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Downtown’s Shadowy Side

Downtown San Diego has all the appearance of a Monopoly board these days.

High-stakes activity abounds. Plans for expensive projects--many encompassing entire blocks--are unveiled with amazing frequency. Land deals are cut. Formerly marginal areas of the center city suddenly become “hot” after new projects are announced. Planned hotel, apartment and condominium developments bring promises of round-the-clock vibrancy to a 9-to-5 area.

As a spokesman for a large San Francisco-based company that has just jumped into the center city development game observed last week, downtown San Diego has become “an exciting urban area.”

And so it has. But there are setbacks. The bayfront convention center is not coming along as planned. Several ballyhooed projects, including a highly touted mixed-use development on prime land across from Horton Plaza, have been unable to obtain financing. The push is still on to clean up blighted areas that scare away shoppers and tourists.

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Most visible amid the glamour and activity of the center city’s new dynamism, however, is another downtown, where instead of trendy restaurants and fashionable boutiques and gleaming high-rises stand the boarded-up windows of vacant storefronts. Curiously, this shadow downtown exists on the center city’s most visible core streets.

A walk down C Street provides an example. With the whiz of the trolley and new, broad sidewalks and landscaping, the tree-lined way should be among the center city’s most attractive streets for pedestrian traffic. Instead, on block after block, there are empty stores with boarded-up windows.

The shadow downtown is even more evident on Broadway, the city’s main street. Although there is a buzz of activity at Horton Plaza, there are empty storefronts just a few steps away. The main level of a major high-rise at 2nd and Broadway is empty. A block east, a corner spot has been vacant for months. At 5th and Broadway, all four corners are tenantless, and some have been vacant for more than a year. Between 7th and 8th, the entire south side is vacant.

What is happening here? We are assured by some boosters that the current spottiness of the downtown surge is nothing to worry about. It is inevitable, they say, that the radical surgery performed on downtown should produce trauma in those sections not immediately operated on. Too, the coordinated marketing of the 150-store Horton Plaza retail center has hurt many old-line businesses outside the center. Still other storefronts are vacant because their owners are holding out for the right tenant, or for higher rents, or because of a desire to sell, not lease. Eventually, however, the vacancies will disappear, it is said.

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Others, however, exhibit more concern. Some downtown leaders say that despite the various realities behind the vacant storefronts, they are concerned with the perception of failure suggested by the empty stores. Some say merchants and property owners should band together by developing private management districts to promote their areas the way its owners promote the plaza.

In any event, these are the best of times for downtown San Diego, and these are the worst of times for some who for decades have made a living there. In business, of course, as in Monopoly, there are winners and losers.

But the city fathers should be sensitive to the fact that, as they contemplate the grand scheme of tomorrow’s Horton Plazas and office towers, a shadow downtown also is growing. In their exuberance to build anew, it is important that they not neglect that downtown, the foundation on which the new city center is rising.


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