Target is sizing up the former Wang's restaurant — on the corner of University and Ray — for a new Target Express. So far, nearby South Park has the only Target Express in San Diego. Before opening its doors in 2015, locals pushed back.
Chris Clark is president of the North Park community association but spoke to me as a North Park resident.
"My sense is [the opening] will be much less dramatic this time. I think the South Park location helped smooth the path since the sky didn't fall when it opened." Clark said he's enjoyed having a location nearby and not having to head to the Target in Mission Valley.
The other reason Clark doesn't expect much pushback is because of how hard it's been to fill such a large space (40,000 square feet); there is the eyesore factor of a vacant storefront that attracts vagrants, too.
Clark said Target representatives contacted his group about three months ago. "I was pleased to hear how open they were to being an asset to the community. I was skeptical at first but they are really doing sincere community outreach. They gave us very thorough and honest answers and didn't hedge on what they could commit to."
Those commitments included bolstering security and plans for wrangling shopping carts. Target has also let the coffee shop (Captain Kirk's) stay in their South Park parking lot. "They didn't open up a Starbucks inside. They also kept the outside much the same by keeping the 1960s archways."
I asked Angela Landsberg from the North Park Main Street Association why the former tenant, Wang's, closed after only three years. She said the crux of it was the permit they had didn't allow them to fully utilize the entire space.
Before Wang's opened, the building was vacant for a few years — until it was recognized as "a redevelopment project." This refers to state redevelopment law enacted in 1945 to address urban blight and subsidize redevelopment to revitalize neighborhoods. Wang's got in under the wire, as San Diego was forced to dissolve its redevelopment agency in 2012. Other properties weren't so lucky — the old Woolworth's building down the street ended up in redevelopment limbo.
"Right now, they are finalizing the sale of the property to the original buyer that started to buy it three years ago,” said Landsberg.
The lease hasn't been signed yet, but only small issues remain to be worked out. Landsberg said there will be patron parking in the back of the building and Target plans to validate parking for the multi-story garage one block away (which was part of the same, now defunct, redevelopment process).
She said Target is looking to replace the colorful mural that includes a dinosaur on the side of the building. She said they plan to use a local artist and involve the community.
"Wow! That's actually news to me,” said the artist of the mural, Madsteez (Mark Paul Deren). “To be honest, it made my heart sink. I feel like the WEENosaurus Rex became a staple in the neighborhood so it makes me sad to think it might not be there. When I painted it several years ago, North Park was just starting to blossom, and I’d like to think that I helped with that transition."
René Vidales, North Park Planning Committee chair, said the idea of a bowling alley going into the space had been floated, but with the El Cajon Boulevard and 30th Street bowling alley closing a decade ago, it didn't seem the demand was there. Other ideas were entertained, but "the most logical option is for retail to come back since the building was originally built for retail in the 1940s."
Katherine Hon from the North Park Historical Society recently wrote an article about the history of the building.
Different retailers occupied the spot over the years, but during WWII, it was a JCPenney. The department store served as the anchor for the area into the 1980s. The building had a smaller footprint until it was expanded in the 1950s into the building we see today.
Vidales said Target has plans to make a presentation to the North Park Planning Committee early next year.
While some on social media are averse to the idea of Target moving in, the resistance doesn't seem anywhere near the intensity it was for South Park or is for Ocean Beach.
Joseph Bey of North Park puts himself in the “against” column: "Many of those who are pro-Target simply can't stand the blight of a vacant building with graffiti and homeless camps. They feel that any tenant is better than no tenant at all. I don't like blighted buildings either, but there are so many different ways to address the issue that don't involve leasing to a corporate, national-chain retailer."
Bey wants to see more pressure put on those who own blighted vacant buildings to either sell them, lower the rent, make them more attractive, sub-divide them, or partner with a developer.
Target spokesperson Liz Hancock said their newest store opened last week in Oceanside. By the end of 2019, the corporation plans to have more than 130 Target Express stores nationwide — some on college campuses. North Park and Ocean Beach both look to be on that list. Though, Ocean Beach isn't likely to give in without a fight.
Robert Allen of Captain Kirk's Coffee said he opted to stay neutral when other small businesses in the area wanted him to join in protesting Target. After two years, he's finding co-existence with a big-box retailer is a good thing. He said small businesses in the area are doing better because Target creates more traffic with out-of-the-area customers. He said Target's demographics are his demographics — seven out of ten shoppers being women. He said he sells more than 1000 açaí bowls a week now.
I checked out the South Park Target Express last weekend. The exterior of the store reminded me of a mid-century Safeway. In the parking lot, men were playing hockey and food trucks were serving food. The much-smaller store has much smaller shopping carts to match.
After talking to several people inside about the former protests, a gentleman ahead of me at the check-out said, "They marched until the store opened and then they marched inside."
After publication, a Target representative contacted the author to clarify that the small-format stores will no longer be dubbed "Target Express."