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Economy

Where Some May See Blight, City Heights Groups See Opportunity

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Where Some May See Blight, City Heights Groups See Opportunity
Where Some May See Blight, City Heights Groups See Opportunity
Vacant lots and blighted spaces can increase crime rates and lower property values. In City Heights, local groups are transforming them into vibrant community hubs.

For more than a decade, a barren lot at University Avenue and 40th Street remained an unused and unattractive space (save for the prismatic mural on an adjacent building's wall). City Heights Business Association Executive Director Enrique Gandarilla said over the 12 years he’s led the organization, the city-owned plot has been a bit of an eyesore.

“We’d like to keep the area clean, keep it safe and we weren’t very pleased at seeing tractor trailers parked on that lot,” Gandarilla said.

The association fenced in the municipal land years ago to keep unwanted activities out. Now the group wants to activate the idle land for community events and recently signed a temporary lease for the space.

“We’re looking at everything from doing an art show to doing food trucks," Gandarilla said. "Our main goals are to activate the lot so it’s not just an empty dead space accumulating trash and make the activities family oriented, free — that are going to add to the life and the vibrancy of the community.”

With the business group's acquisition, the lot on University will become the third vacant space activated by City Heights-area community groups in recent months. Gandarilla said the business association was actually inspired by the success of other lot transformations along El Cajon Boulevard, where two once-bleak blocks are now buzzing with activity.

The El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association earlier this year transformed a city-owned lot into a pop-up movie theater in the summer. The gravel and dirt spot at El Cajon and Central Avenue now is home to Bikes Del Pueblo, a nonprofit bike repair shop that helps cyclists fix their rides and hosts a bike valet on Fridays. Volunteer Hoi Vi Nguyen, who goes by "V," said the space finally gives the group a permanent place.

“We’ve always been located in a garage or a basement or a backyard somewhere in this neighborhood, but we’ve been wanting to look for an opportunity like this so we could just do more," Nguyen said.

Bikes Del Pueblo is open at the site three days a week and on a recent Friday, a cart there was selling coffee drinks to morning passers-by. Bikes Del Pueblo will also host an eight-week repair course at the site that’ll conclude with a free bike for participants.

Nguyen said more than a dozen riders stopped by during hours the group offered repair assistance but few people have taken advantage of its bike valet, although she said she hopes it will pick up as the word gets out. The valet allows cyclists to leave their bikes behind and hop on the nearby public transit lines without worrying whether a bus's bike rack is already full, she said.

Down El Cajon Boulevard at 44th Street, the nonprofit City Heights Community Development Corporation acquired a lot owned by Price Philanthropies Foundation and transformed it into a weekly international food market that’s also an incubator for aspiring entrepreneurs. Initially a pilot program through December, the Wednesday event has become so successful organizers are bringing it back in January and hope to increase the days it's open.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, reports temporary urbanism efforts like these can be “a cost-effective strategy for dealing with vacant land,” help “empower marginalized communities” and make once vacant spaces “attractive to investors.”

"The experimentation and reversibility afforded by temporary use practices can encourage a multilayered approach to land use and increase the likelihood that a vacant space will eventually find permanent use," according to a 2014 issue of Evidence Matters, a quarterly publication from HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research.

Speak City Heights is a media collaborative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Read more)

However, the department did acknowledge that groups behind some temporary places can be resistant to permanent structures once investors are drawn to the area.

Just this week, it was announced a temporary park in San Diego’s East Village known as Quartyard will make way for a 66,000 square foot UC San Diego facility. It’s set to include academic and youth outreach centers, entrepreneurial resources and a civic engagement hub. When Quartyard first moved in, the area was just an overlooked plot of dead grass behind a chain link fence.