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Residential construction spikes in Bankers Hill

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More than 450 multifamily units and at least 14,000 square feet of commercial space are in the works for Bankers Hill, with construction beginning on several projects, and at least one more expected soon.

Developments will range from ultra-luxury condos to boutique-designed apartments with affordable-housing options, and mid- to high-price townhomes, targeting a range of customers. Several projects are clustered on Fifth Avenue, north of Laurel Street, such as The Vue on Fifth. Demolition is imminent for the vacant Sixth Avenue Medical Building. Zephyr Partners said it closed on the property Friday.

“I think it’s the best neighborhood in San Diego,” said architect Lloyd Russell, who is developing the nearby Fourth Avenue Lofts. “And I think everyone else is figuring that out now, too.”

Russell’s 49-unit project is among the most recent to see dirt moving in the upscale neighborhood, also called Park West for its proximity to Balboa Park.

Russell, acting as architect, developer and builder, was inspired by the now-vacant site at Fourth Avenue and Palm Street overlooking Maple Canyon and just blocks away from the park, and foresees a rebirth to the area.

Russell describes his modern, four-story Fourth Avenue Lofts, as “more fine-grained” than corporate developments. Construction began two months ago and work is scheduled to be complete in spring or summer 2016.

A rendering of Fourth Avenue Lofts, developed by architect Lloyd Russell. The mixed-use project will offer 49 apartments, four of which will be priced for low-income households, and four units of commercial space on the ground floor. Image courtesy of Lloyd Russell

Three two-story office buildings — housing medical practices and other small businesses — were demolished at the west corner of Fourth Avenue and Palm Street, making way for the 65,901-square-foot mixed-use project with 49 apartments, four of which will be priced for low-income households.

Because of the affordable-housing component, the project requested and qualified for a 35 percent density bonus and other development incentives, according to city documents, allowing for 49 units instead of the zoned 36. The project was approved by a hearing officer in July.

Fourth Avenue Lofts will include four units of commercial space totaling 2,239 square feet on the ground floor — no specific plans for businesses tenants yet — and 55 underground parking spaces. Apartments will be a mix of studios, one-bedroom/one-bath, and two-bedroom/two-bath units. Solar panels on the roof will generate half the building’s energy needs.

Russell and his work have received many awards and recognitions, including two Orchids and the 2009 Grand Orchid for The Station in South Park.

Bankers Hill

The 92103 ZIP code (Bankers Hill, Hillcrest and Mission Hills) is 85 percent non-Latino white with a median age of 41, said Alan Nevin of Xpera Group. Only 10 percent of the population is younger than 20; 25 percent are married, but 50 percent never have been. More than 55 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Some 86 percent of the households have only one or two people; one-third of the households are owner-occupied; two-thirds rent.

The 2014 median price of a single-family house in 92103 was $865,000, according to the Greater San Diego Association of Realtors. The median price for an attached property last year was $450,000.

One reason why development in Bankers Hill is enticing is that does not have a 65-foot height limit like its northern neighbor, Hillcrest. Instead, the limit was made discretionary, said Leo Wilson, chair of the Uptown Planners Community Planning Group. Projects between 65 feet and 150 feet can go through a discretionary permit process.

“One reason those of us in Bankers Hill requested the discretion to build taller buildings was [that] it was felt new development would make our business district along Fourth and Fifth avenues more vibrant — and it certainly did,” Wilson said. “Our restaurant district is now one of the finest in San Diego. I remember when you had to drive into Hillcrest to go to a coffee shop.”

New rounds of infill development could trigger further urbanization for the neighborhood, already home to the iconic Bertrand at Mr. A’s, Croce’s Park West, Cucina Urbana and Bankers Hill Bar and Restaurant.

Recent business openings in the area include an artisanal food market on Fifth Avenue called Back to Roots, a juice bar called Juice Alchemy and Artisan Bento, from the owners of Azuki Sushi.

Many accountants, lawyers, doctors and other small businesses can be found in the area.

The late Graham Downes envisioned revitalizing Bankers Hill, beginning with a major mixed-use development at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Maple Street. He was enamored of the neighborhood’s topography and existing buildings, and planned to infuse the area with creativity, adaptive re-use and redevelopment, and make it the most desirable city village.

Regent, Vue on Fifth

Now, at the Mandarin House site — where Downes had once planned a boutique hotel that was to be complete by this year’s Balboa Park centennial — a 41-unit condominium is working its way through the approval process.

The Regent on 5th, at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Maple Street, could see ground broken this summer, said Bruce Leidenberger of La Jolla Pacific Development Group Inc., who is consulting on the project. In the environmental review process, the project could go before the Planning Commission in April, Leidenberger said. Uptown Planners voted unanimously in favor of the project after initial revisions.

Plans call for underground parking and retail space on the corner of the ground floor. Most of the building would be nine stories, Leidenberger said, but the northern third of the building would have a 10th story to accommodate two two-story penthouses.

Construction continues at Vue on 5th, a seven-story, 45-unit luxury condominium project from ColRich Communities, a downtown San Diego-based residential developer. The project, at Fifth Avenue and Nutmeg Street, directly south of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, hopes to offer a “new, modern standard of living” in the neighborhood.

Plans call for three street-level retail spaces on Fifth Avenue, and two levels of underground parking, accessed from Fifth. Units range from 1,318-square-foot flats to two-story penthouses of up to 3,720 square feet. Presales should begin offsite this spring and move-ins are anticipated this year. Prices will start in the high $600,000s.

The Park Bankers Hill

More construction is set to start to the north. Two blocks up the street, next to The Abbey on Fifth — a special event facility managed by Hornblower Cruises & Events — is the Sixth Avenue Medical Center. Zephyr Partners closed on the already entitled property Friday, after some 500 days on the market, with a sales price of $12 million, said partner Brad Termini.

The 13-story, ultra-luxury, high-end condo project “will be amenitized like no other building that’s ever been built in San Diego,” Termini said last week, and will likely feature the most expensive condos on the market.

With average unit sizes about 2,500 square feet, The Park Bankers Hill will target second-home buyers and move-down buyers who may have adult children. He described the condos as an “urban oasis” that would feel like vertical single-family homes, but also like a “private, exclusive club.” The 62 units will have private elevators, and a glass folding wall allowing for an oversized indoor-outdoor terrace. Low-rise townhomes will be built on the Sixth Avenue side of the block.

“We’re looking to cater to affluent buyers that are used to living in a luxury single-family home and are looking downtown, but don’t want to be in downtown,” Termini said. Zephyr Partners' website says prices will start at $1.5 million.

The project will also bring another 5,000 square feet of commercial space to the corridor on Fifth Avenue, and two-and-a-half levels of underground parking.

Demolition of the medical building is beginning this week and should last about four months, Termini said. An offsite sales center will open in April, and units will be ready early 2017.


A few blocks northwest, construction has started on a set of mid- to high-range 10 townhome units at the corner of Third Avenue and Upas Street, designed by H2 Hawkins + Hawkins Architects Inc.

The property was part of a $5.4 million multiproperty purchase by Jon Hammer of Hammer Ventures. The 2013 sale included about 34,000 square feet, including the San Diego Blood Bank, which has since been redeveloped into the 25-unit Structure Lofts, also designed by Hawkins + Hawkins.

The attached townhouses are considered “cloud condos,” said David Hawkins, meaning they aren’t part of a homeowners association, and owners essentially own the space from the ground to the clouds.

“They’re trying to be like a single-family home,” said Hawkins, president and principal architect of H2.

Each unit has its own garage, garage door and separate front door, and most have roof decks. They have a modern and contemporary design, and units are between 1,100 and 1,700 square feet. Hawkins expects construction to be complete in early 2016.

The firm is also in the design stage on a set of townhouses with a similar concept on Columbia Street, north of Laurel Street. Construction should start in the latter part of 2015, Hawkins said. The property is owned by Richard Montano and Matthew Gordon.

Broadstone Balboa Park

Further north, Broadstone Balboa Park is nearing completion. The Alliance Residential project at Fifth Avenue and Thorn Street is scheduled for completion this spring. The 100-unit midrise was designed by Carrier Johnson + Culture, and is described as “modern looks meet classic San Diego in a charming parkside setting.”

The seven-story building will be about 170,000 square feet, and will offer a mixture of historic bungalows, row houses, studios, one- and two-bedroom units and penthouse loft units.

Fifth and Palm

Later in the pipeline, Bankers Hill should expect to see twin midrises, known as Fifth and Palm. The Cushman family owns the block between Fifth and Sixth avenues, bounded by Redwood and Palm. There’s no timeline on the project, said Chris Fassler of Joseph D. Wong Architecture, although entitlements are complete.

The block is home to Extraordinary Desserts, Sanfilippo’s Italian Restaurant, Evolution Fast Food and a seasonal Christmas tree lot. An existing historical residential structure will remain along Sixth Avenue, and contain new restaurant and recreational facilities.

The 274,000-square-foot Fifth and Palm will combine a 145-unit multifamily market-rate rental building with a 66-unit extended-stay hotel component. The two towers will be a maximum 150 feet tall, with 37 spaces in three levels of underground parking.

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