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Commercial Street is not much to look at. The stretch of the city is a desolate one, with old train tracks running down the street but leading nowhere. Cars are piled high behind screened fences, whose gates open only occasionally to welcome another worn-out vehicle to its final resting place.
Planners once had a vision that Commercial Street, which cuts across the Logan Heights and Memorial neighborhoods east of downtown, would become a bustling hub of industry, supported by the freight tracks ideal for transporting goods and products.
But most of the businesses that moved in were warehouses and auto junkyards, not industrial parks or manufacturers that provided neighborhood jobs. Today, the occasional lonely house is tucked inexplicably amid the mess, and few cars venture down the street, along which freight trains no longer rumble.
But every few minutes, a streak of color lights up Commercial Street. The shiny red cars of the trolley’s Orange Line zoom commuters through the bleak landscape as they travel between downtown and southeastern San Diego or Lemon Grove.
That streak of the trolley line is at the center of a long-term plan to transform the street from an industrial thoroughfare into a dense corridor bustling with affordable apartments and storefronts.
The plan is in its earliest stages, but city officials and active residents hope it will provide jobs, housing, and stores in a poor neighborhood that has long needed them. The trolley, which replaced the freight lines in 1987, will play a central role.
“The train tracks carry people now, and not goods and services,” said Karen Bucey, the city planner in charge of southeastern San Diego. That shift made the land that surrounds them an attractive starting point for the city when it considered areas to promote dense urban growth built around transit lines.
In Logan Heights and Memorial, only industrial development is allowed along much of Commercial Street. For developers to build homes, stores and restaurants there, the city will prime the area to allow that kind of growth, rezoning land along the street for the type of development that has transformed other neighborhoods, like Little Italy.
The decision to do that, planners say, makes sense because planners now see potential for an underdeveloped swath of the city to realign with a new approach to urban growth that, in this case, would also encourage development of needed housing and businesses.
“Over time, land uses change, and what used to be a freight corridor is now a mass transit corridor,” said Stephan Vance, a senior regional planner at Sandag, which gave the city $400,000 for an initial land use study of the area. “But the buildings and other infrastructure there are left over from the days when it was a freight corridor. Now this community is reinventing itself and we need to attract private investment in building commercial and retail uses in those areas.”
The process of revitalizing this stretch of industry will be a long one, and the planning study now underway is only the first step. It will focus on Commercial Street and a parallel stretch of Imperial Avenue a block north, and will produce a master plan with recommendations for what type of land uses would best support the development that residents want to see in the neighborhood.
Those findngs, Bucey said, will guide a separate process to update the area’s community plan — which dictates how land can be used — to allow future housing and retail development around the trolley line.
An updated community plan will be an important second step to the city’s long-term revitalization plans for the area because it sets a broad vision for the type of future development that will be allowed in the community.
One large scale development is already in the works, and its path through City Hall shows how changes in the area’s planning could make its transformation easier.
At the intersection of Commercial and 22nd Streets, the Comm22 project is slated to bring almost 200 affordable apartments to a four-acre piece of land occupied by a vacant post-industrial building.
But because only industrial development was allowed there, the project’s main developer, MAAC Project, had to seek individual rezoning, a process that slowed its progress.
Across the street, the owners of the sparsely occupied and aging Farmers Market building withdrew a proposal to develop the property into high-density housing after neighborhood residents opposed the proposal because its scale seemed too large to be compatible with surrounding development.
The planning process now underway at the city, Bucey said, will give planners, developers, and residents a better understanding of size and style of development that will work there, so that fewer proposals come up against obstacles like the ones that put a stop to the Farmers Market.
But that is an expensive process that the city’s Planning Department, strapped for cash and reckoning with recent staff reductions, will have to fund. Money problems have forced the department to put a hold on updating community plans across much of the city.
This week, the department applied for a $1 million state sustainable communities grant that would allow it to begin updating southeastern San Diego’s community plan.
“It could’ve been any number of projects, but this was the project,” Bucey said. “It’s a significant commitment by the city to put resources to bear to look at this community and to specifically spur some private as well as public attention to the neighborhood.”
The city is reviewing proposals from private firms to analyze land use along Commercial Street and Imperial Avenue, and says it will begin holding community meetings by the start of 2011.