarcadero would no doubt be touted both to tourists and locals, South Embarcadero is all but conceded to tourists. The dividing line between the two Embarcaderos is Seaport Village. In accordance with an 810-room expansion of the Hyatt Regency, Allegis Development plans a $40 million expansion and makeover of the retail/restaurant-driven Seaport Village.

Hyatt’s neighbor, the Marriott Hotel & Marina, was denied its request to build itself a third tower. Look for that request to resurface in the future.

South of the Marriott is, of course, the finally litigation-free San Diego Convention Center. Holes are already being dug for its expansion; heavy equipment moved into the area late last year.

“I’ll make a very bold statement about the convention center: We need a third phase of expansion,” says Councilman Wear.

While that assessment sinks in, consider this bummer: This summer, Harbor Drive in front of the present expansion site will be closed to traffic. The road closure will last a year—and will likely overlap the groundbreaking of a Campbell Landing Hotel. Located on Port tidelands east of Eighth Avenue, the 1,000-room Campbell property is a collaboration between Tishman Urban Development Corporation and Allegis.

Of course, while the convention center expansion and the Campbell Landing Hotel construction are churning up the ground, just across (closed) Harbor Drive will be another cloud of dust—this one being stirred up so a ballpark can settle in.

In late January, the Port was earnestly studying potential traffic snarls that might stem from a major road closure and serial groundbreakings. While the ballpark itself isn’t scheduled to break ground until January 2000, much of the Ballpark District is slated to be cleared and prepared for ancillary development this year.

On April 1, the Padres must demonstrate to the city—per their memorandum of understanding—that they have made significant progress in developing the site. Padres owner John Moores has partnered with John Burnham & Company to develop the district. No one seems clear on exactly what needs to be presented on April 1.

This much is certain, though: Phase I development of the district calls for a total of 850 rooms (in two to three hotel projects), 650,000 square feet of office space (Moores may relocate one of his software companies), 150,000 square feet of retail space (restaurants, shops and so on) and 5,000 new parking spaces.

This is also fairly certain: The ballpark will be laid out as close to the popular Gaslamp Quarter as possible. A movement has been afoot—led by a group called the Park Bay Diagonal Collaborative—to push the ballpark farther east and away from the Gaslamp.

“We feel the arts and warehouse district is important to the city,” says Collaborative spokesperson Laura Warner. “It’s important to allow the residents already living there to stay and keep the area vibrant.” The Collaborative’s plan calls for a diagonal, main pedestrian promenade west of a ballpark site, thus saving several lofts and other property currently in East Village.

“It’s too late now to change the plan,” says Padres president Larry Lucchino. “I give them [the Collaborative] credit for persistence. We did consider their idea. But all the consultants told us we needed to be close to the Gaslamp.”

Councilman Wear says the Padres’ plan also includes a diagonal road that will be a part of the city’s attempt to link the San Diego Bay to Balboa Park. But the Padres want the diagonal on the east side of the ballpark.

“If the ballpark moves too far east it loses the spark gap from the Gaslamp,” says Wear. “John Moores told me he doesn’t want the ballpark to be a ‘jewel in a junkyard.’ So what we did was make a plan to get rid of the junkyard and surround the jewel with positive uses.”

Positive uses planned for north of the ballpark include about 1,000 units of residential housing. The Ballpark District is tabbed to be 80 percent commercial/retail and 20 percent residential. That percentage flip-flopped a previous plan, says East Village Association director Leslie Wade.

“The emphasis was going to be on housing; now it’s entertainment/commercial,” Wade says. “Let me sum it up this way: East Village is not as blighted and scary as it’s made out to be. But it has been stagnant. It would have turned around without the ballpark. But the ballpark puts it ahead leaps and bounds.”

No one specifically credits the impending ballpark with jump-starting all of downtown’s new projects. But “leaps and bounds” is an ample description of what’s going on. A few details about other major projects in gear:

* Bridgeworks. Located at the foot of Fifth (across Harbor from the Convention Center) will be a 253-room Hilton Garden Inn and 20,000 square feet of retail space.
* Gaslamp Square. The former site of Goodwill Industries (the block bounded by Fourth, Fifth, Island and J) will soon house a 350-room Le Meridien Hotel and 86,000 square feet of retail space.
* Courtyard by Marriott. The former San Diego Trust & Savings Building (Broadway and Sixth) will become a 247-room hotel.
* Harbour Lights Resort. This seven-story hotel at Fifth and E will have 12 studio and 47 one-bedroom time-share units, as well as retail space.
* Station B Hotel. The former SDG&E power plant will serve as the historic base to a new hotel (an Inter-Continental, maybe). Plans call for a 26-story tower and 450 rooms at this Broadway and Kettner site.
* El Cortez Hotel. The once-glorious landmark at Seventh and Ash will finally be reborn as an 85-unit apartment building, with event space and 104 parking spaces.
* Music Village. Several old structures along Fifth near C will become a mixed-use project with a House of Blues nightclub, 48 live/work apartments and 400 parking spaces.
* Ghirardelli Chocolates. Gone will be the sleazy Casino and Foxy theaters on Fifth. The chocolate-company outlet will be next to another recent transplant, Urban Outfitters.
* Borders Books. This DDR Oliver McMillan 28,000-square-foot mega-bookstore project will land at Sixth and G.

At last count there were eight sites proposed for a new central library, and several locations being considered for a new county courthouse and city hall (though the latter is a back-burner issue). While the roll keeps getting longer, other sites worth noting are the Walker Scott–Owl Drug-Kress buildings (mixed use); the historic Woolworth Building (lofts/retail); the neighborhood surrounding the El Cortez Hotel (condos and apartments); Horton Plaza (retail expansion); and City College (a new telecommunications center). And in the Gaslamp, TGI Friday’s will be the latest chain restaurant to make the scene, following Hard Rock Cafe.

In sum, it’s kind of overwhelming. But exciting, says Downtown Partnership president Laurie Black. “Yes, there is some concern about all the dust that will be downtown,” she says. “But the dust is a part of San Diego becoming a 24/7, all-night city.”

Rather than worry about dust and traffic, Black says the real concern ought to be about downtown leadership. “Downtown is a quilt, with great pieces,” she says. “We need leadership to keep the quilt whole. The Ballpark District will have to recognize that Cortez Hill is important—and so on. The next mayor is going to have to pull all the communities together. The next mayor will really have to put his or her nose to the grindstone.”

Meanwhile, try to focus on two things: Bring your hard hat. Conflict is good.
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