San Diego Business Journal

Downtown Is Now Facing a Defining Moment

Commentary By Gary London Monday, June 10, 2013

“This contrasts sharply with the residential renaissance which has taken place downtown. Over the past decade, approximately 13,000 housing units have been built, which is roughly an addition of 10.5 to 12 million square feet of space.” Currently, we count 1,650 residential units under construction, mostly apartments in the East Village, the last downtown neighborhood where land remains. There are two dozen rental and condominium projects now working their way through the entitlement process, which will add 5,000 units once erected over the next 5-7 years.

It’s a residential boom that is fueled by consumers who will mostly commute to their jobs outside of downtown. Apparently, it is stylish for residents to live downtown. Yet, their employers often don’t choose downtown for their location.

This is not a minor thing. These crossing dynamics suggest that downtown San Diego is arriving soon at a fork in the road, of sorts. Either there is renewed interest by the business community to be here, or, eventually the loss of commerce will translate as a loss of the regional importance of downtown.

This will play out, regardless of the residential strength, or the success of the Gaslamp, or the presence of the Padres at Petco Park. Those are for guests. The soul of the market is slowly slipping.

Solutions?

Amazon won’t be moving to San Diego. In fact, the point of starting this commentary with Seattle is to remind us that Amazon is in Seattle as are Microsoft and Boeing because their founders lived there and started their companies there.

That has to be part of the formula in San Diego, as it has been for Seattle and San Francisco. Unfortunately, neither our greatest success story, Qualcomm, nor its many progeny, have shown an interest in downtown. They do not recognize that if downtown loses its luster, so, too, does the fundamental attractiveness of their institutions and industries in the region.

All is not lost: There should be tech interest in downtown, at least if that interest is measured by those who are mostly going to occupy these many new residential apartments and condos now under development. These are young, Gen Y/Millennia types. Surely they are to a great extent occupied in San Diego’s substantial tech business. They just do not wish to live (or unable to find housing) in Sorrento Mesa.

But somebody has to pull the trigger. Maybe that will happen in the couple of projects announced for East Village. One project announced is Makers Quarter, a proposed 2.9 million-square-foot mixed-use gem on East Village property owned by the Navarra family — of Jerome’s Furniture; the other is also in East Village at Park Boulevard and E streets by Lowe Enterprises Real Estate Group and I.D.E.A. Partners’ Pete Garcia and David Malmuth. It would consist of an office building and apartments linked by an interior atrium and plaza.

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