Who Owns Downtown
By Thomas K. Arnold
(page 4 of 4)Demand was so great that just two years later Horton had to fork over $4,000 to buy 160 more acres. And the price per acre of downtown real estate has been soaring ever since.
Just ask Bud Fischer. The 70-year-old developer snagged his first chunk of downtown property in 1978, when he and a friend bought the Backesto Building at Fifth and Market for $600,000. The historic brick building, built in 1873, occupies nearly an entire city block, and Fischer won’t even begin to say what it’s now worth—although sources peg the land value alone at upwards of $10 million.
The Backesto Building was one of the first Gaslamp Quarter properties to be restored and is now home to several restaurants, including The 5ifth Quarter, formerly Buffalo Joe’s. Fischer, meanwhile, has become one of downtown’s premier landlords, owning some 200,000 square feet of land and more than 1 million square feet of leasable space.
Fischer’s claim to fame, aside from leading the charge to restore historic Gaslamp buildings, is providing homes for people who want to live downtown. But don’t classify him among the developers of pricy condos and townhomes —Fischer’s bag is to create lofts and apartments for those who can’t afford to fork over $1 million for fancy digs in a flashy new high-rise.
He’s got five single-room-occupancy hotels with a total of 700 rooms, and another 250 loft apartments, 85 of them in the Pioneer Warehouse at Fifth and K. All of them are old buildings restored by Fischer, who’s lived in San Diego since 1948, and his crew.
“I enjoy doing historic buildings,” he says. “I get enjoyment out of creating something out of an old piece of junk, turning it into a nice facility. It’s different than building a new warehouse or strip center. I’ve done a few of those in my day, and there’s not much pleasure there.”
Other downtown property owners applaud Fischer’s drive to develop residential housing in the area, saying that’s what this city really needed to jump-start downtown redevelopment, which for years had been plodding along at a slower-than-expected pace.
“[Developer] Ernie Hahn, before he passed away, used to say that what downtown needed most was another 30,000 units,” Steve Williams says. “What he meant by that was that if you put two people into each of those units, you’d have 60,000 people living downtown, and that was roughly equal to the number of people who were working downtown. That was his goal, his vision—to have that one-to-one ratio between residents and workers that really make a city 24/7.”
Champion-Cain agrees. “Having people live in the urban core leads to economic prosperity,” she says. “If people live downtown, they will want to work and play downtown.”