What is the best way to redevelop downtown San Diego? The recent barrage of discussion regarding a Padres baseball stadium has focused attention on redevelopment of a downtown area, the recently renamed "East Village." Among many questions are what is the best for San Diego, and should the City spend hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild downtown?
From the late 1800s until just after World War II, downtowns were thriving areas, but with the automobile's popularity and the urge to move to the suburbs, downtowns were left behind. Once hubs of commerce, many central business areas lie underutilized. Over the past 70 years, urban planning has emphasized automobiles over those who drive them. The result is ineffective neighborhoods and wasted downtowns. Every day, workers flee to suburban homes, leaving downtown behind.
But in cities across the country, downtowns and areas nearby are being rediscovered. The Marina District in San Francisco, SoHo in New York, the Loft District in St. Louis, and LoDo in Denver are all developing as places to work and live. Southern California's San Bernardino and Pasadena are developing their downtowns. Residents are returning for the convenience and ambiance of a downtown that offers entertainment, shopping, community spirit, and a sense of place. Over the past ten years, San Diego's downtown has experienced a similar rebirth.
But the proponents of the new Padres baseball stadium tell us the way to bring citizens back downtown is by building a baseball stadium with associated retail stores, office space, and a hotel. They tell us a 20-square-block stadium complex and parking lots will make East Village a great place to live.
Many locals question the need to spend $275 million to achieve what is already established. Downtown resident Chris Michaels, co-chair of the Stop C Campaign, says, "The CCDC [Centre City Development Corporation] went out of its way last year to change the name of Centre City East to the East Village, reminiscent of a quaint, neighborhoody section of New York City's Lower East Side. There you find plenty of 'mom-and-pop'-type family businesses, not the chains we already see infiltrating the Gaslamp Quarter. In contrast, San Diego is offering up one of the best ways to take the 'village' out of the East Village: dominate a 26-square-block area with a stadium, business park, office tower, high-rise hotels, and parking lots. Where's the 'village' in that?"
According to Scott Maloni, spokesperson for the Yes on Prop. C campaign and Mayor Golding's former press secretary, "The ballpark takes up less space than Chris Michaels is claiming it does. [It's] a fraction of the entire redevelopment area. The benefits of the ballpark being placed down there are so much larger than just the square footage that will take up the ballpark."
Proponents of the stadium tell us East Village is a drain on our economy -- rundown, crime-ridden, with homeless people and vacant lots. But an informal walking tour of East Village -- defined by J street to Imperial and Seventh to Tenth Streets, including the proposed parking areas -- shows active businesses and attractive living spaces. The usual definition of blight is not apparent -- no irregularly shaped lots, no bars, no adult entertainment, no evidence of crime or gangs. Some homeless people roam the streets, but at least 50 existing businesses and a number of historic buildings are also evident.
The East Village is a light-industrial area with a number of architectural features, including the recently revitalized Artplex building and the historic brick Candy Factory. Despite the possibilities for this neighborhood's revitalization, Maloni admits that those currently inhabiting East Village may be out of luck.
"There are residents and businesses downtown in East Village that will have to make a large sacrifice for the ballpark project and Proposition C," says Maloni, "but in the best interest of San Diego as a whole.... I mean, nobody wants to have to relocate people [or] relocate businesses, but if it's for the better good of San Diego, then it's something that should be done."
What really is best for San Diego? Cities Back from the Edge, by Roberta Brandes Gatz with Norman Mintz (John Wiley, 1998), proposes reviving inner-city areas with "Urban Husbandry," not blockbuster, budget-busting "Planned Projects." The authors disdain walled-off shopping complexes and stadiums; they suggest a more measured approach to redevelopment -- using existing historic buildings; developing compatible housing; creating farmers' markets, outdoor coffee shops, open-air restaurants, newsstands; and offering efficient transportation links (and limited auto traffic).
According to Nico Calavita, a professor in sdsu's graduate program in city planning, "That area of downtown would have developed on the basis of the strength of the Gaslamp Quarter alone. It is already happening, now that the economy is on the upswing again, and in a way that is respectful of the historic buildings found in this area."
Maloni responds, "Yes, there's some historic warehouses and some businesses and some landowners and some residences, but the density of development does not exist that needs to exist downtown."
The proposed stadium redevelopment will remove and replace almost half of the area, depending on what boundaries are finally established. The stadium will only be used about 80 days or nights per year, according to the Memorandum of Understanding, while it will cost taxpayers at least $25 million dollars a year -- about $300,000 per game or $65,000 per day for the next 30 years.
"I see redevelopment, with its powerful tools of eminent domain and tax-increment financing as a mechanism of last resort," says Professor Calavita. "I think expropriating people's property to give it, at a discount or free, to another private entity is fundamentally wrong, unless absolutely necessary.... I am for government intervention, but this is overkill, especially considering the financial and budgetary risks involved. It is also a waste of CCDC's limited resources."
"That's not true," counters Prop. C's Maloni. "CCDC is not getting any return on their development now. In 1992, they claimed the East Village, which was then Centre City East, as part of their expansion zone, part of a redevelopment zone. Property values have done nothing but drop, so they are not getting anything from their investment now."
Most observers note that real estate values plummeted all over the city from 1992 until early this year, but, Mr. Maloni says, "In the expansion area, which includes East Village, property values are worth $145 million less today than in 1992. That's not our figure, that's CCDC's figure. They could not get any development or redevelopment going down there. There is no Plan B. There will be over $400 million invested [as part of the proposed ballpark].... No one's standing in the wings waiting to do that, infuse that money into the East Village. With the redevelopment, it will be a friendlier community for businesses and residence."
But will a ballpark complex make the East Village more livable? The convention center expansion combined with 20-weekends-a-year baseball could produce parking problems of Street Scene proportion. Add traffic, stadium lights, and fireworks after the game, and ask yourself who'd want to live downtown.