Still, via local/state funding and mayor Pete Wilson’s gubernatorial aspirations, on July 16, 1981, the Tijuana trolley started running. The fire-engine–red cars wended their way from the Santa Fe Depot at Kettner Street, east to Twelfth Avenue, right-turned south on a triangle of city-bought land, and, conscripting an old railroad track, surprised San Ysidro. Quickly. Quietly. Safely. Trolley-boosted tourism, as another Times reporter noted, has “proved to be San Diego’s salvation after World War II, changing its image of a military-service and aircraft-production center the equal of any Mediterranean resort, with better beaches.”
Hope sprung then that the 16-mile, 42-minute trip, costing $6 million, would boost city-center businesses. Sure, the planners thought libertine San Diegans would head for the racetracks, bullfights, and sex shows in TJ. But the bigger prize hinged on Tijuanans patronizing Marston’s, the California Theatre, and seafood spots on the bay, things absent down Mexico way. Rechristened the San Diego trolley, the decency league got its way.
Enter Calvin Trillin and his New Yorker column, “U.S Journal.” Trillin reported in 1981 that the trolley and its route — one of “unrelieved dreariness,” skirting “trailer parks of blue-collar suburbs”— was pure tourist pimping, tickling our railway “nostalgia” as “bright,” “cheerful,” and “fun.” The trolley, he wrote, “is not based on the mass-transit needs of San Diego.” Instead, he cited Ernest Hahn’s rapacity with Horton Plaza, then in the works and which opened in 1985. “The potential for riders” was not commuters to the shipyards of South Bay or “green-carder maids” from Tijuana, “but customers.” What’s more, San Diegans, besieged by “leisure activities,” had no desire for Mexico’s lawlessness and souvenir shops. No trolley would change their preference for “California beaches or California desert or California mountains.”
Trillin’s tripwire failed. By 1991, the trolley and its expanding lines had carried 90 million riders. Ridership boom! City planners cheered: the “doggle” had fallen off the “boon.” Thousands came downtown daily for service jobs, jury duty, court dates, jail visits, classes at City College, and shopping excursions. Families, especially working mothers, got discounts. At day’s end, most of those thousands went home.
Other factors arrived before and with the trolley. Cubicles in city, state, and federal offices grew. The Hall of Justice had opened in 1961; City Hall and the Community Concourse in 1964; the convention center in 1988; Petco in 2004. The city combined work and play: the Navy sailed, and the yuppies landed. The party set gorged on tequila shots and fish tacos. Sports bars supplanted the peep shows and pawn shops. The Gaslamp continues its renaissance, despite the perennially lousy Padres.
Like flotsam, the illicit stuff got pushed north and after dark. In the C Street corridor, a quartet of vices pestered all: drug deals, fights, vandalism, and homelessness. Eventually, the city rerouted cars off C, widening sidewalks and waiting platforms. More space to loiter and claim nighttime benches for the down-and-out. The trolley and its peripatetic environ spooked downtown. The mix of mayhem and mistrust pushed property values down and upped commercial vacancies.
Today, C Street’s 17 blocks from Kettner to 12th keep ferrying the trains. Worn and torn, the avenue remains like its grade: average, undistinguished, caught between indifference and hope.
It’s not hard to see why the city wants the Overture: clean up a moribund block, beacon San Diego’s skyline for more investment, coffer taxes on upscale residences. And what about those looming towers like the Overture? How can we call 260 luxury apartments with bay views and million-dollar mortgages housing?
The distinction between that and affordable housing stirs the mild ire of San Diego Housing Commission executive vice-president for strategic operations Debbie Ruane. What the commission faces, she tells me in her office overlooking the corridor, is a waiting list of 75,000 renters who are desperate to relocate and who qualify for Section 8, or, subsidized, housing. It’s entirely possible that many of the boarded-up blocks and parking lots and aging warehouses and mom-and-pop shops on C Street would be ideal for newly constructed affordable housing.
The housing commission offices are part of the “smart corner” at C and 12th, fifth floor of the mossy-green, glass building where the trolley curves south. Ruane calls this location a “gateway” to downtown, an invitation to use the “tenacious rehabbers” who specialize in affordable residences. Not only a lack of funds blocks the way. Some projects require mammoth commitment. A site, she says, with “Nimbys, with soil contamination, with poor infrastructure” means “the affordable-housing developer has to deal with all that. It’s difficult. If it were easy, it would have been done a long time ago.” She sees the “wave of development and redevelopment” on C moving “this way, to the east,” to 12th, the goal, “to lift up the neighborhood.”
Incentives for developers to work with the Housing Commission include tax credits, bond financing, and guaranteed loans. But projects that focus on single-room-occupancy, for example, won’t garner for its investors the mega-profit cash flow the Overture will: a foreclosure buy with no upkeep, a $120 million erection price-tag, a near-guaranteed market for multimillion-dollar apartments. Lack of (luxury) supply, of course, may activate even higher valuations. Even with the affordable demand, new housing permits are only 16 percent of what SANDAG says their projections for job growth here should be.
Still, the optimistic Ruane believes “the tide has turned.” Big employers are realizing they can’t get skilled and semi-skilled workers to relocate here if too many people are fighting for too few rentals, whether it’s the hard-pressed or the professional class. Still, she says, downtown is abuzz with housing construction. The inclusionary fees builders pay to the city, requiring any new building be 10–15 percent affordable, are rising dramatically.
The commission’s newest affordable jewel is three blocks away, on C between Eighth and Ninth avenues, an immaculate rehab, the Hotel Churchill. Reopened last year, the Churchill is a 72-unit single-room-occupancy residence with 56 units for former homeless veterans, 8 for transitional-age youth, and 8 for adults exiting the corrections system. Colin Miller shows me around the 103-year-old structure, emphasizing the renovation: lobby floor tiles, marble counters, fluid viscous dampers (earthquake shock absorbers), offices for social services, building-hugging chute for trash and recyclables, modest 321-square-foot rooms with full-service kitchen, private bathroom, and lead-pulley windows with views of the trolley.