In early 2009, the Pearson Ford dealership at El Cajon Boulevard and Fairmount Avenue shut its doors. Not long afterward, Price Charities, a nonprofit that has become a major player in the redevelopment of City Heights, bought the land.
Then the speculation began.
South of El Cajon Boulevard, ethnic business leaders and nonprofit advocates who serve City Heights’ diverse and low-income population hoped the five acres would become an international marketplace or affordable housing complex.
North of El Cajon Boulevard, a different vision emerged. Residents of the more affluent Talmadge and Kensington neighborhoods saw the vacant lot as an opportunity to finally lay claim to the boulevard, a hodgepodge of ethnic mom-and-pop shops they rarely visit. They wanted something transformative: a Trader Joe’s or a Henry’s, and maybe a park — but not affordable housing.
They flooded Price Charities with their own suggestions.
Consensus is hard to find on any proposed neighborhood development. But at the former car dealership site, where neighborhoods with drastically different demographics converge, all sides believed Price’s decision on what to build there would set the tenor of future development along the major thoroughfare.
But Robert Price, whose late father, Price Club founder Sol Price, started the foundation, wasn’t impressed with any of the proposals, including ones he sought himself.
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“We bought this property because we thought it was a very strategic property” located at the intersection of three neighborhoods, he said in an interview. “Nothing had come across that really struck us as being terribly profound.”
So a few months ago, he called the YMCA of San Diego County and said he’d heard the agency was raising money to renovate its 55-year-old City Heights facility. Price wanted to donate his land so YMCA could build a brand new, highly visible club on the vacant lot.
The YMCA’s board accepted his offer, and started drawing up plans for a $13 million, 50,000-square-foot facility that will include a health and wellness center, aquatics center, gym and outdoor soccer arena. It’s projected to open its doors in 2014.
Todd Gloria, the area’s city councilman, was pleased with the decision to put a YMCA there, saying the facility would help integrate City Heights and Kensington-Talmadge residents, who don’t often interact across the boulevard.
“You’re at the apex of three neighborhoods and the project there ought to be something that could tie those three neighborhoods together,” he said.
El Cajon Boulevard has long been both a geographic and symbolic boundary, separating the wealthier white neighborhoods of Kensington-Talmadge from the poorer, ethnic minority neighborhood of City Heights.
With each redevelopment opportunity, a central question looms: Will El Cajon Boulevard attract mainstream supermarkets and boutiques that Kensington-Talmadge residents have long wanted? Or will it continue reflecting the multiculturalism, social service needs and more modest buying power of City Heights?
During much of the 20th century, El Cajon Boulevard was San Diego’s main cross-city thoroughfare, until the completion of Interstate 8 in the 1960s. In recent years the boulevard has been trying to emerge from a decades-long economic decline that started with the freeway’s completion and was nudged along by the exodus of middle class families to newer northern neighborhoods.
Price said the YMCA would be “a good thing for everyone.”
But north of El Cajon Boulevard, Kelly Waggonner, chairwoman of the Talmadge Community Council, was less enthused about plans for the vacant lot. She and other residents had held out hope for a supermarket. “I would say that we were mildly disappointed,” she said. “We weren’t excited that it was a YMCA. But it was probably a nice middle ground. It certainly could have been worse.”
Even south of El Cajon Boulevard, the reception by leaders was measured. Diana Ross, director of the Mid-City Community Advocacy Network, a City Heights community collaborative, said Price’s decision had averted the gentrification that would have followed an upscale market. But she said the question remained whether the cost of YMCA programs like summer camps would make them as accessible to City Heights children as they would be to children north of El Cajon Boulevard.
“For people in City Heights, money can be a barrier to accessing services,” she said.
As both north and south have tried to tug El Cajon Boulevard in their direction, occasional disagreements, though civil, have highlighted how much of a border the boulevard can be.
A few Talmadge residents recently sued the San Diego Unified School District over plans to install stadium lights on the Hoover High football field, saying they feared nighttime events would bring a flood of traffic. But the school largely serves poor students from City Heights, and the lights’ supporters said allowing evening events would give students from neighborhoods south of El Cajon Boulevard safe options for nighttime activities.
And for about a year, business leaders in the Vietnamese community along the boulevard have been working to formally brand a stretch of the street as Little Saigon to promote the Vietnamese markets and restaurants that proliferate between Euclid and Highland avenues.
But their efforts encountered reluctance from neighbors to the north who said the designation could make it harder to bring in the mainstream businesses they wanted.
“To be really candid, we as a neighborhood, and I know Kensington feels the same way, we have so many international markets up and down El Cajon Boulevard already,” Waggonner said.
Kensington and Talmadge residents have at times felt left out of consideration as plans have developed for the boulevard’s economic revival.
Last week, the Local Initiatives Support Corp., a national nonprofit that has taken an interest in helping jumpstart El Cajon Boulevard’s economic revival, released a study meant to show potential investors that businesses have underestimated the buying power of residents living along the boulevard corridor.
But while the study area stretched several blocks south of El Cajon Boulevard into City Heights, it only extended a block north into Kensington-Talmadge, stopping short of the heart of those communities. That left northern residents to wonder whether the group that commissioned the study feared that demonstrating too much buying power might attract upscale markets.
Vicky Rodriguez, a LISC program director, said the study’s only intention was to demonstrate that a section of El Cajon Boulevard’s population that investors often write off actually has significant potential. “People presume that there’s not enough buying power here, but the data itself debunks that,” she said.
Rodriguez said she was hopeful that the new YMCA could catalyze the street’s revitalization, by attracting residents from both sides of the boulevard to spend more time there. The club expects its new location to serve more than double the 8,000 people its existing facility does.
But Waggonner said many Kensington and Talmadge residents, including her own family, have yet to decide whether they’ll use it. Their decision, she said, would depend on whether their existing memberships at Mission Valley and Kearny Mesa YMCAs would allow it.
“It’s a catch,” Rodriguez said. “With the YMCA coming in, there could be opportunity, especially when it comes to the El Cajon corridor area. But how it intermingles or intentionally makes itself a part of the community is a real critical piece.”