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East Village is growing at a blistering pace.
Nearly 30 projects are planned or under construction in the neighborhood, some of which are part of a district that developers have imagined as a home for innovation, design, education and arts.
That’s why they’re calling it the IDEA District. Yet many of the new projects there are displacing all the elements it’s meant to embody. The art scene that’s survived for years in the neighborhood’s affordable warehouses is on its way out.
Developers David Malmuth and Pete Garcia, the architects of the IDEA District plan, imagine it as an urban center filled with housing, innovative tech and design jobs and educational institutions. The district’s workers and residents, according to the plan, will be “enriched by the arts.”
But there’s nothing official about the lofty goals of the IDEA District. They are not codified anywhere within the city’s development regulations. The district is not mentioned anywhere in the city’s official plan for downtown and East Village. It’s just a concept created by some private developers, which other developers can either adopt or ignore.
There are 13 active projects in the IDEA District, but only one is subject to the city’s policy that requires developers pay 1 percent of project costs on art or cultural space in their buildings. The policy applies mostly to office buildings, and there just isn’t much office space being built in the neighborhood.
A handful of developers are including art or event spaces in their buildings anyway, but the one thing most of the projects are missing is space in which artists can afford to live, work or showcase their work.
“It’s definitely a topic of ongoing concern in terms of keeping the East Village edgy and cool and not all homogeneous,” said Sumeet Parekh, a managing partner for HP Investors, a development company that’s behind several projects in the neighborhood.
HP Investors purchased the building that houses Space 4 Art, a collection of galleries, performance spaces and art studios. Parekh said it’s too early to say whether the project that replaces the building will include artsy tenants, but he said the company knows it needs to court cultural and creative clients and residents.
“It’s tough to make financial sense, but for us it’s finding a balance and making the argument to our partners and investors that preserving spaces for makers or artists is part of creating value, and it’s important,” he said.
Parekh said HP Investors is building projects that follow the IDEA District ethos, but whether the rest of the developers in the area do the same is an open question.
Relying on Developers’ ‘Enlightened Self-Interest’
Malmuth and Garcia’s first project, IDEA1, on the corner of F and 13th streets, should be finished by September. The IDEA District evangelists said the mixed-use commercial and residential project will include at least six rotating public art components.
They said the project will also include a central gathering space open to the public called The Hub where they envision film screenings, outdoor art exhibitions and other cultural events.
The developers hired Ginger Shulick Porcella, executive director of the San Diego Art Institute often credited for breathing new life into San Diego’s art scene, as a consultant to curate art for IDEA1 and programming for the community space.
Malmuth said he doesn’t know exactly how many of the area’s other projects will fit their vision for the IDEA District. He thinks developers who learn the neighborhood’s history and understand the market for future tenants will include art and cultural space out of “enlightened self-interest.”
Essentially, cool buildings filled with art and culture will be more lucrative than those without it, he said.
But at the prices Malmuth and Garcia are expecting to charge tenants of IDEA1, it’s unlikely many artists will end up living or working there.
Building spaces artists can afford is still a piece of the puzzle Malmuth and Garcia have yet to solve.
“It’s been a challenge because of the price of real estate and what happens with rents, it tends to drive that community to other places,” Malmuth said. “Not that we can solve that problem all by ourselves: We can’t.”
Makers Quarter Will Try to Keep Art Alive
Before the massive Makers Quarter development in the northeast corner of the IDEA District was announced, Stacey Pennington, an urban planner with the project, got the development team to agree to test the neighborhood and see what kind of people were interested in it.
Pennington enlisted San Diego artist Christopher Konecki, who put together a huge art show featuring over two dozen artists in one of the company’s empty East Village warehouses.
Hundreds of people showed up, which Pennington said helped convince the Makers Quarter development team – a partnership of Lankford & Associates, Hensel Phelps and HP Investors – that including art and community space in their projects was important.
Pennington and Konecki went on to help create Silo, a temporary outdoor mural gallery and event space in another of the company’s empty lots. The huge interest in the events and mural program at Silo, Pennington said, further proved that Makers Quarter’s final, five-block redevelopment plan within the IDEA District, which includes seven new and rehabbed buildings, needed to include a lot of public art and community event space.
Only one of the Makers Quarter projects, an office building that’s under construction, is required to include art under the city’s public art policy. But Pennington said the current development plans go beyond that, including significant public art elements on almost all of the buildings. They’ve kept Konecki as a consultant and he’s helping curate the art that ends up on the projects.
The mixed-use building that will replace the Silo event space, for example, will have several large rotating murals mounted on a parking structure that people will see when they exit the 94 freeway. Konecki said he wants to bring in international artists and feature their work alongside local artists.
A few of their projects also include swaths of outdoor space they’ll open to the public, and Pennington expects to host the same kind of community events that happened at Silo.
“I think the mark that Silo has made on East Village can’t be ignored by any future developments,” she said. “It’d be silly to ignore these very clear messages we’ve been able to collect from the community.”
For now, though, the public art and open space are just parts of plans. Final construction budgets could lead to either or both getting cut.
UCSD’s East Village Outpost Will Include Actual Space for Art
Quartyard, the temporary outdoor park at the corner of Market Street and Park Boulevard in East Village, quickly became a favorite gathering space for nearby residents. It includes a bar, cafe, restaurants, a stage and a small dog park, and the space has hosted dozens of concerts and other events since it opened a few years ago.
The Quartyard park quickly became the kind of innovative, artsy, community-building project envisioned by the IDEA District plan, but now it’s likely on its way out.
In its place is a project proposed by the developers Holland Partner Group, which could include a downtown satellite campus for UCSD in 66,000 square feet of the building.
Mary Walshok, UC San Diego’s associate vice chancellor for public programs and dean of extended studies, has been a longtime proponent of giving UCSD a home downtown, and said UCSD’s space in the building would include a 350-seat amphitheater and other venues specifically designed for hosting arts and culture events.
“Everybody talks about creating an arts and culture district, but most of the developers are trying to fill their buildings with businesses and renters and there’s not yet a really clear venue, place or hub for performances, for meet-ups, for galleries or for events in the East Village,” she said. “But the building we’re designing has those features.”
Trusting Developers to Do the Right Thing
Whether art ends up in the East Village is largely in the hands of developers. The city has no formal role in how the IDEA District develops.
The city once tried to set aside space for art in a private development in the East Village, but that experiment failed. The city also could have tweaked its public art policy for private development projects and made it a requirement for the type of mixed-use projects being built in East Village to include public art, but didn’t.
Garcia said while the city has been supportive of the IDEA District concept, leaders have largely remained on the sidelines. He said that’s OK, but now it’s more of a gamble to see what actually transpires in the neighborhood.
“When you grow organically, you run the risk that you may have some crappy stuff,” he said. “But you also have the beauty of having people come up with something even better than you.”