Five miles east of downtown, amid rolling hills and weathered homes, empty and dusty parcels pock the neighborhood surrounding Euclid Avenue and Market Street in southeastern San Diego — physical reminders that, for decades, this community has been starving for an economic lifeline.

But new signs are appearing behind the empty lots’ chain link fences. They display the portraits of local residents whose smiles seem oblivious to the barren properties around them.

The literal signs behind those fences are also symbolic signs of what’s in store for this community.

In a wave of recent purchases, the nonprofit Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, an arm of the Jacobs Family Foundation, has accumulated more than 50 acres of property across the community, with ambitious plans to breathe new life into this struggling area. For a San Diego nonprofit, its plans to attract and leverage $500 million in investment to develop an urban village complete with 1,000 new homes, nearly 300,000 square feet of retail space, and 250,000 square feet of office space are unprecedented.

They have been met with vocal praise, but also cautious acceptance and outright hostility. Many in the community have hailed the Jacobs Center as the catalyst that will revitalize economic activity in southeastern San Diego. Others have grown suspicious of the organization’s ever-expanding role and collection of property that has made it such an influential player in the community’s future.

The Village at Market Creek, as it’s called, is unusual because its developer is a nonprofit foundation, not a private for-profit company. Its vision for the community is an experiment in the potential for philanthropic, rather than government, agencies to spark economic revitalization in a poor community.

The foundation moved into the neighborhood in the mid-1990s to organize residents of the Diamond community — ten neighborhoods surrounding the intersection of Euclid and Market.

In surveying residents of the communities, said Roque Barros, the Jacobs Center’s director of community building, its staff learned physical infrastructure like grocery stores and housing were among the community’s most urgent needs.

“When we realized all that was needed here, it was obvious we needed more land in order for it to be sustainable,” he said.

The foundation poised itself to take on a developer’s role. It began buying land and initiating the years of planning for the village, now envisioned as a housing-dense, transit-oriented community built around the trolley line that connects the Diamond neighborhoods to downtown.

So too began the debate over the role that Jacobs, a philanthropy with origins outside southeastern San Diego, should play in developing the community.

The organization’s supporters say its commitment to involving residents in every step of the neighborhood’s development, with an eye toward community development rather than profit, make it a better alternative to private developers who might otherwise buy and develop land unilaterally.

They say the organization’s approach has given residents of the Diamond neighborhoods an active role in deciding the neighborhood’s future, and has justified Jacobs’ effort to accumulate land and hold it for future development.

“We built this together,” Robert Tambuzi, director of a local African-American ministers’ group, told an audience of residents gathered at a community meeting hosted by Jacobs last week. He was referring to the Market Creek Plaza retail center, the first phase of the development, which Jacobs completed five years ago.

But others with deep roots in the community have been openly resentful of Jacobs’ appearance on the scene and growing influence in the community.

At the same meeting, one resident, Joshua Von Wolfolk, stood up. He pointed his finger at Jennifer Vanica, Jacobs’ CEO, and in a tense and emotional exchange, decried her characterization of parts of the community as blighted.

“Don’t tell me about we’ve got a blighted community,” Von Wolfolk exclaimed, to a smattering of supportive comments from the audience. “A community exists in the people,” he said, evoking the civil rights movements that he and many African-Americans in the community were involved with.

Vanica, with Tambuzi by her side, assured Von Wolfolk that the organization was only trying to create the economic and social conditions for the community to succeed in the future and not to step on the toes of community leaders.

“We’re not trying to say we’re the saviors,” Vanica told the audience. “We’re just here to be on the journey and say: ‘What do you want and how do you want it?’”

With an average household income of roughly $35,000, the Diamond community is among the city’s poorest, a profile that has discouraged economic investment by private developers.

The barren economic landscape makes the community ripe for development by retailers and investors who recognize the economic potential there, but who may need financial incentives, said Chip Buttner, president of Jacobs’ development arm.

“There’s no competition,” he said. But that in itself has never been incentive enough for developers and retailers to move into the neighborhood. The foundation says its role is to create the conditions that will make the community an attractive place for retailers to invest.

It wants The Village at Market Creek to become a self-sustaining community where higher density and affordable housing developments will support and be served by neighboring retail centers, cultural venues and open space.

The Jacobs Center has been securing approvals and land-use changes that will allow it to break ground on many of the high-density projects it has planned.

It got the Southeastern Economic Development Corp., the city agency responsible for redevelopment in the area, to convince the City Council to rezone many industrial properties to allow higher density mixed-use and residential development.

The foundation is working to finalize city approvals for a 52-unit affordable apartment complex adjacent to its headquarters at the center of the planned village.

Those plans have some residents concerned that higher density development will alter the largely single-family character of the community while straining infrastructure like roads not designed to handle that much density.

“Affordable apartments are needed, yes,” said Ardelle Matthews, the coordinator of the Chollas View Neighborhood Council, one of several neighborhood groups in the area abutting the planned development. “But homeownership gives a greater security to your community. People who own something are proud of it. They are going to take care of their property, come to meetings, inquire when they see something wrong.”

Jacobs officials said the affordable rental housing is needed to accommodate the many low-income families from nearby neighborhoods who lost apartments to condominium conversions during the housing boom.

For her reservations about some of Jacobs’ development plans, Matthews said she was still looking forward to once again seeing growth in the community where she once shopped at five major grocery stores, ate at local restaurants and took in an occasional movie at a long-gone drive-in.

When the community began deteriorating in the 1970s and those amenities shut down, Matthews and her family “went out of our neighborhood to buy and to eat and to get the services we needed,” she said. “That was wonderful for us, but there are people who can’t afford that. That’s why we need infrastructure right here.”

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