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Promises Not Kept in Barrio Logan

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Aired 4/19/09

Not far from Petco Park in the eastern reaches of downtown San Diego, there are seven acres of vacant land. The empty lots in the Barrio Logan neighborhood were intended to be a new shopping center complex. While redevelopment projects have been springing up across the city, the Mercado del Barrio has been bogged down for more than 15 years. KPBS Reporter Ed Joyce tells us why.  

The shopping center was supposed to be the lynchpin for revitalizing this mostly Latino neighborhood west of Interstate-5, near the base of the Coronado Bridge. The Mercado project was first proposed in 1989. Residents, local business owners and the city all envisioned new construction and new stores would create new jobs while generating more property and retail taxes for the city. But lawsuits and squabbles between developers and the city finds the seven acres sprouting weeds instead of a shiny new shopping center.

A key player in the project is developer Sam Marasco. Marasco’s resume includes The Shops at Las Americas, an outlet center in San Ysidro. He's still hoping to build the Mercado.

Marasco: My job is to stay focused on delivering a shopping center. I'm a developer. I work closely with my retail tenants trying to provide them with what they need.

Marasco has spent the past six years working on the project. He says the city created roadblocks, delaying his progress. The city blames Marasco for delays. Marasco says he was on the threshold of bringing a shopping complex to Barrio Logan when the city pulled out of the deal this year:

Marasco: We feel as though the rug was pulled out, but maybe it was an ill-conceived idea. Maybe it was a thought that was not based in a complete set of facts and circumstances. It is a complicated project, it is a difficult site.

A bone of contention between Marasco and the city is over who owns the land. Marasco claims he's the owner.

Jim Waring is Mayor Jerry Sanders’ chief for land use and housing. Waring says the city tried to work out a new agreement with Marasco. Waring asked Marasco to give up his claim to the land as part that new deal, but Marasco refused.

Waring: Because he could have accepted that proposal and given up his right to the land and been turned down. And we told him that. No guarantees."

Waring says after the city terminated their deal with Marasco, the property was burdened with a $1 million lien – Marasco had taken a loan on the land and used the money for pre-development costs. The city has paid off that loan with interest and wants that money back. The city has sued Marasco. He countersued, saying he’s sunk $3 million into the project.

In the meantime, the city has put the project up for bid again. Three new developers are now competing to build the center. But the delays are frustrating for Barrio Logan residents and business owners, like Luis Garcia, who owns Chuey’s Restaurant and Cantina. He relocated and expanded the Mexican eatery to nearby Main Street two years ago. Garcia counted on the new center to bring in more customers.

Garcia: Build something, build something. Because right now I am a stand alone business here and it’s severely hurt my economic progress, severely hurt my economic progress.”

Chuey’s has cut its hours due to the lack of business. Its owner has tracked the Mercado del Barrio project for more than 15 years.

Garcia: It’s not just me who's losing. It’s the entire community of Barrio Logan and the City of San Diego. The tax dollars are not coming back in, the blighted conditions remain.”

Despite the legal battle, Sam Marasco expects the project to move forward whether or not his LandGrant Development Company is a part of it.

Marasco: I think the right result is that we must find the project that can be delivered to the community as soon as possible.

Because of the legal mess, the new developers have until the end of February to submit their plans.  The city’s Jim Waring hopes the lawsuits will be settled by that time.

Waring: In a perfect world, who knows maybe by this time next year we could be close to breaking ground on a new project at Barrio Logan.

In the meantime, Chuey’s owner Luis Garcia and his neighbors continue to wait and wait, and wait – as a revitalized Barrio Logan remains an unfulfilled promise. Ed Joyce, KPBS News.

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