There’s something strange happening in Oceanside.
A surge of development is revitalizing the city’s downtown, right along the coast – and the city’s residents seem to be in favor of it.
A handful of projects are moving forward in downtown Oceanside, with buildings reaching four to eight stories going up and little in the way of community opposition rallying against them.
Though it feels sudden, the plan to transform downtown has been in the works for decades, following years of planning, a pause from the recession and a lawsuit that held things up even further.
But now, construction is happening rapidly. The plan focuses on a nine-block area bounded by The Strand, Cleveland Street, Seagaze Drive and Civic Center Drive.
“We’re about to explode with this nine-block plan,” said Rick Wright, executive director of MainStreet Oceanside, a nonprofit that promotes economic development in downtown Oceanside. “This is all coming into fruition all of a sudden.”
The city started the plan to revitalize downtown Oceanside in the ‘90s. It went through years of negotiations – over community concerns, like parking, and for approval from the state’s Coastal Commission.
These nine blocks are also adjacent to the city’s North County Transit District station. The transit agency and city are in discussions about potentially developing the land around the transit center.
This transit hub is one of the most widely used in the state: It’s the southernmost stop for MetroLink, a Los Angeles commuter line, the northernmost stop for San Diego’s coastal commuter rail, the Coaster, and the westernmost stop for the Sprinter, North County’s light rail line.
Oceanside Deputy Mayor Chuck Lowery, who lives right by the downtown area, said as a resident he had to come to terms with the planned changes to his community, like increased density and building heights.
“We just realized that this is OK,” Lowery said. “We still have a very livable community, even though we have focused on a developed downtown.”
Once everyone finally agreed on a plan, the recession hit.
Then, after the recession passed, attorney Cory Briggs sued the city on behalf of San Diegans for Open Government, over a decision to grant a resort hotel project – one of the centerpieces of the downtown renovation – a $13.69 million tax subsidy. A court ruled in favor of the city in October. Briggs appealed that decision and the case is ongoing, but the city is working with the developer anyway to finalize the project’s permit application. It’s unclear whether the developer will hold off on submitting the final plans until a court hears the appeal.
Two hotels that are part of the downtown plan are already up and running. Another four-story, mixed-use development is under construction.
“After decades of sitting there looking at vacant lots in a Southern California beach town – unheard of – it’s going to fill up all of a sudden,” Wright said. “I don’t think people realize this was sitting here waiting to happen at the right time.”
Oceanside developed differently than other coastal communities in North County, said Kristi Hawthorne, event coordinator of the Oceanside Chamber of Commerce and president of the Oceanside Historical Society.
Before World War II, Oceanside was a commercial hub.
In the 1920s the city had the first high school in the region, where students came from as far as Del Mar to attend, she said. It also had the first national department store in the region, JC Penney. The city continued to boom throughout the World War II thanks to Camp Pendleton.
“We were the happening place to go,” Hawthorne said.
But in the 1960s, there was a mass commercial exodus from downtown Oceanside. A mall opened in Carlsbad, and Oceanside businesses, including the JC Penney, left to open shop there. Anti-military protestors took to Oceanside over the Vietnam War because of its proximity to Camp Pendleton.
Other coastal towns stayed small and quaint during Carlsbad’s boom, said Hawthorne. But Oceanside had a lot to lose.
“Now there was no reason to come to downtown Oceanside anymore,” she said. “Oceanside had its darkest hours in the late ‘70s and ‘80s. We go from being the shining example of a coastal city to being a second-class city in people’s eyes.”
Industrial development and neighborhoods continued to expand eastward, but the downtown coastal area filled with dilapidated and vacant store fronts, motels, military surplus stores and dry cleaning. The pier was also falling down. Downtown was crime-ridden and far from family-friendly, said Hawthorne.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the long-range planning to give downtown a facelift began, Hawthorne said. The city renovated the pier and built a new civic center in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. And in 1996, the Regal Cinemas came downtown, said Hawthorne.
The seemingly sudden renovation of downtown isn’t sudden at all, she said.
“If you start building things to get people to come downtown, they will come downtown again,” Hawthorne said.
Lowery said there’s a lot of cash flow going into the tourist-oriented plans for downtown Oceanside. But the rest of Oceanside is also changing.
There’s a secondary wave of business interests going in east of I-5, Lowery said.
“It’s really great to see what’s happening downtown and we’re using that literally as a kick-off,” he said.
For example, the first Starbucks is about to be built in the neighborhood of Posole, which has traditionally been lower-income and plagued with gang violence.
Some in the city are wary of how the surge in investment downtown will affect the city’s lower-income residents, who live in neighborhoods like Posole, and their ability to afford to live in Oceanside.
“We have goals for affordable housing and we are unfortunately very far behind those goals,” said Lowery.
In 2011, hoping to spur development, the city slashed the fee it charges developers if they don’t include low-income units in their residential projects. That set the city back in providing more low-income housing, but in May 2015, the City Council reversed course and increased the fee.
Right now, all the city’s affordable housing funds go toward a 288-unit, low-income complex east of I-5 called Mission Cove. The city purchased the land for low-income housing, intending to use the state’s redevelopment program, which helped cities rebuild rundown areas. But redevelopment ended, leaving the city to fund the project over time as funds drip in.
But the fee increase might have promising results.
A proposed 328-home development, Villa Storia, opted to include 38 low-income units in its project, rather than pay the fee.
Lowery said he hopes the development will set a precedent so that future market-rate developments will include low-income housing.
“Oceanside has long been the most affordable coastal community in Southern California,” said Hawthorne. “We’re finding ourselves again and people are rediscovering us.”