East Village, an infant neighborhood in search of an identity distinct from its new high-rises and high homeless population, is fast approaching a make-it or break-it moment.
If all goes as planned, the city will this summer solicit bids to build the long-promised East Village Green, with construction expected to take around two years. This $46 million city park — it’s an astronomical price tag that doesn’t include an additional $31 million in land costs or funds for future phases — could stitch together the once all-industrial area that now includes patches of residential towers, bars and eateries into a bona fide community.
Alternatively, East Village Green could follow in the footsteps of Horton Plaza Park. That city investment, expanded in 2016 for $18 million, is sometimes confused for a permanent homeless encampment.
A similar outcome for East Village Green would level a major blow to urban planners, city leaders and developers who have counted on this park to make over the area into a quintessential live-work-play utopia. There is, for instance, downtown’s fledgling 35-block I.D.E.A. District (innovation, design, education and the arts), which is in dire need of green space. And East Village Green has always been a central component of the hyped-up zone, invented by developers Pete Garcia and David Malmuth in 2011. Its future won’t be as pretty — or as tall — if the transformed city blocks wilt into something off-putting.
"(East Village Green) is necessary,” said Michael Stepner, an urban programs professor at the NewSchool of Architecture and Design in East Village who previously worked in various planning roles for the city. “Done right, it’s going to be a real anchor for what this area needs.”
Some day, East Village Green will encompass the four acres that take up one entire downtown block (or the west block) and the adjacent double block (or the east block) between 13th, F, 15th and G streets, as envisioned by city planners.
The park was first conceived between 2004 and 2006, during the downtown community plan update. Plots of land were acquired on behalf of the city in 2005, said Brad Richter, vice president of planning for the city’s downtown planning agency, Civic San Diego. Since then, its progress has started and stopped over the years with lengthy delays brought on by the Great Recession, and later by complications associated with the dissolution of downtown’s redevelopment agency, Centre City Development Corporation.
Then, in 2015, the general park development plan was approved by the city’s park and recreation board, putting East Village Green back on the map. It is expected to be built in three phases, although just one seems certain. San Diego currently owns about half of the site.
“This project is a priority for downtown, for East Village residents and businesses, and development that’s coming to East Village.”
Betsy Brennan, President & CEO, Downtown San Diego Partnership
The city’s ownership stake includes all of the west block and pieces of the east block, but it does not include the Smart & Final lot at the southeast corner. Nor does the city own the SDG&E plant site at 14th and F, which powers most of downtown and, by Richter’s account, could cost as much as $90 million to relocate.
Still, the first phase of development promises acres of beautified public space and recreational amenities. And, in rendering form, part one of East Village Green is arresting and rich with activity. It includes:
- A large children’s play area at the north end of the west block. The 8,500 square-foot zone includes an interactive water feature and play equipment.
- An 820 square-foot, shaded performance pavilion (with some expected architectural flare) just south of the playground. The pavilion will be equipped to host outdoor performances.
- An 11,000 square-foot multi-purpose lawn that sits at the center of the west block. Here audiences can take in the sights and sounds on concert days or lounge during quieter occasions. The lawn will be surrounded by sitting areas and pingpong tables.
- A 975 square-foot cafe building, operated by a third-party vendor, next to the lawn.
- Downtown’s first-ever neighborhood community center at the south end of the west block (at 13th and G streets). The 14,200 square-foot, two-story building will open out onto the lawn; it will house a half basketball court that doubles as an auditorium, a demonstration kitchen for cooking classes, a yoga studio, city staff offices, public restrooms and other community spaces. It will be programmed by the city’s parks and recreation department.
- A paid parking garage with 185 spaces underneath the west block. The spots are designed to be used jointly by park-goers, staff and monthly pass holders.
- Separate-but-adjacent off-leash dog parks for small and large pups at the southern end of the east block.
- A second 994 square-foot cafe, or “bark bar,” operated by a third-party vendor on the east block.
- Improvements to 14th Street, which dissects the two park blocks. The street will be narrowed and stripped of standard curbs so that it can serve as a plaza on the weekends, when the street will likely be closed to car traffic.
“This project is a priority for downtown, for East Village residents and businesses, and development that’s coming to East Village,” said Betsy Brennan, who runs the Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit organization that represents the interests of its business members and also manages the city’s downtown sidewalk clean-up program.
“A lot of the development (community) has known about the park and would like to see the park happen because they’re building projects to take advantage of the park.”
With 33,000 residents and more on the way, downtown’s population is booming — and most of the residential building is concentrated in the Little Italy and East Village neighborhoods. Some of the latter area’s most buzzed-about developments include Broadstone Makers Quarter, Park 12, Shift and the second Pinnacle on the Park tower.
There are 4,726 multi-family units in East Village with another 2,237 units currently under construction, according to data from real estate tracker CoStar.
In contrast, there is 1.7 million square feet of office space in the same area. And nothing is under construction, despite the fact that East Village’s Makers Quarter, a master-planned makeover of the Jerome’s Furniture family property holdings, was meant to introduce around 1 million square feet of office space to its six-block area.
The Navarra family’s proposed SuperBlock office venture is part of that promised mix. It doesn’t exist yet because developers are still actively searching for an elite tech firm to lease an elaborate low-rise and tower complex planned for the double block bounded by E, F, 14th and 15th streets. The campus, if built, will butt up against parts of East Village Green, making the attraction an important part of any pitch deck presented to prospective tenants.
Theoretically, there’s plenty to boast about. There’s also a lot to be concerned about.
“It will be the most expensive park the city builds downtown. Definitely,” said Richter, who oversees East Village Green planning and is currently working alongside contractor The Office of James Burnett to finalize construction documents. “The community center is a big-ticket item. The garage is a big-ticket item. The children’s playground with interactive water feature, both of the buildings, add to the cost.”
GREEN SPACE OR DEAD SPACE
Not included in the $46 million sticker price are the fees that will be required to operate the park once it opens. Those costs will be absorbed by the city’s parks and recreation department, which, as it stands, will manage East Village Green in much the same way it manages its other green spaces, meaning by itself.
Urban planning experts agree: That’s a problem.
Aggressively and actively programming the park with events to ensure a ton of people in the park at all times should be the city’s No. 1 priority, said William Fulton, who is the director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research and was once a director of planning for the city of San Diego. The new trend nationally is to rely on nonprofits and business improvement districts to manage modern parks, to avoid the alternative — an empty park.
“It is often the case in an urban area that wherever you have dead space, a homeless population will move in and occupy that space,” he said.
San Diegans know this to be true, with East Village’s Fault Line Park a prime example. Horton Plaza Park is an even bigger offender.
“It failed,” Stepner, the NewSchool professor, said of Horton Plaza Park. “I think that’s because we didn’t, what planners call, ‘activate’ the park. ... People were not attracted to it.”
Mall-goers and downtown visitors did not have a place to get an ice cream cone or hamburger, he said. Technically they did, albeit not at the same time. Sloan’s Ice Cream and Burgerim had temporary stays with tenures that did not overlap. More over, regular outdoor movie showings or concerts never materialized.
There really wasn’t much of a reason for people to go to Horton Plaza Park, Stepner said.
San Diego officials would like to assign fault to previous mall owner Westfield. It did not host the 200 annual events required by its contract with the city. But being on the right side of the blame game does not bring back the millions in city funds that went into the project. Nor does it inspire confidence in the city’s ability to oversee its public-space investments.
East Village, where homelessness is most visible, is an especially tricky area. In April, the region had a homeless population of 502 people, representing 65 percent of the entire homeless population in downtown San Diego, according to the monthly unsheltered homeless count conducted by the Downtown Partnership.
“We have to activate our parks and urban centers,” Brennan, the partnership’s CEO, said. “Parks are for everyone. We want an active space that’s safe, that’s maintained well, and that has activity happening a lot of the day so that families and children, and people on their lunch break, feel just as comfortable as other residents using the park.
“A good example would be the county of San Diego’s Waterfront Park, which has a 365-day activation plan.”
Waterfront Park, a pet project of now retired county supervisor Ron Roberts, took two bay-adjacent parking lots and converted them into 12 acres of green space frequently used by people of all ages. The park is a revenue-generating machine, playing host to between 75 and 100 events every year (some with as few as 50 people and others with as many as 16,000 people). Events include birthdays, weddings, exercise classes, food and beverage tastings, races/walks, fundraisers, art shows and major concerts.
The county spends approximately $1.4 million on annual maintenance, which includes taking care of Waterfront Park’s landscaping, irrigation, sidewalks, lighting and fountains. The sum also includes janitorial services and cleaning of the art work. Daily security at the park is provided through a combination of security guards and deputy sheriffs at an approximate annual cost of $2.4 million.
The city does not have a maintenance budget determined for East Village Green. Security will be handled primarily by the San Diego Police Department.
In fiscal 2019, the parks and recreation department spent approximately $2 million maintaining and operating downtown parks and public spaces, a spokesman for the city said. The sum covers all of the following: Pantoja Park, William Heath House grounds, Children’s Park, Cortez Hill/Tweet Street, and G Street Enhancement; permanent restrooms at Civic Center and Gaslamp Square Public Restrooms; portable restrooms at 1330 G Street, 1st Avenue and C Street, and 101 16th Street; and the grounds that surround the City Administration Building, City Operations Building and Civic Center Plaza.
The figure does not include maintenance of Horton Plaza Park, Fault Line Park, Martin Luther King, Jr. Promenade or Little Italy’s Piazza Famiglia, which are operated by other parties under separate agreements.
“With the completion of East Village Green not expected for two years, there is no solidified operations plan in place, but the city will operate East Village Green in the same way it operates city parks overall with an emphasis on activating the entire park, offering a wide variety of programming in the recreation center for both children and adults,” said Tim Graham, the city spokesman, in a written statement. “The city will also be looking at previous experiences related to downtown parks to help inform maintenance practices at East Village Green.”
There are, of course, other variables. The biggest unknown is just around the corner. Construction costs in San Diego are on the rise, which means bidders on the project might put an even higher price tag on the first phase of East Village Green. So far, Civic San Diego has allocated $30 million from developer impact fees to pay for the park. The remaining funds will come from downtown parking meter revenue, excess redevelopment bond money and possibly the pool of money that builders pay into when they want a density bonus, Richter said. No general fund money is being used for this project, he added.
If a bid comes in over budget, though, it’s hard to say what will happen next.
“Everyone is concerned about construction costs, as well as labor costs,” Richter said.
Setting aside the worst-case scenario, East Village Green will incorporate a number of elements that Fulton, the Kinder Institute director, says has helped some of the best parks around the nation thrive. Specifically, the community center will encourage downtown residents to take an active interest in the park. So, too, will the dog parks.
And, he added,"When you think about parks you have to take the long view. You can’t get hung up on today’s problems.”
Sign up for the Pacific Insider newsletter
PACIFIC magazine delivers the latest restaurant and bar openings, festivals and top concerts, every Tuesday.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Pacific San Diego.