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Driving Economic Development In City Heights One Paint Job At A Time

An American flag mural fills an entire exterior wall of bar formerly known as...

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Above: An American flag mural fills an entire exterior wall of bar formerly known as El Uno in City Heights near University Avenue, Nov. 10, 2016.

When you cross over Boundary Street on University Avenue in uptown San Diego, you exit North Park and enter City Heights. There is a liquor store on your left, a newly constructed gas station on your right, and just up the hill is a powder-blue building with one entire side painted like an American flag.

You would be forgiven if you have not noticed it before. The building used to be beige and was easy to overlook, making the area attractive for undesirable activity, including prostitution and drug-dealing.

Driving Economic Development In City Heights One Paint Job At A Time


Stephen Russell, executive director, San Diego Housing Federation


Special Feature Speak City Heights

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)

Bar manager Jesus Nunez said complaints started rolling in over the summer.

“I saw that it was a lot of really bad people — let’s put it that way — around the neighborhood and our area,” Nunez said.

That was months ago. Since then, Nunez said he has received a reduction in the unwanted activity nearby and said his clientele has gotten younger and friendlier.

“We see different people outside, so we see a lot of the neighbors walking by, more freedom, more nice and everything and that’s why I like it,” Nunez said.

It all started with a fresh coat of paint, a little elbow grease and encouragement from neighbors, who are urging businesses along University Avenue to update their shops in a larger effort to revitalize one of the neighborhood’s main economic corridors.

For the paint job and lighting improvements at his bar, Nunez received grant funds via the City Heights Community Development Corporation, which runs a storefront improvement program called Fresh Look City Heights. Concerned community members and a San Diego police officer helped connect Nunez with the group.

Reported by Nicholas Mcvicker

The Corporation’s Economic Development Manager Maritza Maksimow said the initiative reimburses neighborhood businesses up to $2,000 for minor improvements.

“When you see a storefront that’s been shut down or has bars on the window, it has an uneasy feeling, like is this a safe neighborhood? Should I be here?” Maksimow said. “When you see bright colors, great signage, great lighting, no bars, you just feel safe and happier that this is your community, you feel a sense of pride.”

The nonprofit selects a handful of applicants each round of funding. This most recent cycle, it helped put a mural on a liquor store, gave a donut shop assistance for an updated roof and aided four other businesses, including the bar Nunez manages.

Maksimow said the program permits smaller establishments to stretch their funds for simple upgrades, but said it tends to serve as an incentive for even larger changes.

Photo caption:

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

City Heights Community Development Corporation's Maritza Maksimow explains the Face Lift City Heights program to KPBS City Heights Reporter Tarryn Mento, Feb. 7, 2017.

For example, down University Avenue from Nunez’s bar is Super Cocina, where owner Juan Pablo Sanchez has grand plans. Fresh Look City Heights helped him pay for new paint, signage, planters and an awning and now he is applying to a city program to knock down a cement wall to make space for outdoor seating.

“We’re going to do a roll-up door, like a garage,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez said requirements for the city’s Storefront Improvement Program can be cumbersome for many of the independent and immigrant-run businesses in City Heights, possibly preventing some from applying. Since 2000, the city received 81 applications for projects in the City Heights community planning area and 41 have been completed.

Storefront Improvement Program Applications Since 2000

  1. North Park, 156 applications
  2. Centre City (Downtown), 105 applications
  3. Normal Heights, 93 applications
  4. City Heights, 81 applications
  5. Ocean Beach, 66 applications
  6. Uptown (Hillcrest, Mission Hills, Bankers Hill, University Heights), 55 applications
  7. Pacific Beach, 45 applications
  8. College Area, 44 applications
  9. Golden Hill, 39 applications
  10. San Ysidro/Southeastern San Diego, 38 applications each

Source: City of San Diego

Sanchez added that the city's program can be a helpful follow-up to the Fresh Look program.

“Most of the business here just need a simple face lift, a coat of paint, and a lot of times it’s a catalyst to keep going,” said the City Heights Business Association member.

Sanchez has encouraged nearby establishments to update their exteriors — the market owner next door has now applied — and he sometimes serves as an ambassador for the program when owners are skeptical or unfamiliar with it.

He said storefront improvement is a big part of drawing visitors to University Avenue, which he sees as the gateway to City Heights. He helped launch an association of residents and businesses aimed at promoting the corridor between interstates 15 and 805, which the members have dubbed The Avenue.

“Obviously improving the faces of business, so maybe creating more windows, so a face or paint job, increasing visibility from the outside,” he said.

Photo caption:

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Sitting in his restaurant, Super Cocina operator Juan Pablo Sanchez talks about the changes Face Lift City Heights helped him make to the eater's facade, Feb. 13, 2017.

After the face lift at his bar, Nunez is planning more changes. He wants to add windows for better visibility and a kitchen to serve tacos out of a walk-up window. He wants to change the name too. Formerly it was known as El Uno bar, but now he is thinking of using The Avenue to further help brand the area.

One thing that will not be changing, he said, is the price of his beer.

“You cross the bridge and your beer is going to be $7 and up,” he said, referring to neighboring North Park. “We’re still pretty much $3 beers and up. Happy hour: $2 cans. So it’s pretty much reasonable for the neighborhood.”

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Jesus Nunez

The design of The Avenue Sports Bar's new business card is similiar to how the establishment's sign will appear.


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Photo of Tarryn Mento

Tarryn Mento
Health Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksThe health beat is about more than just illness, medicine and hospitals. I examine what impacts the wellness of humans and their communities.

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