Southeastern Shall Rise Again
By Larry M. Edwards
IT’S 10:30 ON A NOVEMBER MORNING, and the parking lot of Imperial Marketplace Plaza is nearly full. One could easily conclude it’s a Saturday. It’s not. It’s a Monday. People are lined up at checkout stands in every business. The Home Depot is bustling, and the early-lunch crowds are gathering at Starbucks, Subway and KFC/Long John Silver’s. The aisles in the 99 Cent Only store, open just four days, are jammed with shoppers. At Washington Mutual, expansion plans are being discussed.
And there’s more to come. Within another month, a Sizzler restaurant opens, as does the Greenwood Flower Shop. A Domino’s Pizza, along with a hair and nail salon, are not far behind. Mark T. Burger, gazing across a parking lot that would dwarf a football field, is pleased—but not surprised. “I knew this would happen. This was an under-served community,” says the head of Pacific Development Partners (PDP). “We are now 100 percent leased—but it was a tough sell.”
Why? The site sat in what outsiders had viewed as a “bad” neighborhood in the heart of “Southeast.” In addition, the convoluted landscape, sloping into the flood plain of Chollas Creek, presented a daunting challenge. A lot of dirt had to be moved, including the regrading of Imperial Avenue, and a lot of convincing had to be done to get the $38 million project off the ground—a project in which Beverly Hills–based PDP would invest some $23 million.
Burger is quick to point out that his development company didn’t do it alone. “This was a collaborative effort, working with Carolyn Smith and the Southeastern Economic Development Corporation,” he says. Burger credits the success not only to his willingness to risk developing the “topographically challenged” parcel but to the vision of Smith, president of SEDC, which pumped $15 million into the project. A project built on a site passed over by San Diego–based Burnham Pacific. A project dubbed a “white elephant” by nonbelievers.
Smith, surveying Imperial Marketplace from her secondfloor office, says it symbolizes what SEDC has accomplished and will continue to achieve. The nonprofit corporation was formed by the city of San Diego in 1981 to direct redevelopment efforts in Southeastern San Diego. The 7.2- square-mile redevelopment zone is bordered by Interstate 5 on the west and south, the Martin Luther King Freeway on the north and 69th Street at its eastern end. SEDC’s sphere of influence includes 15 neighborhoods and four redevelopment project areas.
Thanks to SEDC and community planning groups, the region is shedding the perception of some that it’s a crime-ridden ghetto, demonstrating instead that it’s a collection of respectable, middle-class neighborhoods with some of the lower crime rates in the city. Indeed, two Southeastern neighborhoods ranked among the top five in an analysis of the safest neighborhoods published by San Diego Magazine in September 2004. Among the 114 neighborhoods charted, Alta Vista, a sliver of real estate in the Encanto area, ranked as the safest; Paradise Hills was fourth.
Southeastern Shall Rise Again
In her 10 years as SEDC’s president, Smith has initiated nearly two dozen projects—including the Imperial Marketplace Plaza. Many are now complete or nearing completion. These comprise retail and light-industrial projects, as well as more than a dozen housing developments. Some 500 single-family homes, condominiums and rental apartments have been built.
New, three-bedroom houses sold for less than $200,000 here as recently as two years ago. Now, in a climate of escalating property values, these prices have doubled, raising concerns over the continuing ability of local residents to buy homes in the area. To help alleviate the problem, SEDC sets aside a portion of its $27 million budget for shared-equity loan programs to assist first-time home buyers. Current homeowners can apply for similar loans to rehabilitate older homes.
THE CAMPUS-LIKE, 66-ACRE Gateway Center East, with its winding streets and verdant landscaping, was the first completed project and now boasts 23 businesses that employ more than 1,100, of which 23 percent are residents of the surrounding neighborhoods. Southcrest Plaza broke ground in 1995, with its Lucky (now Albertsons) grocery store becoming the first supermarket to open in Southeastern San Diego in a quarter-century. The plaza is now a thriving retail center in a neighborhood with a new elementary school and more than 100 additional single-family homes.
At the Euclid trolley stop, Market Creek Plaza, a retail center developed by the Jacobs Center for Nonprofit Innovation, is nearing completion, to be followed by the adjacent Village Center at Euclid and Market residential development —850 condominiums and apartment units. The first modern post office to open in the Southeastern region in 25 years staged a public ribbon-cutting in November in Encanto. It’s the first completed structure in the Valencia Business Park, being constructed on another passed-over site. SEDC is now working up a master plan for the Imperial Avenue corridor, a section that reaches from 47th to 69th streets, with the exception of a few blocks that have been dropped from the project area. The plan includes the much-anticipated rebuilding of Lincoln High School. “This is the direct result of a request of the late City Councilman Charles Lewis to begin focusing our efforts along Imperial Avenue,” Smith says.
Former councilman Reverend George Stevens, one of the finalists in the special election to replace Lewis, says SEDC is on the right track under Smith’s leadership. “Way back, I didn’t concur with SEDC—they were going in the wrong direction,” Stevens says. “Now, they are doing fine. Imperial Marketplace is doing real good because Mark Burger and Carolyn Smith worked through the problems and did it right.”
Tony Young, Lewis’ chief of staff and Stevens’ opponent in the special election, did not respond to requests for comment. “I think SEDC is a very good model,” Smith says. “We have maximized the tools that redevelopment brings.”
NOT QUITE. One tool the corporation has left in its chest is the power of eminent domain. “It is controversial,” Smith acknowledges. “But in the next five to 10 years, we are going to have to take down some of the blight.
“We were very deliberate in our strategy to use passed-over sites,” she adds. “It cost more, because they were all passed over for a reason, but we didn’t have to disrupt existing businesses and residences. Now we’re faced with doing that.”
It may be SEDC’s biggest challenge yet, and Smith is laying the groundwork for presenting her case to the community. “We’re going to handle any of those residences and businesses with kid gloves, because we don’t take that lightly,” she says. “We will definitely move people, relocate people per the law, but we’re taking a lot of extra steps to make that as comfortable a process as possible.”
It will need to be. Deserved or not, SEDC has had a reputation within the community of being “only for the rich people.” Residents have accused the organization of foisting projects on the community without regard for their concerns or wishes. This reputation—which grew out of SEDC’s developing Gateway Center East despite residents’ ultimately unfounded fears of a “smokestack” industrial complex —is fading, although some vocal members of the community continue to beat that drum.
Smith intends to conduct an outreach effort similar to a program initiated last year to prepare the community for an equally controversial redevelopment tool: increased density. Last year, the corporation organized a “density dialogue”—a series of meetings conducted by a professional moderator for small groups of residents, culminating in a day-long workshop for all the participants. Representatives from SEDC as well as the developers and architects presented their preliminary plans for three proposed housing developments totaling nearly 1,500 units, then listened to comments from the roughly 200 individuals in attendance.
One homeowner who attended the session was adamantly opposed to rental apartments. Another was pleased to see affordable housing being built but wondered, “What’s being done to attract more business to the area? We need good-paying jobs.” Others expressed concerns over traffic congestion and lighting.
Not only has SEDC had to live down its elitist reputation, it’s had to overcome the results of housing developments— known derisively as “the projects”—that preceded the organization’s existence.
“The idea behind the density dialogue was that this is a community that has the poorest of examples, in many instances, of higher-density projects,” Smith says.
“That left a really bad taste in the mouths of most homeowners.
“In 2004, SEDC would never be responsible or a party to a development that would be seen as ‘projects.’ What we are doing is providing attainable housing for the workforce.”
Michael B. Galasso, president of Barone, Galasso & Associates, a real estate development and management company, concurs. His firm, which specializes in affordable housing, is developing a combination of 300 single-family homes and rental apartments near Euclid Avenue and the Martin Luther King Freeway.
“There are still the immediate neighbors who are concerned about having rental housing in close proximity to single-family homes,” Galasso says. “But people are realizing that some of these types of [developments] are appropriate to the community, that they need to have some good housing.” The key, he says, is good management.
AS FOR JOBS, SEDC boasts the best balance of job creation and housing development in the county—about 1.2 to 1. But SEDC wants more better-paying jobs, like those in light industry. For example, Amsec, an SAIC subsidiary that builds computer hardware for the U.S. Navy, set up shop at 54th and Market streets in 2000. “Sixty percent or so of the folks who serve in various capacities north of I-8 in the high-tech and biotech industries come from this community,” Smith says. “It’d be a great thing if we could relieve some of the freeways and keep those people here with the appropriately zoned property.”
Smith’s methodical, by-the-book approach to redevelopment is a lightning rod for criticism, however. Some people complain that SEDC moves too slowly, gives away too much to developers and fails to heed the wishes of the community. Others give SEDC higher marks but agree there is room for improvement.
“Eight years ago, the community perceived SEDC as being elitist: ‘This is SEDC, we know what’s best, bow down to us or be damned,’ ” says Bruce Williams, who has lived in Encanto his entire life and serves as vice president of the Encanto Neighborhoods Planning Group and director of community affairs for Mayor Dick Murphy.
Since then, he says, SEDC has realized that while it has the best interests of the community in mind, it has to work to convince the community that what is beinto the area. “That needs to stop. If we give something away, we have to get something in return,” he says.
Smith cheerfully accepts some of the criticism as a mark of achievement—SEDC has raised people’s expectations to the point where as soon as one project is completed, residents are asking, “What’s next?” However, she bristles at comments like Brinkley’s accusation that SEDC is giving anything away, saying that conclusion grows from ignorance of the facts.
“It’s very easy to dismiss something as a giveaway, not understanding that there are some very tough negotiations that end up benefiting the community as a whole,” says Smith, who began her 20-year stint with SEDC as an urban planner in 1984. “We continue to try to do a better job of explaining what we do.”
What the public doesn’t see are negotiations with developers and corporate tenants that go beyond financial matters to include requirements for hiring and job Brinkley says, citing Village Center at Euclid, which is next to the trolley line.
And when a new challenge emerged for SEDC—the influx of businesses and social service agencies pushed out of downtown’s Gaslamp and East Village areas by the redevelopment occurring there—Williams became one of SEDC’s staunchest allies.
“As you can see from some of the housing stock, Southeastern San Diego was a very vibrant, middle-class community, and it’s coming back to that,” Smith says. “We see the number of uses that are being pushed out of downtown and coming here as an impediment to that.”
A brouhaha ensued last August when SEDC, backed by Williams and the Encanto Neighborhoods Community Planning Group, opposed the San Diego Health and Faith Alliance’s proposal to open a training clinic at St. Rita’s Catholic Church in Encanto. SEDC was labeled the “bad guy,” but Smith makes no apoloing done is in its best interest. Williams praises the density dialogue as having won several victories for the corporation: “Confidence among the community was restored, and people got a sense of empowerment.”
Vernon Brinkley, who has lived in San Diego since 1959, most of that time in Southeastern neighborhoods, is less complimentary. The former owner of a dry cleaning business, he helped form the Coalition of Neighborhood Councils 10 years ago because the only “development” he witnessed was “liquor stores and taco shops moving into the area.” The past four years, Brinkley has devoted his time to planning issues as vice chairman of the council and has become an active participant in planning the Market Creek Plaza and Village Center at Euclid housing development.
While he acknowledges SEDC has accomplished a great deal, Brinkley contends it has a mindset that it must give things away to entice businesses and developers training, as well as infrastructure improvements.
“One of the strongest requirements we have in terms of employment and training is the right of first preference given to residents,” she says. “And in the past six to seven years, we have carried that over to the housing that gets developed, so that folks who live here are given the right of first preference in terms of being able to purchase a home.”
WHAT MOST DO AGREE ON is the need for smart growth—increasing density in a way that has minimal impact on the community, and coordinating the mix of residential, commercial and industrial development appropriately. As members of community planning groups, Williams and Brinkley both have advised concerned residents that density must increase to provide affordable housing.
“We do it along the transportation corridors —Market, Euclid and Imperial avenues.
We do not put apartments in the middle of single-family neighborhoods,” gy, arguing that the church’s vocational use was inappropriate for a residential neighborhood.
“Just like any other community that likes to see clusters of uses, Southeastern San Diego is no different, and why everyone is so shocked at that was amazing to us,” she says. “We feel a responsibility to protect the tremendous investment in this community.”
That philosophy has led Southeastern Economic Development Corporation to its achievements to date. And it presents a dilemma that’s good to have —developers are flocking to SEDC, which must choose among them.
“The development community is beginning to understand what’s happening here,” Smith says. “They are not risk-takers anymore, because people like Mark Burger and Jarrett Reese [of housing developer Carter Reese Associates] and Michael Galasso opened the door. But we appreciate that they, too, now recognize a great community.”