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Cranes symbol of good things to come in downtown

If you sit on the left side of a plane making an approach into San Diego's Lindbergh Field, you can't miss the towering construction cranes downtown. Most of them are doing the heavy lifting for a building that will house dozens, if not hundreds, of condos or apartments.

And soon, downtown's skyline will be decorated with yet another crane -- one that many prominent locals will be pretty happy to see.

In late November, commissioners of the San Diego Unified Port District approved the coastal permit for a 1,200-room Hilton Hotel that will stand in the former Campbell Shipyard on the eastern edge of the San Diego Convention Center.

Pollution at the site has held up the hotel's permitting process for years -- much to the disappointment of Convention Center officials and boosters.

The hotel, they say, is the key to completing a vision of what the Convention Center can do for the city. Without it, the Convention Center can't reach its full potential, said April Boling, the chairwoman of the Convention Center Corp., who told port commissioners in November that the city had lost 55 conventions since 1999 because it lacked a "headquarters hotel" on the east side of the facility.

"Because of the enormous costs -- and hassles -- associated with busing attendees, meeting planners have sometimes been resistant to using the eastern-most exhibit halls," Boling said.

And the city invested heavily to build those eastern halls.

But boosters like Boling use more than the benefits the hotel would provide the Convention Center to try to shepherd the project through, they also like to highlight what the Hilton could contribute to the city -- that is, in terms of money.

City staff was disappointed in the November elections when a ballot initiative failed that would have raised the city's hotel-room tax and brought into city coffers an estimated $28 million. It was money, they said, that could be used for vital public safety needs.

If builders ever complete the Hilton, it could itself contribute up to an estimated $4.6 million a year in hotel-room Transient Occupancy Taxes, said Fred Sainz, vice president of public affairs for the Convention Center.

"For the city it is an absolute godsend," Sainz said. "We use downtown to market the Convention Center in terms of it being a compact, vibrant destination that's easily navigable by tourists. It's also easy for them to see the opportunities that exist here." And they see the cranes.

The Centre City Development Corp. (CCDC) is tracking 27 projects going up in downtown San Diego. The vast majority of them are condominium complexes. Officials there say 27,500 people live in the area and that number could go as high as 90,000 in 25 years.

Led by developers such as Intracorp, BOSA Development and The Douglas Wilson Cos., the vertical expansion promises to complete a revolution in the way many Southern Californians live.

But the growth is not without its challenges. The year saw many warnings that officials may not be fortifying downtown's infrastructure enough to sustain all the new weight.

That provoked the city to pass and begin implementing the first developer impact fee in downtown. While most jurisdictions in San Diego County already have such fees, CCDC had avoided implementing one in order to encourage development. Mission accomplished, said Derek Danziger, CCDC's communications director. The units coming on line now, he said, require the city to start collecting more money to handle their impact.

Danziger said the money would be set aside to pay for the construction of seven parks and two fire stations scheduled for completion by 2010.

"Our role as a redevelopment agency is to make sure infrastructure is being taken care of," Danziger said. Sherm Harmer, a developer and the chairman of the Downtown Residential Marketing and Builders Alliance, said downtown is experiencing an "orderly growth."

The amount of new condos and homes coming on the market is mitigated by the fact that they will all slowly come onto the scene, he said.

"These types of buildings are very difficult to build and they take a couple of years of planning alone," Harmer said.

As do the various features of a vertical urban core that make it livable. Harmer said planners have honed in on developing parks and reworking the long waterfront area.

The CCDC said one big part of the waterfront's redevelopment has already exceeded expectations: The U.S.S. Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum has attracted an estimated 500,000 people since it made the trip to San Diego and then across the bay for the last time in its long commission.

Combined with the inaugural year of Petco Park, the Midway immediately gave people a second new reason to visit the city's center.

"It's great for the city to rediscover its core," Danziger said. "You should have pride in your downtown no matter what area of the city you actually reside in." But should you live there?

While many baby boomers who have sent the kids packing are joining a much younger crowd to live in the new condominiums and apartments downtown, it's obvious who is not. Families with children have not participated in the new migration to the city's core. And while the city is making infrastructure improvements and opening up space for parks and other amenities, local officials have done little, according to builders, to instigate the creation of more schools.

Few schools mean few families, developers say. Harmer estimates that downtown developers have been charged $32.6 million in fees for schools but have yet to see a return on the investment.

"We will be knocking on the school district's door very soon," Harmer said.

Needless to say, attracting families to the city's core will be a long-term project.

"That will probably be the last demographic we see come into the area," Harmer said.

A similar worry arose over the last few years about the lack of office space being created. Some wondered if downtown residential development would squeeze out commercial enterprises, which had buoyed the central city area through many decades when the trend was for residents to move out of the area.

The steel framing is almost completed for an office tower that will house more than 450,000 square feet of prime office space. Developer Rob Lankford, of Lankford & Associates Inc., is constructing the building known as Broadway 655.

"Last year was the busiest year in the last 10 or so for office building," Danziger said.

Broadway 655 is "certainly a move in the right direction" toward complementing downtown's massive housing boom with enough places to house jobs for downtown residents and others.

Financing, Danziger said, has been the biggest obstacle to new office tower construction. While new housing projects can move forward with financing even though many of the future homes do not have residents, office developers tend to run into more cautious lenders, Danziger said.

Regardless of the office development, a new sense of neighborhood and European-style living has begun to settle in as a standard in parts of downtown. Little Italy's Marco Li Mandri, the president of the Little Italy Association and principle of the firm New City America, has guided his neighborhood into that situation. Anchored by a historic church and downtown's only public elementary school, Little Italy has become a model for urban living.

Li Mandri said, however, that until San Diego and downtown try to build more schools, it will never grow into the true self-sufficient community it has the potential to be.

"The lack of families is the weak link in downtown, and nobody's dealing with it," Li Mandri said in a recent interview.

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