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Monday, April 04, 2005 | This is part one in a five-part series.

Downtown San Diego in the last three decades has been cultivated into a commercial and cultural center where success can be measured in megawatts, $9 martinis and Padres foam fingers.

Thirty years ago, downtown – today a haven of chic eateries and hot-spot, high-rise homes – was occupied only by freshly landed sailors aiming to stretch their sea legs at the district’s various porn peddlers, strip bars and tattoo parlors after suburban flight took hold in the 1960s. Downtown continued to house banks, corporate firms and government offices, but it was not the 24-hour community it aims to be today.

“You could shoot a cannon down the street at five o’clock in the afternoon and not hit anyone who wasn’t staggering,” said former San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson, who served from 1971 to 1983, in an interview. “Our goal was to change that.”

By the time the College Grove, Grossmont and Mission Valley shopping centers were completed in 1961, panicked business owners howled of “Old Town’s Revenge,” referring to the knockout punch Alonzo Horton dealt to Old Town when he moved San Diego’s business district to the new waterfront city in 1870.

A full century after Horton, downtown’s days of reckoning followed the evaporation of residents and retail dollars. Using authority granted to localities in a 1962 addendum to the state health and safety code, Wilson set out to grab the blight by the horns and steer downtown to economic recovery.

Wilson established the Centre City Development Corp. in 1975 to act as City Hall’s outlet to oversee the urban core’s redevelopment. He believed that downtown’s renewal was possible by obtaining properties with public money and then transferring the land to private developers to make upgrades that added value to the property and served a meaningful purpose in the community. Redevelopment, he thought, would prod businesses to return downtown and that taxes on the increased values of these acquired properties would eventually allow the project to pay for itself – all while generating new sales tax revenue.

At the Jan. 26 meeting of CCDC’s board of directors, past presidents of the nonprofit corporation credited the construction of urban hubs like the Horton Plaza shopping center, San Diego Convention Center and PETCO Park for attracting the swarms of interested condo buyers, hotels and retailers.

Since CCDC’s inception, the agency estimates that more than 10,000 homes, 8,000 hotel rooms and 50,000 jobs have been created because of its redevelopment efforts downtown. CCDC touts that redevelopment projects produced $42.5 million for the city of San Diego in sales, tourism-related and new property tax monies over the last 30 years.

“Our downtown will serve as a regional and national model for smart growth,” boasted Peter Hall, who began serving as president of CCDC in 1995 and announced recently that he will step down.

But CCDC’s efforts to transform downtown from blight into bright have also brought criticisms.

“They’ve done a lot of good, but they’ve also done a lot of bad,” said Karen Huff, chairwoman of the San Diego Black Historical Society who believes the agency has tried to override historical designations on buildings that don’t generate tax increment revenue for the agency.

Like Huff, many residents have been skeptical of CCDC’s practices over the years. Why can’t the difference in tax revenue generated by the higher value assessments of redeveloped properties be spent outside the corporation’s 1,500-acre authority? Has the city’s redevelopment branch abused its power to condemn sites for redevelopment through the eminent domain? Does CCDC inappropriately engage itself in political matters or the business interests of its board members?

This week, Voice of San Diego will examine the group’s course of action over the last 30 years and spell out challenges facing CCDC as the agency nears the halfway point before completing its community redevelopment plan, paying off its debts to the city and flicking the light switch on the way out.

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