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El Cajon Redux?


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You know it’s an urban crisis when you can drive the entire length of Main Street and not see one single place to buy a latte until you reach Washington Avenue on the east end of town.

El Cajon’s city fathers know it’s a crisis, too. After all, the hillsides around the valley are crowded with well-to-do folks with money to burn. Alas, few of them ever venture to the valley floor to cruise

El Cajon’s rag-tag old main drag. There’s nothing there they need—nothing they want to spend their money on.

Yet.

What’s happening now in the old heart of El Cajon is surgery—the installation of a pacemaker to try to bring that heartbeat up to speed. A business management district formed nearly four years ago is the chief surgeon, in partnership with the city of El Cajon, and the patient seems to be making some real progress after decades as a semi-invalid.

The idea, first pushed by the East County Regional Chamber of Commerce, is to create a cultural and entertainment zone for El Cajon, mixed with some commercial and new residential, to bring some of that money from the hills back down into town. And they think they have enough good stuff to get everybody’s attention.

First, there’s an increasingly busy East County Performing Arts Center nearby. Then there are two existing museums and two new museums in the works (including the reopening planned for famed Western artist Olaf Wieghorst’s home, now moved to Rea Street). There is also a successful cultural event called the Friendship Festival.

Based on those potential draws, it was simple logic for the 124 property owners to agree to tax themselves to try to create something good. They figure to breathe ever more life into the patient.

“Basic urban planning tells you to go with your strengths,” says Claire Carpenter, executive director of Downtown El Cajon Inc., the organization that manages the business improvement district with $366,000 a year collected from those 124 property owners. The El Cajon downtown management district includes 153 parcels of land on 25 city blocks between Interstate 8 on the north, Lexington on the south and along Main Street from El Cajon Boulevard east to Avocado—about three-quarters of a mile.

A majority of the property owners petitioned the city to assess themselves anywhere from $250 to $23,000 a year, based on a complicated formula of square footage and Main Street frontage. (Only two large property owners pay the highest amount; the highest the others pay is $6,000.) The money is to help pay for whatever it takes to make the district come alive again.

And coming alive it is.

Approval for two development projects for the northwest and southwest corners of Magnolia Avenue and Main Street should be through the city council before December. One is a retail space on Main Street with offices upstairs. The other is a street-level coffee shop (somebody else was looking for latte, too), with offices upstairs, and 28 single-family row homes at the rear of the property that will face Douglas Avenue.

Along the length of the district, a lot of the old businesses have already moved out to make way for new tenants. Property owners who fix up their buildings can get matching funds of up to $12,000 for the improvements—in other words, get some of their money back.

The city also is spending nearly $625,000 of public money to jazz up Main Street itself. Four lanes are in the process of becoming two as fancy new corners and planters are installed at the intersections. Parking along Main Street will become diagonal. That’s to make room for more pedestrians to stroll among the small shops, the nightclubs and (it is hoped) at least one high-end restaurant to replace the empty storefronts.

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