East Village – The final phase of Downtown revitalization
By Michael Stepner and Cary Lowe
Downtown San Diego, along with many other central city neighborhoods, has undergone enormous revitalization in recent years. Downtown, in particular, has been a poster child for eliminating “blight” through redevelopment, under the auspices of the Centre City Development Corp.
The East Village, already home to a baseball park and several educational institutions, is the last major component of Downtown to undergo revitalization. Property owners, residents and government officials are pondering some key questions: What other kinds of development and activities belong there? Could it include an arts district? How about the proposed new football stadium?
To many, East Village is merely a place you pass through on your way Downtown. Others think of it mainly as the location of Petco Park, or as a huge homeless encampment and a focus for city social services. Yet others see it as a blighted area without redemption unless and until it provides a new stadium location for the San Diego Chargers.
Nevertheless, some visualize East Village as a burgeoning arts district given vitality and life by such institutions as the SDSpace4Art and the Periscope Project and numerous students make it one of the largest higher education campuses in the region.
In reality, it is all of the above. It is and will be much more.
Neighborhood revitalization has been under,way in East Village for a long time and is likely to continue in many ways for a long time to come. Petco Park is often hailed as the catalyst for the Village’s revitalization, but it was only one step in the process. There has been a continuous process of building new housing while also converting warehouses into residential lofts and into studios for artists, designers and entrepreneurs.
East Village is one of the major higher education centers in our region. At the north end, San Diego City College has an enrollment of close to 20,000 students and a campus that is continually expanding with new facilities and programs. A little further south, at F Street and Park Boulevard, resides the NewSchool of Architecture & Design with 650 students studying architecture, landscape architecture, construction management and digital media arts. NewSchool’s architectural program already is one of the nation’s largest, and there are plans to double its enrollment in the next few years.
Thomas Jefferson School of Law, with another 900 students, recently relocated to a new facility at Island and Park. At 10th and J is FIDM, the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. Moreover, the new main city library, designed by nationally recognized local architect Rob Quigley, is now under construction at 11th and Park, and will have an eager and vibrant clientele comprised of residents, visitors and innumerable students.
The educational institutions are all located along an axis that connects them to each other and to Balboa Park and San Diego Bay,— the Park Boulevard/Bay-to-Park link.
Building on the assets of East Village is the I.D.E.A. District (Innovation, Design, Education, and Arts), proposed by local entrepreneurs David Malmuth and Pete Garcia. The district, bounded by City College, Market Street, Park Boulevard, and I-5, includes 35 blocks of East Village. Envisioning the district as an “industry cluster,” Garcia declares, “Design will be the engine of the I.D.E.A. District. Designers and design firms are the ones that will be the lightning rod to make this place a success. That is a job cluster we have all missed. It has been there but we have been so focused on technology that we have really missed the design job component.”
Park Boulevard is the corridor that ties everything together. John Nolen, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based city planner who prepared San Diego’s 1908 and 1927 master plans, recommended: “The people of San Diego will do well if they recognize today that the two great central recreation features of the city, now and always, are the City Park (now Balboa Park) of 1,400 (now 1,100) acres and the bayfront; and that the value of both will be increased manyfold if a suitable connecting link, parkway or boulevard can be developed, bringing them into direct and pleasant relation.”
Nolen proposed that this link be along Date Street. In the 1940s, City Planning Director Glenn Rick proposed that the link be along Cedar Street, developed as a mall fronted by major civic buildings terminating at the County Administrative Center. In the 1970s, the link was proposed to be along Fifth and Sixth avenues.
Finally, in the 1980s, the trolley along Twelfth Avenue became the impetus for the Bay-to-Park link and Twelfth Avenue was renamed Park Boulevard. CCDC has enhanced the south terminus of that link with the new bridge that spans Harbor Drive and the railroad tracks, connecting East Village to the bayfront.
The centennial of the Panama Pacific Exposition will be celebrated in 2015. As part of the celebration, we need to complete Nolen’s recommendation. The Bay-to-Park link currently ends at C Street and Park Boulevard widens to freeway dimensions along the City College campus. The entry to the park is nondescript and marked only by a turn signal. We can do much better, including renaming Park Boulevard the John Nolen Parkway.
The 1915 Panama-California Exposition was a catalyst for many civic improvements, particularly in Balboa Park. The upcoming 100th anniversary of that event must also leave a legacy beyond the year-long celebration. One part of the legacy could be the completion of the John Nolen Parkway. In addition to a pedestrian link, the implementation of the proposed streetcar line from Fowntown to North Park and the bus rapid transit route from Downtown to San Diego State University, both via Park Boulevard, would allow East Village parking to serve the park. It also would provide East Village venues to be part of the 2015 celebration; but, it is equally important that it would be a catalyst that would accelerate East Village revitalization, implementing the visions of John Nolen and his visionary successors.
One major question mark remains — the possible siting of a new home for the San Diego Chargers. Whether such a facility would put East Village on the map or become a black hole sucking up revitalization resources is a major topic that requires much more dialogue. Regardless of where that discussion goes, however, East Village will be an important place and a creative center for San Diego in the coming years.
Michael Stepner is a professor at NewSchool of Architecture and Design, and is the former city Architect of San Diego. Cary Lowe is a land use lawyer and urban planner.