Take a walk along 25th Street in Golden Hill and you’ll notice a neighborhood in transition. Weeds force their way through cracks in the uneven sidewalks lining the neighborhood’s main commercial strip, where notaries, a pawn broker, and auto repair shops share block space with hair salons and fruit grocers.

At the Golden Hill Cafe, with its weathered leather booths, owner Carmen Avery has been serving longtime regulars for more than 30 years. On evenings, on the opposite street corner, a small group of predominantly Latino pedestrians gathers around a cart offering tacos and tamales.

Across the street, outside the Turf Supper Club, a different crowd mingles. Young, hip 20-somethings smoke as they lean against the restaurant’s green brick walls. Inside, they sip cocktails and grill their own steaks. A few blocks south, a wine bar will soon occupy the ground floor of a modern, two-story mixed-use complex that features design studios and housing, and it’ll face a converted church that is serving as a local arts space.

Golden Hill is giving redevelopment a second go. The 25th Street Renaissance Project, which will bring sorely needed physical and infrastructural improvements to the retail strip, is expected to break ground within a year.

Several years ago, the neighborhood was widely expected to be San Diego’s next hot spot. Young singles and artists flocked to the community, and a new chic coffee shop, appropriately called Influx, opened on Broadway Avenue just east of the Interstate 5 in 2002.

But the neighborhood — which is bounded by Balboa Park to the north, the 5 and State Route 94 to the west and south, and 34th Street to the east — never developed as many community members had planned. Infrastructural improvements and retail development have languished along 25th Street as residents of Golden Hill have watched a more active and organized business community in South Park, just around the park’s southeastern corner, reinvent itself.

The spillover of traffic that business owners expected from the development of Petco Park about a mile southwest never materialized. Golden Hill’s development efforts have also suffered from many of the setbacks that plague communities seeking to revitalize while tempering some of the concerns about gentrification, such as the impacts that redevelopment will have on older, often minority-owned businesses. In Golden Hill, and especially along 25th Street, where many of the businesses are owned by Latino families, past attempts to organize informal business improvement associations have been largely met with disinterest.

“Many of these businesses have been here a long time and the property owners in many cases don’t live nearby,” said Kathryn Willetts, a longtime resident and property owner along 25th Street who recently initiated a renewed effort to organize local business owners. That has made it difficult for residents like Willetts to secure and organize funds for the physical improvements — like storefront renovation and maintenance — that would lay the foundations for attracting both businesses and customers.

That’s in stark contrast to neighboring South Park, which is part of the Greater Golden Hill Community Planning Group, but which in recent years has successfully re-branded its image as its residents and businesses owners have worked to distinguish South Park as distinct from Golden Hill.

The neighborhood established the South Park Business Group, which collects fees from member businesses that it uses to market and promote the retail district. Organized events like neighborhood walkabouts and architectural tours have drawn thousands to South Park from across the city, and have been a particular boon at a time when business owners have taken a hit amid the recession.

Several business owners there said that after a year of stagnant business following a severe drop in mid 2008, retail and food sales have slowly rebounded in the last two months.

At the Golden Hill Café, Avery said business has gotten worse since March. And the owner of her building raised her rent by nearly $160 last month, despite her protests that her revenue continued declining.

“He said, ‘I can do what I want,’” Avery said.

Although business owners in South Park said rents there have remained reasonable, in more expensive parts of the city, store owners have struggled to keep up with rents amid the downturn. Business improvement groups have encouraged landlords to lower rents in the interest of keeping businesses afloat.

In Hillcrest, landlords, initially slow to recognize the severity of the recession’s impacts on businesses over the past year, have in some cases readjusted rent rates on their tenants’ retail spaces, said Benjamin Nicholls, executive director of the Hillcrest Business Improvement Association.

“Any kind of organization that would bring those kinds of benefits to the businesses here in Golden Hill, I think, is something I would support,” Avery said.

In Golden Hill, the closest type of organization is the Greater Golden Hill Community Development Corp.

In 2007, Greater Golden Hill, which includes both Golden Hill and South Park, became what is known as a maintenance assessment district, allowing the city to levy assessments to provide local maintenance and improvement services, like sidewalk and graffiti cleanup, beyond base levels provided by the city.

But those funds are spread across the range of needs that the neighborhood identifies, and not used exclusively for business improvement.

Infighting among members of the group and its advisory committee have further stalled the group’s efforts to promote the neighborhood’s development.

The lack of funds available for business improvement has reflected on the retail strip along 25th Street, which falls outside the boundaries that would allow businesses there to participate and benefit from the activities of the South Park Business Group even if they wanted to do so.

Pedro Anaya, director of the Community Development Corp., said attracting new businesses to the area has been difficult, and that among potential newcomers “there seems to be an interest, but it stops at that.”

But that seems to be slowly changing, as a core group of local Golden Hill business owners have undertaken efforts of their own to mobilize the business community and tap into the potential presented by Golden Hill’s changing demographics.

At the northern end of 25th Street, the Turf Club, the neighboring Krakatoa Coffee Shop and the Pizzeria Luigi across the street all cater to Golden Hill’s newer, younger residents with greater disposable income.

While the demographics of Golden Hill are clearly shifting, the neighborhood still lacks some of the basic markers of a residential-retail community such as a drycleaner and a bank.

Mike Burnett, an architect who last year designed and built the mixed-use studio space south of E Street on 25th Street, and who on a recent Sunday was overseeing a crew constructing the Counterpoint wine bar that will open on its ground floor, said he was hoping the project would help continue that kind of development south along the street.

When asked if he felt he was taking a risk on Golden Hill, he said, “You can say that times 10,000.”

But last week Burnett met with several other local business owners, including Willetts, to begin discussing how to form an umbrella business improvement association that will guide the development along 25th Street much like the South Park Business Group has done for Golden Hill’s northern neighbor.

“Re-branding, physical improvement, and public relations made that area ripe to take advantage of the changing demographics,” Willetts said. “That will come to Golden Hill. There will be a business group focused on marketing the area, and our focus will be on trying to prepare the community for the coming improvements.”

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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