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East Village grows up

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A year ago, downtown's East Village -- newly spotlighted by the opening of Petco Park -- was a neighborhood many San Diegans were discovering for the first time.

Today, the eclectic area -- where old abandoned warehouses and soup kitchens are giving away to high-rise condominiums, trendy restaurants and hip hotels -- is poised to fast-track its extreme makeover from blighted neighborhood to downtown's residential core.

"The stars have aligned for East Village," said Leslie Wade, spokesperson for the East Village Association. "The confluence of low-interest rates, high housing demand, a strong redevelopment agency and a new ballpark have accelerated the transformation of the neighborhood in a way that no one predicted. It's a very exciting place to be."

The addition of Petco Park has provided the East Village with the chance to experience the same revitalization that the more established downtown neighborhoods like the Gaslamp have under gone in recent decades.

According to Peter Hall, president and CEO of the Centre City Development Corp., the city's downtown redevelopment arm, "the ballpark's revitalization of the East Village has exceeded everyone's expectations."

In a recent "scorecard" of East Village ballpark ancillary development put out by CCDC, there currently are 39 public and private projects valued at $1.9 billion finished or in the works. These include 4,613 residential units, 747 hotel rooms, 665,870 commercial square feet and 2,960 public parking spaces.

The momentum fueled by the ballpark is set to launch the East Village into "a vibrant mixed-use, mixed-income community for all to enjoy," Hall said.

"In the next few years, East Village will turn into a thriving residential community with retail, entertainment and a new office tower."

With nearly $2 billion in private-public funds already pumped into East Village, plans call for an even greater financial investment in the area, adding civic infrastructure, such as a new main library, parks, two new fire stations and the $30 million Park-to-Bay Link.

City planners are proposing that East Village, which would be divided into four distinct neighborhoods, be reincarnated as "downtown's highest-intensity residential-emphasis district, with a population of nearly 20,000, or more than 20 percent of downtown's total."

Residential renaissance

More than 4,000 residential units currently are planned or under construction in the East Village district, with an average price above $500,000. Even as waiting lists form long before buildings are completed, no one expects East Village to mature overnight. And many, like Wade, don't want it to.

"It should be an organic process, with residents and merchants driving it, not just bureaucrats," Wade said.

But change is happening rapidly, with the constant construction and growing density signifying substantial "smart growth."

Just a half-dozen years ago, developer Doug Wilson said many in the community didn't share his optimistic views of the area.

He ventured into East Village in the late 1990s to build the neighborhood's first major for-sale project, Parkloft. His belief in what Petco Park would do for the community never wavered, but was certainly put to the test during the 16 months the ballpark was stalled in litigation when he continued construction of the project.

"I kept the faith and knew that the ballpark was the development engine needed to catapult the revitalization of East Village and ensure a vibrant downtown," said Wilson, president and CEO of the Douglas Wilson Cos.

Wilson continues to be bullish on the area and now is building his second East Village residential project, The Mark, a 32-story, 244-unit luxury high-rise tower adjacent to Parkloft just blocks from Petco Park.

Other major builders - many with roots in suburban development - have been quick to flock to this emerging urbanized area.

Karen Ness, vice president of marketing for Centex Homes San Diego, said sales and interest in its two east downtown communities, Element and Nexus, continue to keep pace with expectations. "Buyer enthusiasm is high and all current buyers are anxious to move in and begin enjoying the downtown lifestyle."

Urban living

The East Village is much more than just a ballpark and residential towers. It's the downtown lifestyle -- bursting with cultural, recreational and business opportunities -- that developers and city boosters alike are touting.

From new additions such as Café Chloe and the Mission Restaurant, to old watering holes such as The Honey Bee Hive and Jewel Box, the neighborhood struggles to retain its heritage while updating its urban charm.

More and more businesses are setting up shop in the trendy neighborhood that has for years lacked basic retail services.

Right now, 365,000 square feet of retail space is planned or under construction in the area, including a new Albertsons grocery store at 14th and Market, according to a report recently produced by Burnham Real Estate Service's Urban Retail Group. Much of this retail construction is on the lower floors of condominium projects, with the flood of new residents driving demand for more shops and services.

Nearly 63 percent of the 1.3 million square feet of retail space coming into downtown is in East Village. The biggest pieces are around the ballpark.

Approximately 150,000 square feet of "destination retail" is planned for East Village Square, a three-city block mixed-use master plan development by JMI Realty, developer of Petco Park and the surrounding 26-block Ballpark District.

According to John Kratzer, president and CEO of JMI Realty, East Village Square will extend the revitalization of J Street and provide an exciting retail and entertainment connection to the Gaslamp Quarter.

"There's been no shortage of retailers who've recognized the demand but who haven't to this point been able to find a home in the area," said Kratzer, who also is overseeing the proposed 7-acre, $1.4 billion Ballpark Village.

Across from Petco Park, Ballpark Village would be the area's most expensive project ever and would, for the first time downtown, bring together affordable and market-rate condominiums, as well as four public plazas and a tree-lined link between Balboa Park and San Diego Bay.

Though no specific designs currently exist, Ballpark Village likely will include five towers, at least two with more than 40 stories, and as many as 1,500 condominiums and apartments, plus offices, retail stores and a hotel.

More than 900 hotel rooms are already built in the East Village, including the 512-room Omni (developed by JMI), 306-room San Diego Marriott Gaslamp Quarter (the former Clarion at Sixth Avenue and K street that underwent a $45 million renovation), and the 235-room Hotel Solamar, a Kimpton Hotels property at Sixth Avenue and J Street.

The Omni hotel contributes 512 rooms to the more than 900 rooms built in the East Village alone.

Hotel Solamar, a 235-room Kimpton Hotels property, has enjoyed immense popularity since its opening in the East Village.

Jerry Parent, director of sales and marketing for Solamar attributes the hotel's "phenomenal popularity" to the East Village's growing reputation for hosting the city's "hottest gathering spots."

"Diversity, creativity and new finds are visible on every block. Our guests are interested in the great shopping and dining of the Gaslamp, but also want to be part of the cooler, hipper scene in East Village," said Parent, noting the hotel's popular Jbar, a fourth floor tropical oasis with swimming pool and bar.

Growing pains

There is some concern among leading developers and area advocates that the city's ongoing pension crisis and leadership turmoil could impede East Village's massive makeover.

"The East Village is poised to absorb most of the city's future density, but with no guarantee that the city will provide the infrastructure need to guarantee a good quality of life," Wade said.

"I'm very worried that just when the redevelopment agency is finally producing real revenues that are supposed to be put back into the community to build parking, parks, fire stations and other facilities, that newly elected officials might try to siphon off revenues to cure the city's pension problems," she said.

Kratzer also said there's a lot of uncertainty in the city right now and "time is the enemy."

The original schedule for his Ballpark Village called for planning to start this fall with completion in five years. But delays in city approval make that timeframe doubtful.

"There are a lot of great things the people of San Diego would benefit from," Kratzer said. "With 7 acres of land together, it is a huge planning opportunity that has never presented itself. It could be cut up into parcels and subdivided, but the community wants to do something bigger and better."

Esterbrooks is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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