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Golden Hill redevelopment effort fights against economic doldrums

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Few communities are as suited for the "City of Villages" vision of San Diego as Golden Hill. Recent and current projects are seeking to strengthen the neighborhood's dense, walkable identity.

Located east of downtown, south of Balboa Park and north of the I-94 freeway, Greater Golden Hill has been the subject of a community growth plan since 1988.

In that time, South Park, located immediately north, has successfully developed into the sort of dense residential community with a critical mass of retail options in close proximity. Sherman Heights, immediately south of Golden Hill, hasn't seen much in the way of commercial or residential development at all.

Literally and figuratively, Golden Hill sits in the middle.

"Few projects have come to fruition in Golden Hill," said Paul Broadway, president of the Greater Golden Hill Community Development Corporation (GGHCDC). "South Park has done well. Golden Hill deserves and needs improvement."

The MXD830 building on 25th Street in Golden Hill, anchored by Counterpoint wine bar, is one of the first projects completed by developer Mike Burnett, who dreams of revitalizing the neighborhood into a walkable village. Staff photo by Laura Hansen.

Development or redevelopment projects in Golden Hill, a Planned District Ordinance (PDO) and designated historic district, are limited to two stories.

Because of that, everything needs to be geared to density, according Broadway.

"It's a residential community in a very urban center," he said. "We love any new development that corresponds to the construction allowed in PDOs."

It isn't a high-risk development proposition compared with some other San Diego neighborhoods, according to Michael Stepner of the NewSchool of Architecture + Design, which is why it isn't a formal redevelopment project.

"It needs improvements in infrastructure, park space, public facilities, street facilities and some selective infill," Stepner said.

He referred to the sort of improvements needed in Golden Hill as "urban acupuncture" -- slight interventions that improve a neighborhood, but aren't wholesale parcel redevelopments.

It might mean small-scale mixed use on commercial strips and major large-scale projects.

"You don't want that, because it would change the character of the area," he said.

The 25th street corridor, running through the heart of the neighborhood at the cross-section of Broadway, is the primary focus of the GGHCDC.

Mike Burnett of FoundationForForm Architecture & Development focused on the portion of the corridor south of Broadway when he set out to develop the MXD830 commercial spaces building at 830 25th street.

North of Broadway, the street is lined with successful eateries the Turf Club, Krakatowa and Luigi's Pizza, more closely resembling the atmosphere in South Park, according to Burnett. South of Broadway exhibits the neighborhood's underserved potential.

"If you're going to spend energy and money, might as well make a difference," he said.

The building is anchored by a restaurant space on the ground floor, home to wine bar Counterpoint, and includes both urban residential units and design office spaces, built around a central courtyard area.

The high-design concept sits between a Shell station to its south, and a historic home to its north.

"It's near the freeway and next to the gas station, doesn't typically lend itself to people wanting to rent," Burnett said. "But if you make it interesting architecture and bring in a great tenant, it can work."

The building came online in the grips of the depression, the worst time for a new restaurant to take residence in a developing neighborhood. Rather than jump at the first option, Burnett used the space to host art shows as a gallery while waiting for the right opportunity.

"We've always been about bringing some nighttime activity that pushes away gang activity or other things that you don't really want in a neighborhood," he said. "Having an effect on the sidewalk is always the goal. (Counterpoint) as our front door has been very successful. It brings activity on the street and keeps away things that may be bad."

Broadway called the project a "coherent part of the revitalization plan" that the neighborhood has accepted with open arms.

In May, the Urban Land Institute awarded the project the Mixed Use Award in its annual Awards of Excellence.

After the success of the 830 building, Burnett is now developing a like-minded property across the street, at 811 25th street.

The property is currently home to a shuttered auto shop. The project is still in the early phase of development, with Burnett still exploring possible tenants and deciding how he wants to proceed.

SWS Engineering is the project's civil engineer.

Burnett declined to offer a timeline on the project's completion.

"Those projects will be the catalyst for bigger developers to come in and feel comfortable making investments there," he said.

The federal government recently closed Golden Hill's post office, on C Street, between 27th and 26th Streets. The building has sat vacant ever since.

Broadway thinks the building could be another hub of redevelopment in the community.

"I'd like to hear what the federal government plans to do with that building," he said. "It's absolutely an historic, ugly government building. Would need some façade or redevelopment work, but that's something I'd like to see in the future."

Stepner agreed that the post office is ripe for adaptive re-use.

"It will happen, but right now things are slow because of the economy," he said. "Golden Hill doesn't require as much as some neighborhoods that have seen disinvestments over the last 30 years. It needs small-scale intervention, and it'll improve as the economy improves."

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