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Almost a decade ago, when I worked in a high-rise office building downtown, some coworkers and I stood at a corner window and counted the mega-sized cranes that dotted the scenery.

“One, two, three, four,” we counted.

“There’s one back there. I can see its lights just came on.”

“There’s one up on the hill.”

“There are three behind us.”

Fourteen cranes (fourteen!) in all we counted that night. And as the year wore on, more cranes cropped up across the skyline — offices, a ballpark, hotels — all being constructed as fast as possible to catch rising prices and cash in on the real-estate bubble. San Diego was definitely one of the boom towns of the construction era.

Coinciding with and fueling much of this redevelopment was a trend of people moving from the suburbs back in to urban centers. Owners of large, suburban houses were looking to downsize and re-enter the city, where they could be closer to hospitals, nightlife, and work.

What all of this means: the face of San Diego has changed.

Unless you live there, I’ll bet downtown looks different than how you picture it in your head. San Diego isn’t a “little city” anymore. We still have a cap on how tall our buildings can reach — 500 feet above sea level is the maximum height allowable by law because of airport restrictions involving low-flying planes — but the number of really tall buildings downtown has increased.

Let’s drive around town and you’ll see how it’s changed. We can find the old face of San Diego and compare it to how we look today, which is more fun than citing market opinions and abstract analyses and charts and graphs; I’m getting a headache just thinking about that stuff.


Southbound Pacific Highway bends around sight-obscuring fences off to the right, these enclosing the military-industrial area of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot. Once over a small rise, below us is downtown San Diego and its outcrop of skyscrapers, some brand new, some you might not even recognize.

My, hasn’t downtown San Diego grown up? When my coworkers and I counted cranes from our office window so many years ago, the west end of Broadway, alongside the bay, was a low flat area of empty lots and short buildings, most four or five stories tall. Now, passing the airport and approaching Embarcadero Marina Park, you can see the first of the buildings we’re searching for, the new face of San Diego: high-rise condominium towers.

When you get close enough to see details more clearly, you can start counting floors. By the time I’m abreast of the Grande Towers on Pacific Highway, a point at which I am forced to pay more attention to the road than the buildings, I’ve counted 32 floors on one tower, and I haven’t even made it to the top floors, the penthouses.

I maneuver my car onto Broadway and get out to look around. This is the section of San Diego that most resembles my idea of what a city should look like. From countless TV shows, movies, and photographs, I’ve imagined skyscrapers, train tracks, wide boulevards for racing cabs, people in suits with briefcases rushing down broad sidewalks. And this is it! Right here at the farthest end of West Broadway is One America Plaza, San Diego’s tallest superstructure. (You can pick it out of a photograph by its top, which resembles the tip of a Philips head screwdriver.) The building is 500 feet tall, the maximum height allowed. Seemingly carved from the bottom floors of One America Plaza is the trolley station, with its winding tracks and little red trolley cars hustling about.

Looking north half a block, across Kettner from One America Plaza is the Santa Fe Amtrak Station, a low, stucco, Spanish-revival construct with a blue-and-silver Surfliner train huffing along its tracks. Up the street from Santa Fe Station are the digital cascading letters of the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Ringed almost entirely around this lovely, rushing metropolitan area are the condo towers built in the past decade. You can pick out them out easily; like other downtown buildings they are sleek and tall, but the condos have little balconies punched out of their sides. The balconies dot the buildings’ exteriors like slots in a piece of paper torn from a spiral binder.

Continuing on up Broadway, we move away from the newly constructed condos at the west end of the city and into the heart of downtown. The buildings here are older and grimier, and so are the shops that occupy them; dusty, brick-walled discount Chinese restaurants and wig stores. This is a neighborhood of neon “Open” signs and hand-painted prices on the windows.

At 8th and Broadway, you can see where waves of gentrification have crashed and receded, leaving a high-water mark. Across the intersection, on the southeast corner, stands a wall graffitied with street art: what looks to be a cartoon Wookie and some inscrutable writing. I step out of the vehicle into sunlight that peeks around the concrete roofs of downtown. I squint at the ballpark in the haze. Circling the stadium, like ever-vigilant, Brobdingnagian baseball fans waiting for a pop foul, are the omnipresent condo towers. And there are boarded-up and fenced-in construction areas all over town.

For perspective, let’s leave downtown proper for a while, get out of the lowlands and head for higher ground to see if we can find the old face of San Diego.

To reach the east side of Balboa Park, you must first get lost in Golden Hill. Nineteenth Street, Broadway, C Street, the 5 South, the 94 East, and G Street all meet up at what seems a malcontent civil engineer’s cruel prank on us citizens. After scouting around outside the vehicle, calculating the direction of the sun and checking a compass, I finally crawl my car up verdantly lined Pershing Drive. At the top of Pershing, I find the corner I’m looking for: 28th and Upas.

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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.


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/20...">http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/20...)


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


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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