A sign over El Cajon Boulevard welcomes visitors. Photo courtesy of the El Cajon Business Improvement Association

A sign over El Cajon Boulevard welcomes visitors. Photo courtesy of the El Cajon Business Improvement Association

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El Cajon Boulevard in the 1970s. Photo courtesy of Gregory May, Vintage San Diego on Facebook. Photo by Bill Reid.

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El Cajon Boulevard in 1910 was a far cry from the bustling retail district it became in its heyday. Photo courtesy of the El Cajon Business Improvement Association

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President Kennedy drove down El Cajon Boulevard in one of his visits to San Diego. Photo courtesy of the El Cajon Business Improvement Association

Before there was Mission Valley, there was El Cajon Boulevard. It was the place to go in San Diego to shop and dine. It was the main route into the city from the east.

Then it wasn’t.

Mission Valley became the place to shop.

Interstate 8 became the main route in and out of the city from the east.

Now, El Cajon Boulevard is back, or, at least, on its way back.

Major developers such as H.G. Fenton and Alliance Residential have invested in projects either on the boulevard or near it.

“You usually see those kind of developers in downtown San Diego. That tells you the progress of El Cajon Boulevard” said Alex Alemany, founding partner of the infill development firm Hub & Spokes Communities.

Development Draw

“You’re starting to see the larger, more established developers developing along El Cajon Boulevard, which you didn’t see five years ago,” Alemany said. “Fifteen years ago? No way.”

H.G Fenton is redeveloping the north side of the 2000 block of El Cajon Boulevard between Florida and Alabama streets with a mixed-use project it’s calling BLVD. The company declined to say what the project cost.

The project will include 165 apartments and 4,000 square feet of ground floor retail and restaurant space.

“North Park residents have been waiting for the site to be revitalized for more than a decade,” said Mike Neal, H.G. Fenton CEO. “We are thrilled to contribute to their smart growth mindset with BLVD’s transit-oriented location, eco-friendly design, and restaurant and retail spaces that will provide important community gathering spaces.”

Alliance Residential recently completed Broadstone, a 118-apartment complex just off El Cajon Boulevard at 4223 Texas St., for an undisclosed cost.

Others are following.

“We’re seeing good changes in the right direction for the boulevard,” said John O’Connor, chairman of the development committee of the El Cajon Business Improvement Association (BIA).

Zoned for High Density

“El Cajon Boulevard is very unique in that it’s one of the only areas of the city that is really zoned for high density,” O’Connor said. “Along with that, you have support from the stakeholders to do so. It’s prime for new development.”

While people in other sections of San Diego have fought efforts to increase density fearing it would destroy the character of their neighborhoods, El Cajon Boulevard has long been seen as the perfect place for transit oriented development that includes high-density projects such as H.G. Fenton’s.

“Density is welcome on El Cajon Boulevard because it’s all tied into the overall vision of El Cajon Boulevard being a transit oriented development,” said Beryl Forman, the BIA’s marketing and mobility coordinator.

O’Connor said El Cajon Boulevard offers “an opportunity to showcase how to do transit oriented development right.”

O’Connor’s family owned O’Connor Church Goods store at 3720 El Cajon Blvd., for more than 50 years until the business relocated in 2016 to make way for one of those new developments — the San Diego County Office of Education’s 37ECB project that offers a variety of alternative education programs.

Formed in 1988 to promote businesses along El Cajon Boulevard, the BIA includes nearly all the businesses along a four-mile stretch of El Cajon Boulevard from Park Boulevard to 54th Street.

The BIA has an annual budget of about $250,000, most of which comes from fees paid by member businesses.

A New Reputation

The area covered by the BIA is home to about 92,000 people and 966 businesses that employ 2,731 people.

Most of the businesses are small operations. About 84 percent of the businesses have four or fewer employees, according to the BIA.

During its declining years in 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, El Cajon Boulevard had an unsavory reputation as a place of prostitution activity bringing along with it a host of problems.

“For a long time, it was thought to be a seedy, crime-ridden corridor,” said Andrew Malick, director of Malick Infill Development.

“It’s really cleaned up. You don’t see the prostitutes there where you used to. You see active storefronts with restaurants, clothing stores, and coffee shops and gyms. There’s night life, there’s day life. It’s become a great, sort of urban place,” Malick said. “I’ve been bullish on the boulevard for 10 years. It’s a great area.”

O’Connor said shedding the stigma of the boulevard’s shady past is “part of the growing pains” of El Cajon Boulevard.

“We’ve come a long way and it’s nowhere where it was years ago, but we do have a way to go,” O’Connor said.

Community Planning Areas

Much of the new development along El Cajon Boulevard has been west of Interstate 805.

“On the west end, you’ll see big buildings that weren’t there a month ago,” O’Connor said. “There, we’re rather mature. Crossing over the 805, I’d say we’re in the extremely infant stage, still trying to figure things out.”

One reason is that the two sections are subject to different rules because they’re in different community planning areas, Malick said.

There are more restrictions on property east of Interstate 805, requiring more extensive review, he said.

“All the properties I’m looking at are west of the 805,” Malick said.

One issue for developers is that much of the property along El Cajon Boulevard is divided into small lots, which have to be combined to build large projects. Alemany said “It’s a challenge to assemble for developers to go in there. It’s not going to happen as quickly as downtown.”

Need for ‘Catalytic Projects’

Developer David Iwashita, who is working on the 37 ECB project and has a mixed-use project in the works on 40th Street and Interstate 15, said El Cajon Boulevard is ready for a renaissance.

“You have the room and infrastructure and space to build out the mass transportation and the amenities that are needed to create plazas and to create places that really make a neighborhood special,” Iwashita said. “I really strive to create catalytic projects in these old neighborhoods, not to gentrify areas, but to take areas back to (be) safe places where people want to live and buy goods.”

To encourage further development, work still needs to be done to improve bus service along El Cajon Boulevard, perhaps by establishing a dedicated bus lane, said Forman of the BIA’s marketing and mobility coordinator,.

“Treating your bus like a trolley is the next best step,” Forman said.

The streetscape also needs upgrading to make the boulevard safer for pedestrians, bicyclists and people riding scooters.

“Safety is imperative, especially when more people are going to move into the corridor,” Forman said. “Density is welcome on El Cajon Boulevard because it’s all tied into the overall vision of El Cajon Boulevard being a transit oriented development. This is something that the neighborhood groups stand behind as well. A lot of people may not want to see high rise buildings in their neighborhood, but they know along El Cajon Boulevard it makes sense.”