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A wave of development may be transforming Imperial Beach.
The 27,000-person coastal city closest to the border has often been overlooked because of concerns over crime and pollution. It was often considered not only the most affordable coastal town in San Diego, but one of the more affordable places in the county overall.
But a big hotel project opened in 2013 has brought new investment.
There are several major developments either slated to start construction soon or are awaiting final approval. The development surge is being touted for increasing the local housing supply and adding new commercial amenities for Imperial Beach residents, and for boosting local tourism, too.
“People have always overlooked Imperial Beach as being dirty,” said Jed Bratt, a real estate agent living in Imperial Beach. “In late 2013, Pier South opened and from that point on, Imperial Beach took an incredible turn. Small businesses got facelifts and began to expand. It’s just really starting to take off.”
Many of the projects were started years ago, but with the end of the state’s tax-funded redevelopment program, which helped cities rebuild rundown areas, they were put on hold indefinitely.
One such project is the Breakwater Town Center, a large commercial and retail center expected to start construction at the end of February. It will include IB’s first national grocery chain.
The developer, Sudberry Properties, first began working on the project in 2009.
“We stuck tight and it ended up being great that we waited,” said Estean Lenyoun, who is leading the project at Sudberry. “We’re excited to participate in the pivotal transformation of the city.”
The Breakwater Town Center will be the final project in a trifecta that will begin the transformation of Imperial Beach, said Lenyoun. The other two projects were Pier South, a resort hotel on the coast, and its restaurant, the Sea 180, from the Cohn Group, a prolific local restaurateur.
“Those two have very much been a catalyst and a catapult for the city to embrace another level of recognition and transition,” Lenyoun said. “And the only thing to add to those two would be a real town center.”
Other major projects in the works include Bernardo Shores, which will construct more than 180 new townhomes in the site of a former RV park, the Bikeway Village, which will redevelop two warehouses adjacent to the Bayshore Bikeway to include a bicycle repair shop, a café and maybe even a hostel to boost tourism, and a second resort hotel on the beach on the site of a rundown hotel.
There are also a few smaller housing developments in the works, including one at the site of an old mortuary. The lease of the Tin Fish, the restaurant at the end of IB’s pier, will be up in 2016 and the city is looking at what to do next with the commercial space. The city’s public library, a building that’s been around for about 50 years, is also undergoing a major renovation.
One of the most surprising things, though, is that there has been nearly no has been very little opposition at public meetings to any of the projects so far, said Tyler Foltz, a senior planner at the city’s planning department.
People living in Imperial Beach are concerned about things like parking and community character, Foltz said. They don’t want to intensify things too much and lose the laid-back character of the city. But so far community members have been participating in the process without resisting the new projects.
“The people who have lived here for a long time just view it as a treasure,” Foltz said. “But there have been changes over many years that allow the people who live here to really enjoy it more.”
Another concern, said Foltz, is keeping housing costs from rising too much with the new developments.
“We wouldn’t want to have things where people get priced out of anything, but at the same time allowing owners of properties to be able to propose projects,” he said.
Bratt conducted a survey of about 120 Imperial Beach residents to gauge their feelings on the wave of new development in the city. Seventy percent of respondents said they felt the Pier South had a positive impact on Imperial Beach. About 65 percent said they supported the other new developments in the city.
Anonymous comments in the survey expressed more varied opinions.
Some embraced the city’s changes: “My husband and I grew up in IB, graduated from Mar Vista…… and moved back about 5 years ago and we are thrilled with the change. There are no more gangs and it’s safe to walk the streets in the evening not to mention how much cleaner the city is.”
Others were more resistant: “I don’t know why people are always trying to ‘fix’ IB. We like it the way it is, or we wouldn’t continue to live here. Let us continue to be the funky little town down by the border. We’re not fancy. If you want fancy, move to Coronado!”
Ron Chapman helped set up the Imperial Beach location for the Coronado Brewing Company, which opened in fall 2014. Chapman said he’s had his sights on the city since 2008, but didn’t find the right building until five years later.
“It’s been phenomenal, well beyond our expectations,” Chapman said. “There were so few options in IB for dining, so we thought there was nothing like it down there at the time. We thought it would be worth the risk.”
And it has been, he said. Chapman said he enjoys the “bedroom community” feel of Imperial Beach, where he often sees the same customers three or four times a week. It’s different than Coronado, which has a strong military presence and a lot of tourism.
Imperial Beach is changing, though, he said. A Naval Special Warfare campus being built in the existing Silver Strand Training Complex is expected to bring many more military families to Imperial Beach, said Chapman. He also expects tourism to grow, with the recent opening of Pier South and the new resort hotel that will be built in the next few years.
“I just hope it doesn’t change too much,” said Chapman. “It’s one of the slowest beach communities in San Diego. It reminds me of Coronado in the ‘60s. I’d like for businesses here to be able to grow a little, but I don’t want IB to change too much.”