El Cajon Boulevard is about to become a test case for San Diego’s vision of a neighborhood packed with dense, affordable urban housing.
The question is whether public funds and community plans will keep up with the boulevard’s development boom.
Running from North Park out toward San Diego State University and La Mesa, El Cajon Boulevard passes through eight diverse communities, including Normal Heights, University Heights, City Heights and Kensington-Talmadge.
More than 800 new rental units will start construction along the boulevard in the next two years. For comparison, about 500 new units went up in the entire decade from 2005 to 2015.
The corridor also received heavy public investment recently, including the full restoration of the Lafayette Hotel, which planners call the “jewel” of El Cajon Boulevard, and the $44 million bus rapid transit project that debuted last year.
That, plus a gradual increase in land values, piqued developers’ interest, including major developer H.G. Fenton and a group of developers who’ve planned a multimillion-dollar project with workshop, restaurant and kitchen space meant to be a business incubator.
About a dozen other projects are headed for construction and include mixed-use apartment buildings and affordable housing developments, one of which will cater to low-income LGBT seniors.
Andrew Malick, a residential developer with two projects in the works in the area, said the fact that the boulevard is underdeveloped, combined with its high-density zoning, makes it an urban developer’s dream.
He envisions the boulevard as a place with mom-and-pop shops and restaurants on the ground level and tall stacks of affordable apartments up top, along with townhouses and plenty of green space, like you might see in Seattle or Portland.
“It has the ability to be one of those great civic spaces,” he said. “It’s in a walkable, bikeable neighborhood, it’s not far from the park, there’s a lot of underdeveloped land, there’s no height limit — the zoning laws allow for an urban street with taller buildings that create this enclosed space.”
El Cajon is one of the last large parcels of land in San Diego that meets these criteria. And since it’s a six-lane road that was once part of a transcontinental highway, planners say it can handle the traffic and space problems that come with dense urban development.
Tootie Thomas, president of the Boulevard Improvement Association’s board of directors, has a simple message for neighboring communities.
“Give us all of your density,” she said. “If there’s a corridor here that can handle it, it’s El Cajon Boulevard.”
There are still some hurdles developers and planners have to clear. Chief among them is getting everyone on the same page.
“We’re all moving in the same direction,” said Beryl Forman, marketing director of the BIA. “What has been the problem is there are these vying community plans. What’s happening out here on the boulevard might not be happening eight blocks down on the boulevard.”
There are eight different community plans — long-term outlines for future development — along the boulevard, and they’re all more than a decade out of date. A few are in the process of being updated, and North Park’s is expected to be completed in 2016.
Vicki Granowitz, head of the North Park Planning Group, sits on the BIA’s economic development committee. She said North Park residents have the typical concerns over dense development: parking, traffic and gentrification.
It’s a catch-22, she said.
“People are afraid of gentrification and afraid of gridlock, but the only way you get people out of their cars is if you have density,” she said.
At the same time, there’s no doubt about the housing shortage in San Diego, and redeveloping land with eight stories of apartments in place of a two-story house is one way to fix that problem.
“People are beginning to understand that if you want to save the neighborhoods, the density needs to go somewhere,” Granowitz said. “And El Cajon Boulevard is where it needs to go.”
But settling on one vision for a boulevard that runs through eight communities isn’t the only problem planners face.
El Cajon Boulevard has a sticky reputation as the city’s prostitution hotspot. Boulevard planners and developers say it is a stigma that’s been hard to shake.
That might be because some parts of El Cajon Boulevard still look like they did back when sex workers walked them in broad daylight.
“What we see when we drive down the boulevard is different from what someone else sees driving down the boulevard,” said Dave Iwashita, one of the developers behind the renovation of the Lafayette Hotel and Swim Club on the boulevard’s west end.
And it’s true — though several new, popular spots line the boulevard, including the Lafayette, there’s also plenty of cracked sidewalk and dilapidated buildings with peeling paint and signs missing a letter or two.
Part of the reason for that is that El Cajon Boulevard has seen more commercial development on its west end, near the Lafayette and high-traffic businesses on the further-developed University Avenue.
Iwashita said once the Lafayette rehab wrapped, property owners started hearing from developers.
“Everyone’s bought everything up,” he said.
But that’s not true on the eastern end of the boulevard, where planners say developers aren’t offering what property owners are asking for their space.
“You can get people with right price — the hope is that either the land values will come up to meet that, or they’ll see the other development and say, ‘Why don’t I go along with that,’” said John O’Connor, secretary for the BIA’s Board of Directors.
“With economic development, that’s what we’re hoping to see snowball.”
That’s where the city’s investment comes in. BIA leaders say it’s hard to get businesses to invest in the boulevard — simply put, parts of it are ugly. And so far, the city has been stingy with its funding for fixing up sidewalks and adding crosswalks, streetlights and bike lanes.
“Public improvements need to balance our efforts,” Forman said. “Yes, we’ve done 20 years of public improvements, but there’s more to do.”
Right now, the BIA and its economic development committee are focusing on six concentrations of commerce and transit on the boulevard. The theory is if someone goes shopping in Kensington-Talmadge, for example, they might then wander down to eat Vietnamese in Little Saigon. As each area succeeds, the spaces between them will start to fill in.
But in order for that to happen, Thomas said, people need to feel comfortable walking the length of the boulevard.
“If you feel it’s safe, it’s clean, it’s well-lit, it’s green, you’re going to walk that area a little bit more,” she said.
There’s no quick solution, but Forman said she has high hopes for an Urban Land Institute task force, where development experts would come together and devise a boulevard improvement plan that would hopefully bring together all the competing interests along El Cajon.
But the vision for the boulevard won’t become a reality unless the city supports walkable spaces as much as it does drivable ones, she said.
“Why is it so much more difficult to fix sidewalks than to fix a pothole where cars drive?” she said. “If we make those public improvements, private investment will follow.”