San Diego reinvents itself - and gentrifies

Seventh-largest US city typifies 'new urbanism' and growth. But some fret about squeezing out the poor.

Ringed by silhouettes of palm trees and building cranes, Barbara Edelson stands on the balcony of her new loft apartment. Blocks from the Petco Ballpark, center of a downtown renaissance, she sings the praises of urban renewal.

"This is intimate, human-scale community building in a downtown that used to close down on nights and weekends," says Ms. Edelson, who's seen the value of her condo jump $50,000.

Blocks away, Ahmad Masdaq says developers are pushing him aside, "abusing the power of eminent domain," says the Afghan immigrant, owner of Havana Cigar Factory and Coffee Lounge in the historic Gaslamp Quarter. "People are angry and confused on why a redevelopment agency can close down a legitimate business."

Edelson and Mr. Masdaq articulate a clash brewing in the shadows of new high-rises here in the downtown's once-decaying industrial district - part of the development surrounding Petco Park, where the San Diego Padres will have their opening day April 11.

Coping with twin national trends - suburban empty-nesters returning to urban living and cities creating more human-scale communities in old industrial districts - San Diego is confronting a perennial issue for urban-renewal projects from California to Cleveland to Boston: When money pours in and property values rise, do poorer, more ethnically diverse neighborhoods get shoved aside? Does gentrification preclude diversity?

"San Diego is on the cutting edge of the nation's new urbanism," says John Norquist, president of the Congress for the New Urbanism. In large part, says Mr. Norquist, it's an effort to offset urban sprawl by promoting new building codes and zoning laws. "If done right, it could actually increase the chances that those with different incomes can work and live in the same place."

In San Diego, a 15-block area has had thousands of residential units - mostly high-end - snapped up. Officials say more modest housing will come eventually. For now, in the adjacent neighborhood of Golden Hills, residents report a tripling of real-estate values. And to the south, in Barrio Logan, there's been a steady closing of missions, housing, and food establishments for the poor and homeless.

"The upper scale is going higher and the lower scale is going lower here," says Neil Morgan, author of a book on migration patterns in the American West and senior columnist for the San Diego Union Tribune. The process, accelerating over two decades, has changed the profile of this once-sleepy border town, a California cul-de-sac ringed by the Mexican border and Pacific ocean and once known primarily as home to the world's largest Naval base.

"We are seeing the specialized migration of people from all over middle America who want to live in a region where cutting-edge research and high-tech firms are taking off," says Morgan.

Then there's that other urban trend: a growing desire among empty-nest suburbanites to trade one American dream for another - the house with a picket fence for a penthouse with iron rails and views.

"People are selling their homes in suburbia to move to a much denser, livelier environment where they can see opera, symphony, plays, and theater in their own backyard," says Mitch Mitchell, spokesman for the San Diego Chamber of Commerce. Beyond the 15,000 apartments and condos that are spoken for, thousands more are planned, and even the waiting lists are full.

Now the seventh-largest city in America, and the second largest in California, San Diego is reinventing itself. Ten years ago, Horton Plaza - an innovative mall in a seedy area - got the ball rolling. A harbor-side convention center added momentum, and the new stadium is seen as the crowning development. After years of litigation and heated debate at City Hall, the final downtown plan was approved - but only after developers and baseball owners agreed to sink significant cash into surrounding neighborhoods.

"This is the first time that a major sports franchise took on the obligation to develop the neighborhoods around it as part of the deal to get its own stadium," says Peter Hall, president of Center City Development Corporation, which has overseen $3 billion in public/private efforts since the early '90s. Now 115 projects are under way, compared with 10 or 15 in a good year before 1990.

Whatever the pros and cons of gentrification, national observers say the San Diego example spotlights a growing integration of urban-renewal projects with the residents they attract. Major attention is paid to how such residents eat, drink, exercise, congregate, and acculturate.

"San Diego is the culmination of three decades of urban-renewal lessons from the '60s, '70s and '80s, in which designers ripped up downtown areas and replaced them with closed-off developments that choked traffic and became islands of isolation," says George Peterson, senior analyst at the Urban Institute. "Now we've learned from that past that the way to breathe real life into cities is to connect neighborhoods, create openness and intimacy where residents can commingle and cross-fertilize."

A walk through the ballpark area shows the fruits of those lessons. Streets are packed with pedestrians and lined with trees and gas lamps; bookstores, theaters, and cafes whose patrons spill onto curbside tables. The two- and three-story retail shops feature yoga studios, beauty salons, and, on the upper floors, residences.

Rows of townhouses and apartments flank the streets that lead to the ballpark, which is open at one end to let passersby see its grassy diamond on nongame days. Unlike Anaheim Stadium, Sacramento's Arco Arena, or New York's Shea Stadium, there are no acres of asphalt parking lots. "Other cities such as Chicago and Milwaukee built giant stadiums surrounded by huge parking lots for tailgate partyers, but they found they didn't generate any other activity and weren't good for the neighborhood," says Norquist.

Here, housing is adjacent, as with Chicago's Wrigley Field and Boston's Fenway Park. The picturesque Gaslamp Quarter is just beyond the archway, and a trolley connects to all areas of the city. Because of its position at the end of the trolley line and near three freeways, designers and planners hope to avoid giant parking lots. Game goers can park elsewhere and take the trolley or walk through the gas lamp district to the park, bringing both energy and patrons.

As other cities confront the problems San Diego has faced, the fallout of development and an influx of newcomers is unclear. Some have complained vociferously about developers' and homeowners associations' efforts to condemn their buildings and get them to move out.

"I don't mind the idea of a ballpark, but the developers are going around and trying to change this area into something it isn't," says Jeff Parker, a worker at Helping Hand Missionary in Barrio Logan. One by one, he says, centers for the homeless are being deprived of funds and being pushed into more remote areas.

But Ms. Edelson sees the city's future just outside her door. "This is what urban living is all about," she says, walking three dogs down a sunny side street. "I walk every where I go, I know the merchants and they know me, and there's just more energy around all the time."

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