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When the vote came down on Tuesday, Alicia Cibrian looked to the sky, made the sign of the cross, and cried.
As the City Council chambers erupted in cheers and congratulations around her, Cibrian, 71, stood in the middle of it all with tears running down her face.
She spoke in Spanish. “They remembered us,” she said.
Cibrian lives in Barrio Logan. She buys groceries only when her children have time to drive her to the supermarket three miles away. She walks, and her neighborhood has few grocery options.
“We feel so far away from everything,” she said. “I want to see fresh fruit, milk. Knowing that I’m going to have a store…” Her sentence trailed off.
“I didn’t think I would live to see this,” she went on. “I thank God that he gave me the chance.”
If all goes as planned, Cibrian will shop for fruit in her neighborhood in 2012.
On Tuesday, the City Council approved agreements with two private developers to build a supermarket and 92 affordable housing units in the heart of Barrio Logan, an impoverished neighborhood that has struggled to attract private developers.
The vote represents a tremendous leap forward for the community that has been searching for a leg up for decades.
The Mercado del Barrio project has languished for more than 20 years despite promises from politicians and developers that a barren 6.8 acre lot at the foot of the Coronado Bridge would be developed into a retail and housing center and jump-start Barrio Logan’s economic rebirth.
Tuesday’s decision is the culmination of several years of maneuvering by city and Redevelopment Agency staff to assure developers that the Mercado was a viable and profitable project, especially as the city was engaged in an intense legal struggle with its previous developer of choice, who continues claiming ownership of the empty property.
Those concerns surfaced only briefly during Tuesday’s meeting, with the project’s attorneys assuring council members that the city held full ownership of the land and had every right to move forward developing it.
Instead, city staff focused on what the Mercado project will bring to Barrio Logan: a 35,000-square-foot Northgate Market catering to the neighborhood’s Latino community, with wide aisles and produce more fresh than Barrio Logan has seen in decades.
Five hundred permanent jobs.
Ninety-two apartments for families earning less than $50,000 a year.
Opportunities for residents to earn money selling their own goods.
And pride immeasurable for a community — home to mechanic shops and recycling plants — that has long felt like a dumping ground for the businesses no one else wanted.
“I sell my tamales, and they’re delicious,” Silvia Saldaña told the council before the vote. “As soon as the Mercado is there, I’m going to invite you all to come and enjoy my delicious tamales.”
The council obliged, voting unanimously to sign an agreement with developers Shea Properties and Chelsea Investment Corp. to begin developing the roughly $60 million mixed-use project.
The city’s Redevelopment Agency and the Housing Commission will pitch in $16 million in public money for the $39.2 million affordable housing development. More than $9 million of that will come from the San Ysidro and North Bay redevelopment areas.
The city will also sell the land, worth $11.4 million, to Shea Properties for $100 once the company has secured all the required construction paperwork and commitments from prospective retailers. Shea and the business tenants will pay the remaining costs of construction.
A final hurdle remains for the project. The city still has to compete for federal money that will help pay for the affordable housing development. If it wins the money in Sept., the developers will start construction in February and finish the project by 2012.
The Mercado is expected to generate more than $200,000 in tax revenue each year. It will also generate more than $3 million in property tax money that the city can reinvest in Barrio Logan over the long term, city officials said.
Redevelopment in poor communities is built on the idea that the government should help spur development where private industry wouldn’t otherwise venture. In turn, publicly supported developments like the Mercado project create more tax money that the city can reinvest to further develop the neighborhood over time.
Since a redevelopment zone was created in Barrio Logan in the early 1990s, its coffers have remained mostly empty because of the Mercado’s failure to start that process.
But the project is finally expected to be a catalyst for redevelopment there, encouraging hesitant investors to come into a poor community that has always been considered a risky bet for mainstream restaurants and retailers.
“This is a very important moment for our community’s history,” said Council President Ben Hueso, who represents Barrio Logan.
The project represents a major feather in Hueso’s cap as he finishes his final term as the community’s council member before seeking election to state office.
“The road leading to today’s decision has been long and often torturous,” said Councilman Todd Gloria.
But council members congratulated residents for their persistence, even when the chances of success looked bleak.
“You probably wondered if this day would ever come, huh?” asked Councilwoman Marti Emerald. “Most of our neighborhoods have grocery stores where people can walk and parks where people can play. We tend to take things for granted, and I’m glad this is finally happening.”
As audience members trickled out of council chambers after the vote, city staffers mingled with residents as both groups waited for the elevators down.
When the elevators arrived, one filled with city staff, all dressed in suits.
Barrio Logan residents, most speaking Spanish and dressed in matching black T-shirts adorned with the logo for Padres Unidos del Barrio, a parents’ group, piled into another.
When the doors of both elevators opened onto the lobby of City Hall 12 floors down, the two groups streamed into each other once again.
“Where’s the party?” someone asked.