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North Park is a lovely little neighborhood, and here at 28th and Upas there isn’t much traffic. To the south and west is Morley Field Sports Complex, a park with playgrounds, archery ranges, tennis courts, baseball diamonds, and swimming pools. To the north, some residents tend to gardens in their front yards. This neighborhood is made up mostly of single-family houses with lawns and backyards, and quite a few of the houses display brass plaques with the names of the original owners: these are historical homes. It’s quiet, cozy, maybe even sleepy.

That’s a contrast to the frenetic pace and the high-rises of downtown, but there’s one aspect that makes these two locales similar: this too is the site of a previous residential expansion. Just like the hulking towers downtown, there was a housing boom here, not in the last decade but a hundred years ago. At one point, this was the changing face of San Diego.

In the early 1900s, speculators and developers bought up lots here and subdivided them. By 1910, construction crews began erecting houses, most in the then-contemporary style of the Craftsman bungalow. Previously, San Diego was an outpost town of the Old West, with a mission, a presidio, a lighthouse, and a pier. Houses were mainly adobe ranches, or the Victorian-style homes you still see around Banker’s Hill, Golden Hill, and Old Town. Some San Diego residences were wooden shacks built in the 1800s. The shacks housed the poor, the Victorians sheltered the well-to-do.

The Craftsman bungalow was a new architectural direction. Victorian-style houses were large, usually two stories meant for the wealthy landowners around town. Victorian decoration included a lot of carved wood, stained glass, fancy chimneys, and fish-scaled shingles around the exterior. Craftsman style is very different, the dwellings normally a single story. Pillars at the front of a porch, and exposed rafters and support beams, make for clean lines across the structure’s face. These then-modern houses were a rejection of the fancy embellishments of Victorian homes, and developers who built them marketed them to an expanding middle class.

It was a time of innovation and new technology. The conveyor-powered assembly line gained traction in Chicago slaughterhouses and Detroit car companies. Automobiles were replacing horses and carriages. In 1914, World War I broke out, and this led to marvels such as airplane battles in the skies and mechanized tanks on the ground. Craftsman houses were a reflection of these new times.

You can see parallels with the colossal condominium towers downtown. New technology, economic forces shifting money around, a movement of people into different areas, advancing modern architectural techniques and philosophies — they had back then what we have now: the changing face of San Diego.

But that might be where the comparison ends. The 1930s saw the popularization of the phrase “the American Dream.” The ethos encompassed working for a better life, enjoying more recreation, and this often meant home ownership. Those little houses on flat lots with lawns were the embodiment of that yearning. When working-class people dreamed of homeownership, it was for one of these bungalows.

I walk west to Pershing Avenue then north for one block, until I’m standing in front of number 3612. It’s a beautiful little green California bungalow. Dangly branches from two thin willow trees shade its front. The yard is elevated from the sidewalk and held in by a short wall. Concrete steps invite you up to the porch, which is supported by two squat and sturdy Craftsman-style pillars; the shortened ends of the half-hip roof set it apart from the other houses on this street and give it a bit of quirk. Public record printouts tell me that this house has three bedrooms and two baths, so it’s big enough for a small family to live in. It’s near nice schools and on a bright street.

I’ve picked this particular house because it’s well recorded in North Park history: 3612 Pershing was built in 1923 and sold for $2000. In today’s money, adjusting for inflation, that’s just under $25,000. Any family could afford that.

That’s quite different from today’s condo market. The cheapest condo I found in San Diego was listed for $75,000. It’s a studio in a graffitied and litter-strewn converted apartment building on a rundown street in City Heights. It’d be cramped for a single person. A family of four could squeeze in only if they didn’t mind bunk beds, stepping on each others’ heads, and an unswerving bathroom schedule.

A relatively comfortable three-bedroom condo (comparable to 3612 Pershing) in a new-construction tower is almost impossible to find; most condominiums in these luxury high-rises range from studios to two bedrooms. I did find one, a three-bedroom condo in a newly created skyscraper listed at $720,000. Only an elite few could manage it.

That’s the difference between San Diego’s expansion of 100 years ago, the one that brought us the Craftsman bungalow, and the condo launch of the last decade: affordability for the average worker.

The Housing Crisis Before the Housing Crisis

So how did this expensive explosion happen? (Let me warn you. This part of the article might get a bit…dry. It’s mostly facts and figures from the painfully boring San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG. I’ll try to keep it light, but if you want to skip the gristle and get to the meat then skim ahead to the section titled “The Upshot.” If, however, you have a penchant for numbers and percentages and rezoning facts, read on, friend!)

In 2004, the San Diego Association of Governments released a redundantly titled text called “SANDAG Regional Comprehensive Plan for the San Diego Region.” In it are nebulous plans to confront several aspects of urban living that make for an unpleasant city, including air quality, water quality, public transportation, and most importantly for our purposes here: housing. In the housing section it states:

“Unfortunately, the San Diego region is in the midst of a housing crisis. The costs of renting or owning a home have risen dramatically during the past ten years. In fact, our region is regularly ranked as one of the top ten areas with the highest priced and least affordable housing in the nation.”

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Comments

BlueSouthPark April 20, 2011 @ 2:23 p.m.

Wow. Great work. One other thing that local governments have done is offer developers exemptions to a variety of normal code requirements, or relief from normal taxes/fees, if the developers include one or two or a few "low-income" units in a project.

In such projects I've examined, the balance of benefit is very much on the developer's side, to the detriment of the taxpayers and local community. Also, these "low-income" units, rentals or for sale, have not been for very low-income renters or buyers, and have had all kinds of legal problems. There was such a Redevelopment project of units for sale in North Park.

In a strange twist, currently, due to local redev agency/government failure to build low-income housing, and the pending elimination of the redev scam, redevelopment-specializing developers have scoured areas for city-owned parcels (e.g., parking lots) and have made successful overtures to be basically given the right to develop upscale projects with a unit or two of low-income units tucked in.

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mom April 20, 2011 @ 2:44 p.m.

Agreed about the main premise of the article, although comparing 1924 prices to today is an apples to oranges comparison, because prices don't rise in lockstep. Yes, by comparison, housing in general (not just in San Diego) is many times more expensive today. But prices of practically every other thing, like food or clothing, is considerably cheaper, so things even out considerably.

The main thing I found confusing, though, was your reference to 3612 Pershing. Did you really take the drive to the wilds of North Park? Or did you just look things up on the internet? 3612 Pershing burned to the ground in a rather spectacular fire six months ago. (http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/2010/oct/15/fire-destroys-north-park-home-resident-workers-esc/)

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Oxenfree April 24, 2011 @ 11:36 a.m.

"But prices of practically every other thing, like food or clothing, is considerably cheaper, so things even out considerably."

I wouldn't say that things "even out." Food and clothing may have been more expensive, but the difference between 25 grand and 650 grand would have to be a lot of savings on bananas.

"The main thing I found confusing, though, was your reference to 3612 Pershing. Did you really take the drive to the wilds of North Park? Or did you just look things up on the internet? 3612 Pershing burned to the ground in a rather spectacular fire six months ago."

Darn it, you're right. I did drive through the neighborhoods after doing my pricing research. I had 3612 Pershing written down right next to a few other properties that looked interesting, and I did see that it had burned down (tragically.) I've confused the addresses I had written down. That's a mistake on my part. If I find which property (address) I was REALLY writing about, I'll post it here. Good eye.

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Erik April 21, 2011 @ 6:46 p.m.

A fairly lightweight article, Ollie. What I get out of it is that you can get lost in your own town, that there are fewer highrises under construction now than at some points, and that housing styles change over the years. All stuff that anyone should know. Basically, it seemed most like a promotional piece for the condo project that your co-worker Barbarella is attempting to sell her unit in. I can't imagine why else that development was given such a high profile photo, caption and text. I guess you one-name people have to watch out for each other. Also: not every family could afford a $2000 house then, or there would not have been any $1000 houses. Your pricing translation is flawed. One big reason is that 30 year loans were not available, typically homes were offered at 50% down and the balance in 5 years. And even today, I don't think most of MY friends would have $12,500 in ready cash available. By the way, "Victorian" is an era, not a style. The little shacks built then were as much "Victorian" as the large Colonial Revival and Queen Anne mansions of the time.

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Oxenfree April 24, 2011 @ 11:39 a.m.

"Basically, it seemed most like a promotional piece for the condo project that your co-worker Barbarella is attempting to sell her unit in."

Actually this was written months ago, well before Barb decided to sell. Feature stories are written months in advance and weekly articles are written only a week or two in advance. It's coincidence.

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nostalgic April 23, 2011 @ 12:56 p.m.

Developers gets to build with fewer parking spaces, no setbacks, more than maximum units per lot as incentives or bonsues for 1 or 2 low-income units, which nobody keeps track of. Did you notice on-street parking when you were driving around? Did you find a parking place?

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Oxenfree April 24, 2011 @ 11:40 a.m.

"Did you notice on-street parking when you were driving around? Did you find a parking place?"

Parking in San Diego could be its own story.

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Laurin April 24, 2011 @ 1:07 p.m.

"By the way, "Victorian" is an era, not a style"

The Victorian Era lives on strong in the form of Victorian style. The Victorian style is used to describe any of a number of analogous historical revivals in the United States in the second half of the 19th century Victorian style in British and American architecture is an eclectic mode based on the revival of older styles, often in new combinations. Although the style is named after the reign (1837-1901) of Queen Victoria, it was her husband Prince Albert who was the actual promoter of taste. New materials, such as iron and glass, were often incorporated into the design of buildings during the Victorian period. The Victorian style arose quite naturally in western society. The industrial revolution allowed people to create wealth, and they wanted to spend it on themselves and their homes. More people wanted new products for their homes, and more of them were able to afford to, which is probably why the Victorian style is often noted for being ‘over the top’ in character. Today we might use a more restrained style, but the Victorian style depended on packing in as much as possible.

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