Wednesday, May 17, 2006 | Karen McElliott came to downtown San Diego looking for a new way of life. After 30 years living as a suburbanite in Scripps Ranch, McElliott, a widow, came looking for the bright lights of the big city.
She found a community with much of the vibrancy and energy that she hoped for. What she hasn’t found are neighbors.
Of the six units on her floor in her new condo building, McElliot’s is the only one that’s occupied. The Pinnacle, like many of downtown’s newer condo towers, is currently only 55-percent occupied by full-time residents.
“I was looking forward to meeting new neighbors, and having them over for a glass of wine or saying hello and going for walks in the morning, that kind of thing, and that hasn’t happened,” McElliott said.
As investors and speculators have flocked to the downtown San Diego condo market, many of the roughly 7,000 downtown units – especially those that have come online during the last two years – have remained empty of full-time inhabitants.
According to DataQuick, a local real estate information service, around 33 percent of all downtown homes have their tax bills sent to a separate address, indicating that they are not full-time residences. Although the empty hallways are an unexpected consequence of the recent condo boom, experts expect the buildings to fill in over time as residents replace investors.
Downtowners say there are both advantages and disadvantages to living in towers that are not full to capacity. Fewer full-time residents means fewer people placing a strain on common areas like swimming pools and gyms. It also means fewer cars entering and exiting the garage, and less strain on basic services like water, electricity and trash collection.
But what is gained in amenities is lost in character, said some residents. Living in a tower that is half-empty except on weekends feels strange, they said, and the feeling downtown is one of a community waiting to really establish itself. One resident described the newcomers who have taken up residence downtown as having a “pioneer mentality.”
“Go at 9 o’clock at night and stare at Harbor Club (a condo tower in downtown) – those are all sold – you’ll see there’s four or five lights on. Where are those people?” said David McQuaid, president of the homeowners’ association at The Grande, a new residential condo tower in downtown’s Columbia District.
Bob Edmonston, a 33-year-old software developer who lives in Atria, a condo development in the heart of downtown’s Marina District, said living in his building feels “weird.” Though he can see the advantages of having fewer neighbors, Edmonston also said there’s a feeling that something’s missing in his community.
“I would definitely like to have more people around,” Edmonston said. “It’s like everyone knows it’s going to be big eventually, but it’s not big now.”
The large number of empty condos in downtown is largely due to investors and so-called “condo flippers,” said Gary London, president of the London Group Realty Advisors in San Diego. Condo flippers purchase property only as an investment, with the expressed purpose of selling it for a quick profit.
As condo prices soared in downtown, investors from around the county, state and country saw a market where some serious money could be made and invested in condos that they never really planned to live in.
But as the real estate market in downtown San Diego cools off, London said those speculators are leaving the downtown market behind. Downtown residents said that’s primarily a good thing. As speculators and flippers get out, full-time residents usually move in. That means more residents who care about the community’s well-being, in addition to the value of their condo. Residents hope that will help downtown establish itself as a neighborhood.
“Anyone who comes to downtown, that buys these units from investors, will only add to the wonderful passion that current residents have,” said Jose Figueroa, who owns a condo in The Pinnacle with his partner, Kenneth Hawkins.
London said downtown may see a certain number of what he calls “grave dancer” investors – those who buy up condos in a distressed market hoping to turn a profit on them in the long term. But he stressed that as projects like The Pinnacle mature, they will see a larger proportion of full-time residents move in.
Indeed, at more established towers such as CityFront Terrace, a 15-year-old development in the Marina District, the proportion of non-resident owners is much lower than at newer buildings. Jeff Herscovitz, president of the homeowners’ association at CityFront Terrace, estimated that only 15 percent of the units in his building are occupied by part-time residents.
That makes a tremendous difference to residents’ quality of life, Herscovitz said. CityFront Terrace residents have a very active social life and hold events for the whole building at least once a month. Herscovitz said residents of the building feel like they are part of a community and not just investors in a property.
The homeowners’ association at The Pinnacle has just launched an effort to find out what happened to all the people who bought condos in the building. With so many empty units in the building, James Roberts, president of the homeowners’ association said he’s sending out questionnaires to all the people who bought units. Roberts said the questionnaires will ask owners a simple question: Where are you?
McQuaid said he’s thinking of following Roberts’ lead. The Grande is similar to the Pinnacle in that it is a very high-end and very well-respected development. It’s also apparently been a favorite for investors, and McQuaid said he wants to know where all the homeowners are.
“They’re like ghosts, they come and go,” he said.
Please contact Will Carless directly at
(Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated how many part-time units Herscovitz estimated for CityFront Terrance. We regret the error.)