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Downtown San Diego Construction Fueling ‘Urban Renaissance’

That’s how the head of the Downtown San Diego Partnership described the recent building boom

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Some 2,100 homes are under construction in downtown San Diego, with another 4,000 approved. Hotels and offices also are being built as part of the recent building boom.

If you’ve been in downtown San Diego recently, you may have noticed a lot of construction projects underway.

Thirteen cranes are in the air working on building apartments, condominiums, hotels and offices, said Kris Michell, CEO of the Downtown San Diego Partnership, a downtown advocacy nonprofit.

Downtown Construction

Housing units built from 2010 to 2013: 1,200

Housing units under construction now: 2,100

Housing units approved now: 4,000

Source: Civic San Diego

By Katie Schoolov

A man walks his dog on Island Avenue in downtown San Diego's East Village. March 12, 2015.

One of the biggest growth areas is in condos and apartments. More than 6,000 homes are in the pipeline, Michell said. Those spaces should help boost San Diego’s rental vacancy rate, which was at just 2.3 percent in December.

Downtown development seems to be recovering after the recession, when just 1,200 housing units were built from 2010 to 2013.

“We haven’t seen this activity in years, and we’re not the only city going through this," Michell said. "This is happening all over the country. There’s an urban renaissance, an urban rebirth that’s happening. Now what we’re seeing is the development that comes from all that growth, and people wanting to work, live and play in downtown.”

The number of people living downtown almost doubled from 2000 to 2013, according to the San Diego Association of Governments, the region's planning agency.

Downtown San Diego Population

2000: 17,513

2013: 32,644

Source: San Diego Association of Governments

Michell said a big driver of this growth is millennials.

“They want to live in an urban environment," she said. "They want to be relevant. They want to make their time count. So a big house out in the suburbs with two cars, three cars and a dog is not necessarily what millennials want, although they want the dog.”

A Nielsen report last year found 62 percent of millennials want to live in mixed use communities, meaning homes and businesses close together. But the report said those communities could also be urban clusters in suburbs, not necessarily just downtown areas.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Jon Wantz, the general manager of Halcyon and Stella Public House coffee shop and bar in downtown San Diego, moved to live near his job. March 12, 2015.

Jon Wantz thinks more young people are moving downtown, including him. He works as the general manager of Halcyon and Stella Public House, a new coffee shop and bar at 14th Street and Island Avenue, and moved from Carlsbad to live near his job.

“People are moving down here," he said. "I’d say most of our local clientele are younger people.”

Halcyon sits on the corner of what will soon be an urban park and the Pinnacle condos, a major housing development. When the project is finished, it will have two 45-story towers that house 956 apartments. The first tower is scheduled to open in June. The project was designed to mix living spaces with a park and retail space like Halcyon.

“We are kind of a community gathering place. Law school students are here every day, residents in the surrounding area are here every day, so it’s already started to become that," Wantz said. "Our hope is that it continues to build upon that when the Pinnacle project opens up.”

But walk one block from Halcyon, to 15th Street and Island Avenue, and a completely different view emerges. The sidewalk is filled with homeless people camping out in tents and sleeping bags.

“Slowly but surely they’re cleaning up this area," Wantz said. "It’s been a slow and steady process over the years. This isn’t something that gets fixed overnight.”

Downtown San Diego Partnership employs a homeless outreach coordinator through its program called Clean & Safe. The program is funded by extra fees property owners pay based on the size of their properties, and pays for things like extra trash pickup and security guards.

In the next few months, the City Council will decide whether to approve the program for another 10 years and increase those fees by up to 5 percent each year. The council gave preliminary approval to the program's renewal at the end of February, but property owners still get to vote on it.

The last time the program was renewed, in 2005, a change in the way fees were collected meant as many as 3,000 property owners were overcharged, but those mistakes were corrected this time around.

Still, downtown resident Rita Collier told the City Council the fees this time are too high.

"I declined to sign my petition because I believe the 27 percent increase in my assessment is too high and will set too high a baseline for future 5 percent increases over the next 10 years," she said.

Collier and another downtown resident, Kathy Casey, said they think Downtown San Diego Partnership spends money on things it shouldn't, like adding its logos to employees' uniforms and redesigning its website.

But Michell said they will have a board with representatives from every downtown community to decide how to spend the money they collect.

"Do they want more power washing, or do they want more doggy bags?" Michell said. "What do they want? What’s important to them? And they’ll tell us and that’s the budget we’ll go with."

Many other downtown residents and business owners are on board with the program. As Michell was speaking to KPBS, the owner of East Village boxing gym Undisputed approached. He thanked her for the Clean & Safe program and said he’s happy about the new construction downtown.

“So we’re talking about all the growth and development that’s happening downtown,” Michell told him.

“I love it,” he said.

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