COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | VINCE VASQUEZ

The emerging public of East Village

This week, the San Diego City Council approved the creation of a private business marketing effort that can raise more public awareness to our dynamic urban core. Taking additional steps today can shape a new identity for downtown's largest neighborhood, which has struggled for years to improve its quality of life.

At issue are business improvement districts (BIDs), a public-private partnership that, under state law, promotes commercial and community activities by levying assessments on businesses. From financing streetscape improvements to creating distinctive neighborhood signage, BIDs are important revitalization tools that can perform a variety of services, which improve community image and work to attract, retain and expand local enterprise. The city of San Diego is home to 16 BIDs, the newest of which has emerged (with council approval) from the East Village neighborhood, the 130 block community on the eastern edge of the Centre City area that is in sore need of a stronger civic improvements.

Collecting up to $600 from each neighborhood business annually, the East Village Business Improvement District (EVBID) anticipates disbursing approximately $140,000 each year to promote business activities and public events in an area too often identified with social service providers and the approximately 4,100 homeless people that roam the city. Even now, after the large white temporary winter homeless shelter has been removed from the neighborhood, too many sidewalks are littered with the camping tents and make-shift shelters of transients that (under court order) cannot be vacated from dawn to dusk. Community crime is a fact of life that residents, including this author, have come to be aware of; according to statistics from the San Diego Police Department, 44 percent of all downtown violent crime incidents and 30 percent of property crime from January to May 2009 occurred in East Village. Anxiety and concerns about public safety and homeless policies reached a breaking point as residents organized a widely-attended East Village Safety & Quality of Life Forum on May 9, at which police officials and City Councilmember Kevin Faulconer spoke to the need to improve the neighborhood for residents. Today, after all the speeches have been forgotten, a renewed effort must be made to look at new fiscally-friendly ways to build an urban community teeming with pride and a distinctive identity that can be effectively marketed by BID boosters.

This task is made more challenging, as East Village has been redefined continuously throughout its short history. Originally, East Village was a commercial district for light industrial activity and storage warehouses in the late 1800s and early 19th century, but that gave way in the 1970s to a new direction set by the Centre City Development Corp. (CCDC), San Diego's downtown redevelopment agency. In the 1980s, boutique art galleries, loft residences and coffee houses appeared in what CCDC had termed a new arts and culture residential district, but many of these establishments have since closed or are open part-time due to economic constraints. Lacking an identity or central sense of belonging for decades, East Village stood alone among the other downtown neighborhoods as being, what Gary London called in November 2001, "functionally, geographically and philosophically detached from the others." The 2004 opening of PETCO Park has been a catalyst for new development and residential high-rises, but many of these structures have been designed as virtual fortresses from the urban blight, as only modest improvement has been made in public safety since that time; the total number of crime incidents in 2008 (696) were a mere 7.5 percent less than the tally in 2003, before the baseball stadium opened. The psychology of East Village is one that is still distinguished by partitioned, privatized spaces, an anomaly among other big cities in America. To make EVBID's efforts successful, new traditions must be planted that cultivate the civic pride and a sense of community that is only now budding between the cracks of the sidewalk.

East Village businesses should consider the need for a new annual neighborhood festival, a strong San Diego tradition that has been shared throughout the city for decades. From the Rolando Street Fair to RB Alive!, street fairs celebrate the vibrancy of a community, and are a fun gathering place for families, children and residents who would otherwise not interact and get to know each other, particularly in our urbanized, automobile-centric communities. More than a dozen neighborhood festivals in San Diego receive annual city subsidies totaling more than $120,000, but East Village lacks such an event (or financial support) today, which costs local neighborhoods anywhere from $11,000 of $100,000. Locations for such an event are unfortunately scarce, as only PETCO Park's 2.7 acre Park at the Park can accommodate the space for a neighborhood festival, but daily park rental costs have been pegged at $12,000 to $18,000, making fundraising difficult.

Councilmember Faulconer and the Padres should work together to make finances and logistics for an East Village neighborhood festival more feasible, as Park at the Park is the neighborhood's only community park. Beginning a dialogue today on a future neighborhood festival can not only compliment EVBID's attempts to market the community, but can create more awareness for the need for public life and public spaces downtown.

Though our downtown neighborhoods are undergoing upheaval in the housing market and commercial lease sectors, community leaders are still optimistic that its best days are still ahead. Said Connie Ellis, the elected East Village resident representative on CCDC's Centre City Advisory Committee, "East Village has a good sense of community...you get to know your neighbors, and there is so much opportunity here. I think as the years go on, more business will come to our vibrant neighborhood and share in our improving quality of life." As we wait for the eventual recovery of our national economy, San Diego can begin today to improve the human condition that gives rise to greater business revitalization.


Vasquez is the senior policy analyst at the National University System Institute for Policy Research. Send comments to editor@sddt.com. Letters may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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