Old Town Blues : San Diego Task Force Tackles Wide Range of Problems in Popular Tourist Spot

Times Staff Writer

On July 29, 1846, Lt. Stephen C. Rowan stood on a hill overlooking the Pacific and raised the first American flag on Southern California soil. There was no way Rowan could ever imagine the ramifications of his deed.

No doubt, Rowan knew that he was making history. But he could not guess that, more than a century later, his historic gesture would beget a state park. Or that the park would beget a special neighborhood called Old Town, which would beget tourists. Their money would beget rows of restaurants and specialty shops, drawing developers who would, in turn, beget office buildings.

Now, all that success has begotten another, less desirable result--a brood of persistent problems for one of San Diego's favorite places. The downside of the area's popularity has gotten the attention of the city, which has formed a task force to sort out what is happening to Old Town.

Range of Problems

Armed with $87,000 from the city, the task force is beginning to study a wide range of problems that afflict the 242 acres of prime real estate nestled in an interchange of Interstates 5 and 8.

Those problems range from parking and traffic congestion to chronic business failures. They include big office buildings that are largely empty, and fears of longtime homeowners that their neighborhood is being overwhelmed by developers. They are magnified by jealousy and suspicion among Old Town shop owners. And there is evidence that some government attempts to help Old Town have gone awry, resulting in inadvertent zoning loopholes and ugly architecture.

The threat is to the balance of a community with a comfortably split personality, said Old Town resident Tom Nemeth.

"It's not a theme park that locks its gates at 10 p.m.," Nemeth said. "When the merchants go home, the community goes on."

The essence of Old Town's charm, of course, is its claim as California's birthplace. The first European set foot in the gentle hills overlooking the ocean in 1542, and the state's first coastal mission was established there in 1769 by Father Junipero Serra before it was relocated inland.

Rowan and his soldiers wrested control of the ground in 1846, starting an American settlement that relocated to San Diego's current downtown (called New Town) in 1871.

Left behind were several structures and historic sites that served as the catalyst for a 12-acre state park, created in 1967. A year later, the city adopted a special community plan for the surrounding 230 acres, and the area became known as Old Town.

Originally, economists predicted that 2 million people would visit the park each year by the mid-1980s. But today, state estimates put the figure closer to 4 million--more than the paid admission of the San Diego Zoo, the city's best-known tourist attraction.

The unexpected surge of visitors has overwhelmed the neighborhood, particularly narrow Juan Street, which borders the park area on the northeast. Motorists clog traffic by double-parking or waiting at the curb for someone to leave his space.

However, the crowding of cars and visitors has brought another, more positive vision to the minds of merchants and developers.

"If you have 4 million visitors coming into a relatively small area, and I was a retailer, I should be able to get a part of them," said Ed Farley, president of the Old Town Chamber of Commerce.

"Some of them should walk by my shop and some of them should walk in and some of them should buy."

The theory works well for the state of California and the Bazaar del Mundo, the commercial development in the heart of Old Town park. The bazaar's 17 shops and four restaurants grossed about $14 million in sales last year, said Ed Navarro, superintendent of the local state park district.

In return, Navarro said, the bazaar operator, Diane Powers, paid the state nearly $553,305 in rent in 1983-84. Altogether, the 24 concessionaires holding leases in park property paid the state $700,425.

Reconstruction Slated

The arrangement is doing so well that the state is spending more than $2 million to reconstruct by late summer three other buildings that will house concessionaires opposite the bazaar.

But success is not automatic in Old Town. Merchants not located in the park or along San Diego Avenue, which dead-ends at the park and serves as a natural corridor for wandering tourists, can have a tough time.

Geoffrey Mogilner, who owns the Racine and Laramie Ltd. tobacco shop and is president of the neighborhood's planning council, said there is a high failure rate for local merchants.

The reason, he and others say, is that restaurants and gifts shops, which are most suitable to Old Town, have a high mortality rate anyway. There are also those store owners who come into San Diego's biggest tourist draw with plenty of enthusiasm but insufficient capital to make it through commercial lulls.

The struggling merchants resent people like Powers, said Mogilner, whose shop is located on park property.

"What you've got is a bunch of little merchants that are totally outclassed by the Bazaar del Mundo," he said.

This feeling and other complaints have driven a wedge between Old Town merchants.

"I know for a fact that there are people down there that resent that others have been successful," said architect Ron Roberts, who serves on the city's planning commission. "Instead of figuring out how to make the entire district successful, they are almost plotting on how to make the district less successful."

'Like a Factory'

Mogilner admitted that Old Town is not "working as a commercial area. It's working as a series of separate businesses. It's like a factory that's running at 30% efficiency. It's not turning out the dollars."

Another problem is the glut of office space in Old Town.

Developers and leasing agents say the number of empty offices is only a symptom of the general glut throughout San Diego, including downtown and Mission Valley. Indeed, Old Town's vacancy rate of 23% is comparable to that in the rest of the city, according to a survey by the commercial brokerage firm of Grubb & Ellis.

But two projects are suffering more than most. The 42,000-square-foot Heritage Plaza, at Old San Diego Avenue and Hortensia Street, is 50% empty, and the 68,200-square-foot Cabrillo Plaza, 3990 Old Town Ave., is 60% vacant.

Agents Confident

Leasing agents for the buildings, however, say they are confident that Old Town's excellent location will begin to draw smaller clients like public relations firms, travel agencies, attorneys and accountants.

It is that kind of hope that is making Old Town residents nervous, said Nemeth, who lives two blocks from the Bazaar del Mundo.

Nemeth said he and others are afraid that there may be pressure to carve out more commercial zoning from their neighborhood. And if developers are not able to build more stores, they will continue to tempt homeowners with big money to convert their residential property into condominiums.

Despite homeowner resolve to keep the neighborhood pure, there are cracks in their solidarity. A homeowner announced Wednesday a plan to develop his property on the corner of Sunset and Twiggs streets into a seven-unit condo.

Loophole in Plan

The proposal is legal, Nemeth said, because of a loophole in the Old Town Community Plan that allows condominiums into the neighborhood, a prospect no one contemplated when the plan was approved 17 years ago.

"Some of these people feel almost like it is an act of treason," Nemeth said. "Here is the first guy who is building something that could invite the transient factor."

It was not the first time the community plan had unintentional results in Old Town. The most glaring example of government regulation gone awry is the design of the Cabrillo Plaza office building.

Old Town's plan calls for a seven-member citizen panel to review all proposed projects to make sure they fit the architectural theme of pre-1871 buildings.

Series of Buildings

When the Cabrillo project came up, one of the board members suggested that the developer not use the typical stucco walls and Mexican tile roof, said Roberts, who served on the board at the time.

"One of his (the board member's) ideas was to get a building that maybe represented what the Old Town street would have been--a series of different buildings all packed in one after another," Roberts said.

The result was a three-story structure that is now referred to as "Dodge City West," or a set from Knotts Berry Farm. Local architects were so upset by the plaza that they awarded it an "onion" in 1983 for bad design.

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