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Who Owns Downtown


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Some of downtown San Diego’s biggest developers are also out-of-town concerns. The Irvine Company, known for its Disneyesque planned urban developments in Orange County, is in the process of buying Symphony Towers. Watt Commercial Properties and Lambert Development, both based in Los Angeles, also have set their sights southward. Watt’s projects include turning the former First National Bank Building at Fifth and Broadway, San Diego’s first office high-rise, into the Broadway Lofts, with 73 apartments and 16,000 square feet of retail space.

And then there are the Canadians, led by giant Bosa Development, based in Vancouver—a city many urban planners say pioneered the redevelopment concept of getting people downtown not just to work and to play but to live. Bosa is easily the most active residential developer in the heart of San Diego, the force behind Discovery at Cortez Hill (22 stories, 199 units), which opened last August, and Horizons in the Marina District (24 stories, 211 units), completed in May 2001.

Bosa is currently building twin high-rise condo towers, with a total of 444 units, just west of the old Santa Fe railroad depot. Four more projects are in the planning stages. Construction is scheduled to start in April 2004 on a dual-tower, 271-unit condo complex on Pacific Highway, between E and F streets. Also on tap, with no start dates, are a 44-story, 475-foot-tall residential tower with 250 condominiums at the southwest corner of Broadway and Kettner Boulevard; a 36-story, 240-unit condo tower at the southeast corner of Pacific Highway and Ash Street; and a condo complex that could go as high as 22 units in East Village, near the new ballpark’s left field.

Company chief Nat Bosa is a firm believer in downtown living—after all, he was part of the downtown building boom in Vancouver that followed Expo ’86, the big world fair.

“Let me put it this way—a hell of a lot of people live in downtown New York, downtown San Francisco and downtown Vancouver, so why not San Diego?” he says. “San Diego is clean as a whistle, it’s fabulous—in fact, I think it has the potential to be one of the finest residential downtowns in all of North America.”

Bosa says his target customer is the forty- or fiftysomething baby boomer who’s just emptied his or her nest of the kids. “It’s a lifestyle change,” he says. “Baby boomers are getting older, saying, ‘The hell with a house, I don’t want any more headaches,

I want a condo somewhere where I can lock the door and know that it’s managed properly.’”

Bosa isn’t the only Canadian company getting involved in downtown San Diego construction. Another big player is Intergulf, also based in Vancouver, which is behind the recently completed Treo at Kettner Condominiums, a 26-story, 326-unit high-rise on Kettner between A and B streets that also includes 2,000 square feet of retail space and four levels of parking.

“It’s very simple—if you look at the national economic picture, there is a lot of capital that needs to be invested, and downtown San Diego is viewed as a very successful place to invest money,” says Donna Alm, the longtime voice of the Centre City Development Corporation, which has shepherded downtown San Diego’s rebirth since the movement began under then-Mayor Pete Wilson in the mid-1970s.

“We’ve even been able to get hotel development money when other cities can’t,” she says. “And I think it’s simply a recognition of the fact that this downtown is a good place to invest capital seeking a place to land.”

Alm credits the residential housing boom with furthering San Diego’s urban vibrancy. Early redevelopment efforts focused on office and retail space, she says.

“Every decade we got several big office towers, so we were always creating jobs,” she says. “But it’s only been in the last few years that we’ve gotten people living down here in big numbers.” Alm says about 12,000 people now live downtown, and the majority moved in during the past decade. This year, she says, another 2,000 residential units are slated to come on the market, “and at a person and a half a unit, that’s a big jump.”

The draw, for owners large and small, corporate and private, is primarily the same, downtown property owners say. To paraphrase James Carville: It’s the water, stupid.

“The waterfront makes downtown San Diego an exciting place to work and to live,” says Chris Peterson, vice president of administration of the Sinclair Oil Corporation, which since 1977 has owned and operated the Westgate Hotel at 1055 Second Avenue. Sinclair is a private corporation owned by billionaire ski resort and service-station owner Earl Holding, a notoriously media-shy 76-year-old billionaire from Utah.

“What attracts people, around the clock, is the water,” adds Steve Williams, president of Century Partners, GE Pensions Trust’s local partner. “New stakeholders are coming in every day. And I would argue that downtown has not been built yet—it’s the newest suburb in San Diego, and it’s growing upward.”
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