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Tuesday, February 06, 2007 | Once a disregarded slum, downtown today finds itself with many suitors.

Where planners there once reassured prospective tenants or homebuyers that the city’s hub was on the cusp of transforming from blight to bright, they find themselves with a new challenge: accommodating the growing number of groups that are demanding a voice in how downtown’s future is molded.

For the past three years, the Centre City Development Corp., the city’s downtown redevelopment arm, and various community stakeholders — some old, some new — have been charting the blueprint for downtown’s growth for the next 20 years. The council is expected to finalize the blueprint in late February, although its decision has been postponed by Planning Commission challenges and the vacancy of the two downtown seats on the City Council.

And as it has been for decades, downtown is a neighborhood in flux. Its rebirth as a cultural, residential and economic hub leave it tied up in the middle of a tug-of-war between regional players and neighborhood groups. 

The arrival of retail and commercial business, homeowners and tourists to downtown over the last decade poses a new set of priorities sought by those groups, while traditional constituencies — waterfront industry, senior citizens and low-income groups — grapple with the reality of an in-demand downtown. Separate from the competing sectors, the concept of downtown being the region’s engine for all things cultural and economic has captured the attention of civic observers as well.

Today, downtown is a neighborhood of contrasts. It houses the region’s newest and trendiest clubs and hotspots, while workers on the bay unload cargo ships of steel and bananas. Many of its restaurant workers can’t afford its rent, so they come from as far as El Cajon, Imperial Beach and Tijuana to work. Urban condo developments sprout in a city where the car trumps mass transit. Distinct pockets of town find themselves the stuff of regional concerns.

And their futures are all contemplated in one master plan.

“The more successful we are at overseeing downtown’s rebirth, the more often new issues will come up and more constituent groups will come up,” said CCDC President Nancy Graham. “You have all kinds of folks at the table now, and that’s going to continue as downtown grows.”

And growing it is. With the recent boom of high-rise condominium buildings, downtown has blossomed into the region’s housing hotspot. Since 2000, the area’s population has doubled from 16,000 to 32,000 today, according to the Downtown Residents Group.

Downtown’s residential population is forecasted to triple over the next two decades while its workforce more than doubles, soaking up much of the county’s growth anticipated during that time. In an effort to accommodate the influx, the proposed plan update raises the ceiling on density limits for builders in the 1,500-acre community while also relying on the assumption that the urban core will become more transit-oriented.

“Are we finished once the plan is approved? No, we really are just starting,” she said.

From Parking to Parkland

They warned that a conflict could arise between industrial operators and new residents who will likely complain about the loud noise, bright lights and foul smells produced around-the-clock by the heavy industry there. If residents’ complaints about train noise result in restriction of railroad use, it could force freight carriers to use trucks to haul cargo, which could clog downtown’s streets and nearby freeways.

evan.mclaughlin@voiceofsandiego.org

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