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The Best Places to Live in San Diego Right Now

Get the vibe of six hot neighborhoods


The view from Mount Helix Park | Photo by Robert Benson

La Mesa / Zip Codes: 91941, 91942


La Mesa maintains a small-town charm thanks to a shop- and restaurant-lined historic main street that hosts annual events like a two-day Oktoberfest, a weekly summertime classic car show, and the family-friendly Holiday in the Village. Though East County cities tend to be politically conservative, in November, La Mesa elected Colin Parent to its city council, a young progressive whose day job at Circulate San Diego has him advocating for sustainable land use and more accessible public transit.


Over the last year or so, La Mesa’s seen a string of new restaurants join old favorites like D.Z. Akin’s, The Village House Kalina, and The Lunch Box. Coin Haus, designed by Philippe Beltran (Bleu Bohème, BO-beau), opened last year and features more than two dozen retro arcade games and a large, self-pour craft beer selection. Another 2016 addition, Public Square, has been a hit with local coffee aficionados. Two brand-new spots include “farm-to-fork” restaurant Farmer’s Table and Blvd Noodles, which specializes in pho and ramen.


Know a young couple on the house hunt? It’s still possible to find a four-bedroom house in the $500s here (although the prices are slowly creeping upward). Looking for a swankier abode? For $1.5 million, you can get an acre of land, great views, and lots of living space on Mount Helix.


La Mesa’s Mount Nebo neighborhood has a system of public stairways created to help folks navigate the hilly terrain. The smallest is a mere 44 steps, while the longest and steepest, at 245 steps, takes you up 830 feet to one of the city’s highest knolls.

Imperial Beach / Zip Code: 91932


A mere four square miles, Imperial Beach’s identity is defined by its surf culture and border with Mexico—it’s not difficult to find some amazing taco shops, like the much-raved-about IB Street Tacos. IB’s 4-mile stretch of beach, which includes popular surf spot Boca Rio, reaches down to Border Field State Park, ending where the fence disappears into the ocean. It’s also home to a good portion of the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve and the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Residents showed they appreciate their town’s unique relationship to the environment by electing Serge Dedina, the founder of coastal conservation nonprofit Wildcoast, as mayor in 2014.


This Twitter hashtag popped up about a year ago as a marketing tool for the South Bay’s growing craft beer scene. Since then, roughly a dozen bars, restaurants, and breweries have joined together to form the South Bay Craft Beer Business Guild. Included in this group is IB Public House, which offers 20 rotating taps of mostly local beers, like Chula Vista’s Novo Brazil Brewing Co. It’s part of a growing dining scene that includes Cohn Restaurant Group’s upscale Sea 180, The Shipping Yard (see page 95), and the just-opened Pizzeria Luigi, which picked Seacoast Drive for its third location.


Though it might be just a tad garish in daylight, the neon-hued sculpture Surfhenge, which serves as the gateway to the Imperial Beach Pier (a popular fishing spot), is quite stunning when the setting sun hits it just right.


Imperial Beach’s small size doesn’t necessarily mean housing is scarce. While a two-bedroom, two-bathroom beachfront condo will set you back $850,000 (or more), head a couple of miles inland and you might find a completely remodeled four-bedroom with a large yard for less than $600,000.

South Oceanside / Zip Code: 92054


South O has remained largely under the radar, often in the shadow of its bigger and more touristy neighbor, downtown Oceanside. But a recent revitalization of its business district, bringing new restaurants, breweries, and boutiques, has investors and young families clamoring to get in. “If downtown Oceanside is Cabo proper, we are San Jose del Cabo,” explains Charlie Anderson, owner of The Privateer Coal Fire Pizza and Marketplace & Wine Bar. “It’s where the locals live.” Anderson, who has lived in the area since second grade, has noticed an influx of strollers, bikes, and people walking rather than driving to the main drag. He says, “It’s getting more neighborhood friendly.”


Similar to other coastal neighborhoods, the inventory is scant and expensive. But South O’s beach cottages and old Craftsman architecture possess undeniable charm. Be prepared to move fast, as properties are getting snatched up as soon as they hit the market and selling above the asking price. According to real estate agent Deb Harper of Coldwell Banker, the average price of a two-bedroom, one-bath, 946-square-foot home is $605,099.


The Privateer sources its produce from gardens at two local schools, Palmquist Elementary and Lincoln Middle. “Parents and kids come in to eat foods that they grew,” Anderson says. Also supplying South O’s fruit and veggies is nearby Cyclops Farms, a two-acre ocean-view gem owned by Luke Girling. Once a month, Girling’s customers participate in a “Water Bill Dinner” at Cyclops, helping offset the farm’s increasing utility costs.


South O takes care of its own. During the holidays, businesses hosted a Shop Local event that was so successful there are plans to make it monthly, with live music and food stands. “We’re not competitive so much. We’re collaborative,” Anderson says.

Kearny Mesa / Zip Codes: 92111, 92123


This centrally located area hopes to make exciting changes over the next few years. But what will never change is the fact that it’s conveniently circumscribed by the 52, 15, and 805, with the 163 running through the middle. It’s also a big job center, with companies like Northrop Grumman and the Jack in the Box corporate headquarters, so if you live nearby in the enclave known as Spectrum, you can bike to work. Spectrum stands in the area once owned by General Dynamics (north of Tech Way, between Ruffin and Kearny Villa roads) and is now a mix of retail and homes from different developers.


Several phases of new townhomes and tri-level condos are sold out, although individuals sell them in the mid-$400s and $500s. Ariva’s fourth phase of apartments are scheduled to be available to rent this May or June—prepare to pay upward of $1,800 and make three times the rent. Residents are professionals in their late 30s to 50s. (Read: no students. It’s quiet.)


Nearby Convoy Street, the city’s hub for Asian cuisine, is gaining popularity, with new favorites like Pokirrito. Business owners have long hoped to make it the next Little Italy: more walkable, so you can stroll from your ramen dinner to karaoke, but also adding more than 200 angled parking spaces on side streets. The annual San Diego Night Market, which attracted more than 20,000 people last year, will take place again this spring and include even more food vendors.


Councilmember Chris Cate says there are plans to spruce up Montgomery-Gibbs Executive Airport, get more types of flights, and take on some of the business currently going through McClellan-Palomar. Also on the docket is traffic signal optimization along Balboa Avenue; Qualcomm tried it on Lusk Boulevard and wait times were reduced by 24 percent. Cate is working to invest in more plans like these in the future. Green light!

Mission Valley / Zip Code: 92108


It’s an interesting time in the valley, not least because of the Chargers’ “Chexit” and the initiative to bring a new major league sports team to Qualcomm Stadium. Mission Valley almost feels like one big revolving door, with the departure of the Union-Tribune, the closing of Macy’s, the mixed-use redevelopment of the 200-acre Riverwalk Golf Club, the San Diego River Coalition breaking ground for the Discovery Center at Grant Park, and even Hotel Circle shedding its motel mentality—from the recently redone Hilton on Camino del Rio South to the ol’ Town and Country Resort about to get a big redo with an expected completion in 2018.


Residents are close to the movies, Fashion Valley, and freeways, but affordable HOAs are what make Mission Valley hot. Civita, which opened in November 2011 and is about one-third built and occupied, is the biggie here. It’s a 230-acre planned community with 4,780 total apartments and homes. The units lean luxury, and some of the homes start in the $600s and $800s. Having earned several architectural and green-construction awards already, Civita puts an emphasis on design, but also on community. For example, the West Park apartments employ a full-time lifestyle director to plan wine tastings, cooking classes, and more for residents. Coming this April is the 14-acre Civita Park, from Schmidt Design Group, the same landscape architects behind Waterfront Park. It’ll be the city’s second largest public park. Future plans for Civita include retail, an elementary school, and a free shuttle to the trolley and other destinations.

El Cerrito / Zip Codes: 92105, 92115


This residential nook wedged between Talmadge, Rolando, and the SDSU area has been long overlooked as a desirable place to live, partly because neighboring Kensington hogs most of the attention. The corner of 54th Street and El Cajon Boulevard, where El Cerrito starts, also leads off into three other hoods. El Cerrito came out of hiding when national home-hunting site Redfin named it the No. 1 up-and-coming neighborhood in the country a couple of years ago.


El Cerrito remains one of San Diego’s affordable urban villages, with historic architecture included. “You have a variety—art deco, Spanish, and postwar styles—whereas the architecture is more homogenous in surrounding communities,” says Ken Pecus, co-founder of Ascent Real Estate. “You can have the home you want in El Cerrito that’s close to the city, at a significant improvement in price over Kensington and Talmadge.”


A listing on Zillow shows a two-bedroom bungalow in El Cerrito going for $387K, while Redfin lists the average home price in the neighborhood at $320K. However, Pecus says buyers would be hard-pressed to find a home north of El Cajon Boulevard going for less than $500K. With no new developments on the horizon, housing in El Cerrito is limited. And with its proximity to two freeways, Normal Heights and North Park, and the variety of restaurants scattered along the boulevard—Lebanese, Thai, Laotian, Caribbean, and Japanese, to name a few—we bet it won’t stay affordable for long.
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