An ugly side of redevelopment (RIP), a side rarely mentioned in all the self-laudatory hype, is the demolition. Too often its of historic structures, or structures that create the street-level fabric necessary for a walkable city. Too often its not even for a new structure but for surface parking, or simply to make property more attractive to investors by clearing it of anything requiring maintenance or additional entitlements. Too often its to land-bank the property for downstream full-block developments instead of more near-term and pedestrian friendly infill development.
And so it is that I observe demolition equipment being moved into place on the block bounded by F & G Streets and 7th & 8th Avenues. Formerly a key part of downtown’s vital alternative retail district, these attractive buildings serve as the last thread of urban continuity between the F St. businesses between 8th & 9th and the Gaslamp Quarter. Of the decorative brick warehouse variety, their facades and ample show-window space were easily adaptable to larger development and would have greatly benefited the future character and ambience of that area, much as the warehouse buildings on J Street were incorporated into the Ballpark District. The development of the Ballpark District has received national praise for the adaptive reuses and resultant experience both in the ballpark itself and in the surrounding neighborhood. In contrast, these buildings near F Street are slated for demolition to make room for a surface parking lot.
I previously wrote about the buildings on F, 7th, and 8th, even quoted Joni Mitchell, when their fate was a little less sealed (or should I say “paved”). A few of us attempted to stop this demolition but were unsuccessful, thanks in part to some questionable moves by the City and it’s redevelopment project arm, the Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC). First, City Council dubiously overturned the Historic Resources Board historic designation of the structures. Second, in processing the conditional use permit (CUP) for surface parking, Civic San Diego (CSD, the successor to CCDC) admitted that the property owner failed to properly give public notice. CSD also admitted its own error in not requiring the property owner to submit the posting notice verification form, as is normally required.
As a result of the insufficient public notice, only one person (other than the property owner) appeared at the CUP hearing.
As a result, there was no discussion in the hearing about the Community Plan’s stated goal of retaining even non-historic structures on-site to maintain street-level fabric and to encourage adaptive reuse and infill development. There was no discussion about the Centre City Planned District Ordinance requirement that CUPs for surface parking be limited to “interim” and “temporary” lots. In other words, the hearing officer apparently assumed that a two year CUP met the requirement and never considered that the lack of any planned development for the site facilitated surface parking of an indefenite rather than interim duration. As a result, the hearing officer granted the parking use, facilitating the demolition. Several surrounding residents and property owners who became aware of the demolition after the decision asserted their opposition, confirming the harm done by the insufficient notice. Nevertheless, CSD refused to reset the matter for a new hearing.
Parking Lot Blight and Loss of “Funky Space”
Of course, the demolition of these buildings without replacement is just another demolition in a long line of similar demolitions in downtown San Diego, which have been allowed in the course of “redevelopment.” As I walk through downtown San Diego and compare it to the 1990s, I’m amazed at how much of it has been demolished without replacement structures. Our downtown, especially the Eastern half, is pock-marked with large expanses of formerly developed now barren land. Though I can’t say for certain, I believe that there may be less ground coverage now than there was in the 90s. There is a surprising lack of progress in the urban feeling of much of downtown. On the one hand, there are large new buildings, as well as more residents and more visitors to downtown. Most importantly, there are more people on the streets. On the other hand, there appear to be more gaps between buildings, less variety among buildings and uses, and much more surface parking downtown than ever before. There are other losses too. Up until the mid-90s, there was still a remnant living China Town, now the purely thematic “Asian Pacific Thematic District.” Additional diminished uses and populations include live-work artists, mom & pop cobbler businesses, the produce district, light industrial uses, the permanent farmer’s market, and many others. As I walk around downtown, I fear the redevelopment efforts of the last two decades, and much of the building boom of the last decade, have been squandered by an equal amount of demolition for surface parking. While some may respond that these parts of downtown are a work in progress, I say that they didn’t have to go so far backward to move forward. In fact doing so makes downtown less attractive to both current and prospective inhabitants, whether they be residents, businesses, or investors.
I was speaking the other day with a representative from a downtown commercial leasing concern regarding the lagging commercial office occupancy rate in downtown compared to suburban Carmel Valley. She observed that many of the prospective tenants for downtown are internet or tech businesses which are looking for “funky space” (old brick warehouses, quonset roof warehouses, and other adaptive reuse space) rather than traditional office space. These are high growth businesses with younger bike-walk-transit friendly employees looking for an urban lifestyle. Unfortunately, much of such “funky space” has been demolished in the last decade. Its ironic that a large percentage of former “funky space” now exists as mere asphalt for the suburbanites who prefer the sprawl of Carmel Valley.
Redevelopment’s Zero Sum Record
I often wonder whether San Diego’s much praised Centre City Redevelopment Project was a net benefit or detriment. Most of the construction occurred during a national building boom that had more to do with easy financing than it did with tax increment investment. Additionally, downtown benefited from nationwide renewed interest in urban living. On the other hand, the Redevelopment Project was useful in expediting and lowering the cost of entitlements, as well as funding public improvements that made development more attractive. The staff of the Redevelopment Project were / are talented, expert, and sincere individuals who worked tirelessly to create a vibrant urban core. Redevelopment staff also spent countless hours assisting community group planning efforts.
And so it is that California’s termination last year of all its redevelopment projects as part of its budget balancing strategy has stirred mixed feelings in me: mostly remorse due to the loss of money for local affordable housing, for local public improvements in neglected neighborhoods, and for rebuilding dense, transit-oriented urban cores. However, I also felt some sense of relief that I wouldn’t witness as many abuses of the powers of eminent domain to condemn non-blighted properties inhabited by vital businesses or historic structures to benefit private developers promising full-block developments with high tax increment return; sometimes followed by the failure of the developer to deliver on the promise after businesses and buildings had been irrevocably removed. Such is it that San Diego’ vibrant Gaslamp Quarter has been blighted at its center for years with a large surface parking lot where previously there was a vital business (Gran Havana Cigar Factory & Cafe) and two designated historic structures. As many analysts have observed, redevelopment projects, i.e., eminent domain for private development and tax increment financing, have historically under-performed. Recent history has done little to change this lack of clarity regarding the redevelopment effect. However, as the present demolition shows, eminent domain is just one of the culprits in unwise demolitions. More often it is shortsighted policies or lack of enforcement of helpful policies.
Is it coincidence that the two parts of downtown that are most vibrant are the two parts that most resisted redevelopment, i.e., Gaslamp Quarter and Little Italy? To be sure, these were the most vibrant downtown neighborhoods before redevelopment. But they also have the most small lot development, most variety in structures, most street level fabric, and they were the neighborhoods most hostile to large scale redevelopment proposals. At this point, even if downtown San Diego meets its redevelopment goals in terms of residents, buildings, and businesses, it has come dangerously close to forfeiting the opportunity of having a downtown diverse in architecture, culture, and use – a downtown that prospective tourists talk about and which has the allure to businesses offered by San Francisco, Portland, and, coming on strong lately, Los Angeles.
For perspective on how far behind Portland San Diego may be, please peruse this article (in Portland Architecture) about Ada Louise Huxtable’s description of 1970s Portland (“The scattered bomb-site look of downtown parking lots made by demolishing older buildings that pay less than metered asphalt . . .”) – chillingly similar to 2013 San Diego. The current applicability to San Diego of Ada’s description of 70s Portland portends I will not live to see a downtown San Diego that will rival the resurgence of downtown Portland, which took another 40 years to get where it is now. Such a downtown San Diego was very much my hope while living there in the 1990s. The history of redevelopment, here and elsewhere, has proven that its destructive and disruptive effects, if left unchecked, are at least as powerful as its revitalizing effect.
Call to Action
To prevent further undermining past redevelopment efforts and to foster an incremental improvement in downtown’s urban environment, San Diego should consider some stronger measures. For example, a no-demo-for-surface-parking ordinance like Salt Lake City or a tax on undeveloped land downtown as is being advocated for Minneapolis, would be a good start. Follow this with a loosening of the on-site parking requirements for new residential construction, as is boldly being tried in Portland and Los Angeles to boost affordable infill development and a transit based urban environment. Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) has been advocating, and the City has been rejecting, stronger public noticing of proceedings involving historic designation or demolition of historic and potentially historic buildings. That would be another bulwark against architectural homogeneity and “scattered bomb-site” parking lot blight.
With a new Mayor as well as a new City Council district representative, each of whom appear more sensitive to the commoner and to neighborhood concerns, it may be timely to push such initiatives. Where might such initiatives begin? Centre City Advisory Committee, Citizens Coordinate for Century III, Downtown Partnership are all possibilities (anyone there listening?) Maybe even here. Post a topic on the forum and invite people to comment in support so that it could be presented as a petition. I will strive to be the first to sign it.