The scene could have taken place in the office of any big-time developer in town. A colorful map rested on an easel. A project director used inside baseball terms like “MOU” and “discretionary permit” to describe a plan calling for $500 million worth of new businesses and homes.
But the meeting actually took place at the nonprofit Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, which came to southeastern San Diego 18 years ago promising to help revitalize the long-neglected communities. The Jacobs Center delivered bricks and mortar when it opened the Market Creek Plaza shopping center at the corner of Market Street and Euclid Avenue in 2001. Then it went on a land-buying spree, eventually banking almost 60 acres around the plaza, which also houses the nonprofit’s headquarters.
The Jacobs Center reached its peak landownership about three years ago. Then struggles came. Businesses at Market Creek turned over. Plans for larger developments slowed. The organization lost its CEO and its COO when both left abruptly in August 2011. In the past six months, the nonprofit shed more than 40 percent of its workers through layoffs and restructuring. The center, which now has about 60 employees, ended last year with a budget deficit.
“Anytime you face that kind of situation, you must make course corrections,” said Reginald Jones, Jacobs’ new CEO.
The organization remains focused on development. It envisions a Walmart, a Walgreens, a health clinic, an In-N-Out Burger and other businesses as part of an urban village with 1,000 new homes, almost 300,000 square feet of retail space and 250,000 square feet of office space.
That’s what the community told Jacobs it wanted.
Joe Jacobs, the son of a Lebanese immigrant, started a small business in 1947 and turned it into a $5 billion engineering company. Jacobs and his wife, Vi, lived in the Los Angeles area, and their daughters introduced them to southeastern San Diego’s needs.
In 1995, the Jacobses created the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation as a branch of their existing Jacobs Family Foundation to make a long-term commitment to the community. The center currently has $153 million in total assets, according to the most recent tax records.
Joe Jacobs died in 2004, but his wife and family members still comprise the center’s board. The Jacobses are not related to Qualcomm founder and philanthropist Irwin Jacobs.
When the center first arrived, Jacobs employees went into southeastern neighborhoods and asked community members what they needed. Early on, they spoke with Ardelle Matthews, a longtime activist and coordinator with the Chollas View Neighborhood Council.
“Before that, there were many people interested in this community, but not really the force that Jacobs was,” Matthews said. “And he meant it.”
The center invested in health and art programs, safe routes to school and hosted neighborhood gathering after neighborhood gathering. Employees kept hearing that the community wanted physical things, too — businesses, restaurants and grocery stores. The foundation began to expand into a developer role.
Market Creek Plaza brought a Starbucks to the community, and it’s become a prime meeting spot. A Food 4 Less grocery store filled a longstanding need, even though it hasn’t resolved the district’s food access and affordability problems.
But other businesses at Market Creek, particularly the locally owned small ones, didn’t fare as well. A string of closures hit in mid-2010. Jacobs replaced them with more regional and national chains, and development mostly slowed.
Robert Robinson, who heads the Broadway Heights Community Council, recently pulled his $10,000 investment from Market Creek.
“There wasn’t nothing happening,” Robinson said.
Timelines for Jacobs’ larger urban village project have slipped, too. A Walgreens has been hung up in city permitting for 2 ½ years. A Jacobs official had once hoped to get a Walmart on its land by 2014. No deal with the company has been struck yet, and the center is now eyeing an opening in three or four years.
As building slowed, the center has faced more pressure to strike a balance between its role as a community organizer and its ambitions as a developer.
Organizers advocate for social change. Developers watch the bottom line.
“I think sometimes communicating the economic issues when you’re talking about social issues is difficult, particularly when you’re not looking at spreadsheets all day,” said Charles Davis, Jacobs’ project development director.
Jones, the new CEO, has been on the job since December. This week, he’s holding a neighborhood gathering to announce what he’s learned so far and where he wants to take the organization. He said he’s reevaluating the organization’s overall development plans, but is recommitting to building.
“We have to move from land banking to redevelopment,” Jones said.
Liam Dillon is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. He covers how regular people interact with local government. What should he write about next?
Please contact him directly at email@example.com or 619.550.5663.
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