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The resurgence of East Village is evident by steel and glass stretching by the ton into the sky above. Yet at street level, the neighborhood — though clearly reborn — is still learning to walk.
The East Village was touted nationally during the boom years as an extreme makeover. In the post-bust era it has revealed itself as a neighborhood that still has promise, but also complex issues. Those issues include the typical neighborhood planning considerations, but also a momentum-sapping economic slump and a difficult homeless problem.
Once typified by old warehouses and rundown buildings, the neighborhood — bounded by 6th Avenue to the west, Interstate 5 to the north and east, and Harbor Drive to the south — has changed spectacularly in the last decade, especially in the five years after the first pitch at Petco Park in April 2004.
Weekend mornings bring a crowd of hip breakfasters to a local restaurant, condo dwellers tote clothes to the cleaners and baseball fans gather at new bars for a drink after the game.
The Centre City Development Corporation estimates that its population, estimated at 6,000 today, will grow significantly in the coming decades. Promised new landmarks include the new campus of the Thomas Jefferson School of Law, and a less-certain new central library branch.
But there remain myriad errands for which East Village residents must go elsewhere. Weeds grow in vacant lots for shelved projects. And thousands of square feet of retail space along the neighborhood’s sidewalks are going begging.
“It’s practically an instant neighborhood,” said Brad Richter, manager of current planning for the CCDC. “It’s just the rough and tumble of growing up.”
Gangbusters residential condo development in the last few years brought about 3,700 homes to the neighborhood in more than a dozen new buildings, according to CCDC. Developers have stalled another 8,000 to wait for the market to turn around, according to MarketPointe Realty Advisors.
“A lot more happened than probably should have,” said Hans Strom, a local commercial real estate broker whose niche is East Village. “We got ahead of ourselves with residential condos.”
And though the old adage holds that “retail follows rooftops,” the retail development didn’t happen like the local experts thought it would, said Bob Sinclair, a long-time player in East Village real estate.
“All the triple-A rated companies — they don’t want to be pioneers out on the streets; they want to be in malls,” Sinclair said.
Wal-Mart had leased a large space at the corner of Ninth Avenue and J Street to potentially bring in an urban grocery store called Marketside, according to paperwork filed with the city as of earlier this year, Richter said. Wal-Mart did not return a call on the commitment, nor did landlords Cruzan Monroe Partnership, though the lease — and whether or not the project will go forward — is the buzz among the commercial real estate trackers in the neighborhood.
The space said to be leased by Wal-Mart is an example of a phenomenon called “phantom space.” As a result, the quiet storefronts are a deterrent to pedestrian traffic even while they provide a steady income for a landlord.
“Those big chunks of space don’t help the neighborhood,” said Strom’s colleague, Steve Martini, gesticulating one recent afternoon from the banister outside of The Mission SoMa, a popular neighborhood restaurant.
And the ballpark, which spurred a lot of the development to be built faster and with higher density than would’ve happened naturally, doesn’t serve as a daily draw to the neighborhood.
“The ballpark — it’s a good neighbor; it’s a bad neighbor,” Sinclair said. “It certainly sparked a lot of interest from developers that probably wasn’t warranted. But it sits there more or less empty for most of the year.”
But the tenants and owners that have come to the neighborhood — that restaurant, the Tilted Kilt bar near the ballpark, the designers studios, some boutiques, an architecture school — like the feeling of being pioneers, Strom said.
“People like to be here — that way it’s cool, they were here first,” Strom said.
And some advocates welcome the chance for the neighborhood to regroup without the frantic push of the boom. So far East Village has hung on to its artistic and design oriented businesses, and “that’s really heartening,” said Leslie Wade, who for 14 years directed the East Village Association, a group of business owners and residents.
One issue that has been present through both the boom and bust years is the stark juxtaposition of the East Village’s new residents and the homeless people who’ve called the urban neighborhood home for decades is widely considered one of the biggest issues confronting it.
To some in East Village, the proposed solution is to keep development going and push the homeless further east and south. Wade, who now contracts with St. Vincent de Paul for community outreach, said she doesn’t think that’s the answer. She considers the East Village residents’ and business owners’ concerns more than NIMBYism, but said the needs of the homeless are necessary to consider as well.
“The homeless have always been a major part of the fabric of downtown and they are in every major city in the world,” Wade said. “Inasmuch as an increase in the residential population is forcing a new conversation about the homeless population downtown, I think that’s a very good thing.”
The conversation can’t ratchet up soon enough for Lissette Guido, a student at California Western School of Law this fall who viewed a two-bedroom condo in Element, a condo tower on 15th and Market, on Tuesday.
Guido is moving to San Diego from the East Coast, and had checked out photos of the condo she’s thinking of renting to live in online before she came to visit. But on Tuesday, as she was taking a video of the unit, she stepped out onto the balcony and looked down to see a brawl between two men who appeared to be homeless, and inebriated.
“I saw that listing and thought it looked great, but this was a harsh San Diego reality,” she said. If she does decide to rent the condo, Guido said she’s planning to negotiate a lower lease price, and to live there for six months or less at first, in case the juxtaposition is too much.
The person showing her the unit assured Guido that the homeless people are harmless, that the police station is right around the corner, that the neighborhood is safe. But Guido’s not sure.
“I liked the condo, but the neighborhood completely threw me off,” she said. “It’s making me think more than twice.”