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Mercado del Barrio a long-awaited catalyst for Barrio Logan

After 20 years in the making, project will open its doors next month

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Located near the Coronado Bridge overpass, Mercado del Barrio sits on 133 acres of formerly vacant land.The development will house a Northgate Market, retail and affordable housing.

A mixed-use project with low-income apartments, a grocery store, restaurants, retail and a parking structure will be ready for occupancy this September, more than a month ahead of schedule, in Barrio Logan.

The Mercado del Barrio, envisioned as a catalyst for revitalization in the neighborhood, has been 20 years in the making, stalled by political wrangling, controversies and a slow economy.

Located near the Coronado Bridge overpass between Cesar E. Chavez Parkway and Chicano Park, it spans two city blocks and sits on 133 acres of formerly blighted, vacant land.

Construction began last year in March and was scheduled to be completed at the end of October 2012, around Halloween.

Chelsea Investment Corp., the affordable housing developer that will also manage the residential portion of the property, said the 92 apartments that sit on top of ground-floor retail shops will be ready for occupancy as early as September, but definitely by the beginning of October.

"We're definitely ahead of schedule, by about 30 to 45 days," said Tim Baker, Chelsea's project manager. "Not every project comes in early. It's usually a struggle, but we're getting ready for occupancy."

The apartment building is fully framed, stucco work has been completed, and Chelsea is installing the finishes.

On the commercial side, Shea Properties is completing 42,000 square feet of ground-floor retail and restaurant space and a three-story parking garage. It has used PCL Construction as the general contractor for the project.

A Hispanic grocery store, Northgate Market, takes up a 36,000-square-foot building in the complex. Area residents previously had to travel three miles to Southcrest for groceries, which was a challenge because not everyone has transportation.

The residential complex is about 90 to 95 percent complete, Baker said. Although there's still a lot of final work going on, the scaffolding has been taken down, and painting is completed. Chelsea's general contractor is Emerson Construction.

The next step will be fixtures, carpeting and appliances, which will be done soon.

"It's going to be a good-looking building — a standout, keystone project in that whole community. Being next to the bridge lends it visibility," Baker said.

He credited architectural firm Safdie Rabines with having done an excellent job, resulting in a much more aesthetically appealing building than they had expected.

Chelsea will handle the leasing to low-income tenants through its leasing management company, CIC Management. As of early August, it had 10 approved residents and has been interviewing about 50 applicants a week.

Households with income at or below 60 percent of the median area income are eligible to apply to rent the apartments, but the exact figure varies depending on the size of the household.

CIC Management oversees 5,000 units in Central and Southern California, as well as Arizona. It focuses entirely on affordable housing, which, depending on location, is intended for households with roughly $15,000 to $35,000 in annual income.

This is a niche market that has experienced burgeoning demand with the Great Recession and falling affordability. Despite this, there are factors that have reined in development and hobbled it.

"With redevelopment agencies — which were a major source for funding — being dissolved, we're in an environment where funding is a significant issue," Baker said. "There's been a lot of talk in Sacramento about finding other sources; those haven't come to fruition yet."

Funding has put a strain on the industry, but on the flip side, demand has never been greater because of population growth and the economy.

The sector comprises several demographics, not just families with children, as Baker pointed out.

Aside from families, there are low-income seniors, people with mental health issues and the physically disabled who need affordable housing.

"There's never been a time when there's been a greater need for it across populations. The question is where do you get funding for it," Baker said.


-Nagappan is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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