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The Kids Are All Right


THREE YEARS AGO, when Julie Licari and her husband, Michael, brought their newborn son home from the hospital, neighbors couldn’t wait to see the baby. It had been seven years since a child had been born to a resident in Licari’s building in downtown’s Marina District. Then the questions began.

“Literally the day we got back, everyone started asking us, ‘When are you going to move to the ’burbs?’ ” she recalls. “We hadn’t even considered it.

Three years later, not only has the family stayed put, but Licari has founded a group for other metro moms like herself. San Diego Mom Connect has 70 members, 40 of whom live downtown. Licari and another young mother also started the downtown chapter of Camp Fire Kids Club, a co-ed service and leadership organization for children 3 to 7. Last Halloween, her complex had its first children trick-or-treaters in 13 years—30 of them.

In the past five years, the number of parents with children choosing to live downtown has risen significantly.

The Licaris have lived downtown since 1993, long before their son was born, and watched as the Marina District and other downtown neighborhoods were revitalized.

Michael, a vice president at Merrill Lynch, walks to work; Julie puts her son in the stroller and manages to get most places she needs to be—the local food market, parks, boutiques, bookstores, post office, the library—without ever getting in the car.

“When my son was five months old, in 2002, I didn’t know any other mothers,” says Licari. “Now I know 20 moms just from Little Italy and the Marina.”

And those moms choose city life despite situations that would make a suburban mom cringe: playgrounds filled with litter, human excrement, old hypodermic needles and homeless who ask for their kids’ snacks.

“Our so-called Children’s Park is a gathering place for drug dealers,” says Licari. “I have the Downtown Clean & Safe program and numbers for the police programmed into the speed dial of my mobile phone. How many suburban moms have to do that?”

Yet, according to estimates from the San Diego Association of Governments, the number of children under 5 living downtown has more than doubled since 2000.

Pop Goes the Bubble?

a family at homeOverall, the downtown residential population has increased to more than 27,000 (up from about 17,500 in 2000).

Gary Smith, president of the Downtown Residents Group, a nonprofit formed in 1987 to ensure the Centre City Development Corporation kept its redevelopment promises, has lived downtown since 1985.

“Before 2000, there were maybe two kids in the entire place where I live, in Park Row,” he says. “In 2004, we had seven babies born to people in the complex. Now, we have 17 or 18 kids running around.”

Realtors and building industry experts say the majority of families with children looking to live downtown are young—late 20s to mid-30s—with infants and preschoolers in tow. These families reject the notion that the suburbs are the right place for children, with their large houses, manicured lawns and two-car garages.

Jodi Detamore, a downtown agent with Keller Williams Realty, has noticed the increase in young families looking to buy downtown, especially in Little Italy and the Marina District.

“The metropolitan lifestyle is very appealing to those in their early 30s, especially,” she says.

“Within the last year or so, I’ve noticed a lot of couples with infants looking to buy here.”

Nanci Winfield, who moved to the city in February 2004, started a downtown playgroup just for babies after she had her first child in October that year. “I had no trouble finding other parents with babies,” she says. “I have about 30 people on my list now, although our groups usually have from two to 12 parents.” Just in Winfield’s high-rise, there are seven children in her son’s age range.

Families with children don’t make up the bulk of downtown households. But Russ Valone, a housing market analyst and CEO of MarketPointe Realty Advisors, says you can see the beginnings of family-friendly infrastructure improvements.

“There are parks planned, a new Albertsons under construction on Market at 14th, a new Golden Hill elementary school being built, a lot more condos for sale,” says Valone. Just prior to 2000, he says, there were fewer than 1,300 condos downtown. “We’re looking at more than 12,000 condo units now.”

PARENTS SUCH AS Yolanda S. Walther-Meade left the hush of the ’burbs for the noisy streets (and noisy airspace) of the city, looking for a more stimulating environment and a tighter-knit community. She and her two children, 7 and 9, moved into their Little Italy high-rise eight months ago, after living in Carmel Valley for three years. Like other young urbanites with children, Walther-Meade says she feels a greater sense of community downtown than she felt in her suburban North County neighborhood.

“We were far more isolated there,” she says. “By the time we actually got home from after-school activities or errands, it was time to go to bed. There wasn’t much time to interact with other kids. Here, since we are home for a significantly longer time rather than driving around in the car, we see our neighbors. Some of the kids my children play with live in this same high-rise.”

Amy Pasko has been downtown since 2001. She and her husband chose to move with their two young children, then 3 years and 3 months, after living in Lemon Grove. The Paskos work as freelance software developers in their own company, Telemetry Software, operating out of their Kettner Street apartment. Amy wanted a sense of community.

“You walk around here; you know your neighbors and the business owners,” she says. “It’s nice to know the owner of the café down the street and about his life and who are his patrons.”

But it’s not all sweetness and light. Pasko has had to teach her children to look both ways before crossing even one-way streets, and to avoid splashing in puddles. “Wet spots on the cement are usually urine,” she says.

Todd and Marie Ruth moved downtown from Valley Center with their one-month-old baby girl in September 2003. They had been living in a house on 2 acres of land. “We had a lot of open space,” says Todd. “We even had chickens.” But he tells people who ask him why he gave up the country for the city that he is an environmentalist.

“We had 2 acres of weeds and not much else. I was totally consumptive,” he says. “We were driving everywhere. My wife and I were downtown one day, and she said, ‘What about downtown?’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, downtown.’”

The Ruths chose to buy a condo in the Marina District, a neighborhood, ironically, where Todd used to be afraid to drive. “I grew up in San Diego, and I’m 33 years old,” he says. “When I was growing up, most of downtown south of Market was a scary place.

Now, the parks and Seaport Village are our back yard.” His 3-year-old daughter learned her numbers pressing elevator buttons and knows the jazz musicians at Jimmy Love’s downtown bar by name. (“Early on a weeknight it’s a completely different scene there,” Todd explains.)

Soon after moving, Todd and his wife began a play group that meets in various downtown parks on Tuesdays. He also coordinates the San Diego Family Urban Network, a Web site that publicizes family activities and events downtown and hooks up city parents with playgroups at sd-fun.org.

A pioneer among these urban parents is Gregg Maslak, who’s been downtown for nearly a decade with his wife and two kids, both now high school age. In a way, he’s proof to families just starting out that this can be done, and done well. His children attended Washington Elementary School in Little Italy and are now thriving at Cortez Hill Academy, a little-known charter school at the site of the old Jennings Business College on A Street. The school integrates art and technology into all its classes. Maslak works from a home office in his India Street townhouse; his wife is a teacher. The family moved to downtown San Diego from the Midwest, where they had a typical suburban life.

The Camp Fire Kids play group meets at a State Street house, one of few downtown homes with a back yard.

“We wanted our kids to have a wellrounded cultural background,” says Maslak. “When we first moved here, only one block was renovated, and it was a little bleak. You had a lot of homeless people, empty lots, graffiti. But now it’s fantastic. It feels like a real neighborhood.

We go for walks as a family, and we know everyone.”

The couple’s children, Molly and Tony, started a dog-walking business— Dog Knows Best—in Little Italy three years ago; they walk to most of their clients.

“That’s something they probably couldn’t do in the suburbs,” says Maslak.

THERE ARE OBSTACLES, OF COURSE, to raising a family in an urban environment. Bringing groceries upstairs can be a laborious process involving multiple rides in the elevator. Sometimes it’s noisy at night, or the planes wake a sleeping baby from his nap. But those are inconveniences most urban parents are willing to tolerate. What’s harder to swallow, however, is a lack of what they see as quality public schools.

Many parents interviewed for this story either haven’t decided what they will do as their toddlers approach school age or know they will opt for private school. Much of this may simply be a knee-jerk reaction to low test scores at both Washington Elementary, which serves downtown, and Sherman Elementary, which serves families living east of Sixth Avenue. There are several charter schools downtown, and a new elementary school in Golden Hill will soon replace the aging Brooklyn School.

Joe Wolf, director of instructional facilities planning for San Diego City Schools, says there are plans to build a new neighborhood elementary downtown to meet the growing need, but that’s not likely to happen for another 10 years, because of the lack of critical mass needed to warrant another school.

“Enrollment has actually dropped by more than 100 students at Washington over the last couple of years, because of people moving away and the city reassigning the sixth grade to Roosevelt Middle School,” says Wolf. But parents can always choose another school or look to magnet or charter schools, he says. “If a parent makes a commitment to their child’s education and becomes engaged with their child’s teacher, they can have a positive experience at any school.”

Amy Pasko’s 7-year-old attends Washington Elementary. A member of the school site council and the district advisory council, and head of the parentteacher organization, Pasko finds the school exceptional.

“The API score is very low because we have a high percentage of non-native- English-speaking students,” she says. “But my son’s experience has been wonderful, the teachers are great, and there is a large group of kids like him, who are actually ahead of grade level and doing fine.”

Although the school is 80 percent Latino and Pasko’s son is white, she says he doesn’t feel left out of the mainstream. “This is one of the reasons we’re downtown, for diversity of culture,” says Pasko. “I’m trying to learn Spanish again myself. I want my children to understand that the world is made up of all kinds of people, cultures, foods, languages.”

kids on a playgroundAside from schools, downtown parents also complain about a lack of park space—specifically kid-friendly park space, with play structures and dogs kept consistently on leashes.

“A lot of the downtown design is not kid-friendly,” says Greg Smith of the Downtown Residents Group. “The so-called Children’s Park along Martin Luther King Promenade by the railroad is a nice open urban space, but all the walkways are decomposed gravel, and there’s a big inviting pool that’s way too deep for a child,” he says.

Alexandra Elias, a senior planner at the Centre City Development Corporation, says right now downtown has about 80 acres of park space, and CCDC has proposed six new neighborhood parks, including a large park in the East Village, and proposals have been approved for parks in the North Embarcadero and at the site of the County Administration Building. “That’s more than 20 acres of park space right there,” she says.

Residents also complain about a lack of small markets and condensed retail so that errands can be handled within a neighborhood, rather than having to travel to other parts of the city, such as Hillcrest. Elias says CCDC envisions a city where every resident will have, within a five-minute walk, open space and the types of commercial stores that are needed for day-today living.

Parents of growing families also say there is an acute lack of three-bedroom condos. Downtown real estate agent Jodi Detamore agrees. “There are a lot of two-bedroom-and-den units, but not three bedrooms. And what three bedrooms there are go quickly and are usually out of a young family’s price range.”

Yet the insistent demand—despite skyrocketing prices—says something about the mindset of a new generation of parents. By rejecting the ways of the suburb-lovers that came before them, ditching the car in favor of walking or using the trolley, they are transforming downtown San Diego into a city where people really live; where the neighborhoods are more than just areas identified by a name but are communities where children are being raised, concerns are shared and the shop owners know the residents by name.

“I love the feeling of a close-knit neighborhood and the reality of it all, even the homeless we see—and we know many of them by their first names. It’s grounding,” says Amy Pasko. “It seems people who live downtown tend to be like me, very active in the community. And I find that really inspiring.

© 2006 San Diego Magazine
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