Old Neighborhood Faces Changes : Some Residents of San Diego’s Hillcrest Community Fear Two Major Developments May Spell End to Its Small-Town Life Style

<i> Sutro is a San Diego free-lamce writer</i>

The San Diego community of Hillcrest is something of a 1980’s anomaly, especially when compared to the suburban sprawl typical of much of the county.

A mix of neighborhood shops, restaurants and housing ranging from $400-a-month apartments to $400,000 homes, makes it a tightly knit urban community offering a convenient small-town life style.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Oct. 1, 1989 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 1, 1989 Home Edition Real Estate Part 8 Page 4 Column 1 Real Estate Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
San Diego’s Hillcrest--Developers of Uptown District, a 14-acre mixed-use project under way in the community of Hillcrest, are Ted Odmark, at left, and Dene Oliver. The two were incorrectly identified in a Sept. 24 caption.

And Hillcrest, 3 miles north of downtown, is one of the few neighborhoods with a lively night life, where people wander the sidewalks well into the evening, browsing in shops, stopping for dessert or espresso at Quel Fromage, the neighborhood coffee house.

The community has a rich socio-economic mix, including a significant portion of San Diego’s gay population, and enjoys its own unique artsy/intellectual atmosphere.

Now, however, some residents fear that two huge new developments only a few blocks apart may alter Hillcrest for the worse. At the very least, the projects will drastically change the look and feel of some important streets.


Already rising commercial rents spurred by the anticipation of these new projects are drastically changing the mix of businesses, especially along 5th Avenue near University Avenue, in the heart of Hillcrest.

In the past three or four years, rents have gone, in some cases, from less than $1 a square foot to as much as $2.50. A neighborhood grocery, a produce market, an antique store, a picture framing business, a basket shop, a bakery and a hair salon are among the casualties.

Residents fought successfully to keep McDonald’s from taking over the framing shop’s space, which is occupied by a glitzy clothing and gift store, part of a chain. A steak house replaced the antique shop, and a chain yogurt shop is a another new neighbor.

“This is a wonderful street, with the ficus trees,” said Tom Stoup, who bought the Blue Door bookstore next door to The Guild art movie house on 5th Avenue last July. “I just don’t like to see this neighborhood turn into a mall.”

Both projects responsible for the air of anxious anticipation in Hillcrest are by the same developer, Oliver McMillan, a partnership founded by Dene Oliver, 38, an outgoing, persuasive deal maker with an interest in architecture, and Jim McMillan, 39, a low-keyed businessman known for his attention to detail. The two men made their reputations, and fortunes, developing speculative office buildings in San Diego.

Uptown District will be an $85-million mix of restaurants, shops, a supermarket, a community center and 318 moderate- to high-end rental units ($650 to $1,400 a month).

Bordered by University, Washington Street, Richmond Street and the 163 Freeway, the 14-acre site is only blocks from the center of Hillcrest. Uptown District, being developed in partnership with Odmark Development, a housing specialist, is scheduled for completion later this year.

The Uptown District project was something of a white knight to the city of San Diego, which originally purchased the longtime site of a now-closed Sears store with the intention of putting a new central library there.

When feasibility studies indicated it wasn’t the best place, the land sat for several months before city consultants suggested a mixed-use development.

Oliver McMillan proposed Uptown District and purchased the 12.4-acre site for $10.6 million, eventually adding adjacent parcels to give the project more street frontage along University.

Closer to the heart of Hillcrest, Oliver McMillan will soon break ground on the $70-million Village Hillcrest, an unusual combination of movie theaters, medical offices, a rehabilitation hospital, office and live-work loft spaces and about 20 rental apartments on a 2.15-acre site bounded by 5th Avenue, University, Washington and the 163 Freeway.

Art Movie Houses

Some Hillcrest lovers see it as a positive sign that the developers are leasing their multicinema not to a typical mall movie chain, but to Landmark Theatres, which operates several San Diego art movie houses.

Oliver McMillan is not remaking Hillcrest in a vacuum. Today’s urban development process requires many levels of discussion and approval, and Oliver McMillan seems committed to cooperating, meeting often with community groups and city planners as their designs evolve.

Eric Naslund, a young San Diego architect who chairs the Uptown Community Planning Group, which advises the city of San Diego on planning matters in communities including Hillcrest, thinks the developers are doing a respectable job fielding community concerns.

Naslund said the Uptown planners liked Oliver McMillan’s Sears site proposal best among the three submitted, for a number of reasons. For one thing, it is a true mixed-use project, with residences above street-level shops, a characteristic of buildings in Hillcrest’s existing business core on 5th.

Revitalize Street Frontage

Also, the developers made a commitment to improving the life of Hillcrest’s streets by acquiring the additional parcels along University, allowing them to revitalize a greater stretch of run-down retail street frontage.

“I think for the most part our members welcome the projects,” said Chris Kehoe, executive director of the Hillcrest Assn., an alliance of area businesses.

“They see them as Hillcrest turning the corner, becoming a desirable place for new businesses to come in. . . . I think some merchants like the village character of Hillcrest and want that protected. We are a neighborhood in transition, no doubt about it. . . .”

Architecturally, Oliver McMillan is trying to be a good neighbor in Hillcrest. During the design of Uptown District, architects SGPA Planning & Architecture (commercial) and Lorimer & Case (residential) sifted through 300 photos of buildings in the area, editing the pile down to 50, which were used to select some architectural details.

Creating a Mini-City

‘We wanted to create a mini-city,” said Dave Lorimer, “with mini-blocks and courtyards, and a California character.” Most of the existing buildings nearby, built during the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, are, indeed, echoed by the awnings, arches, overhanging roofs and stucco facades of the Uptown District design.

A tree-lined extension of Vermont Street will enter the heart of the project from University, passing through a circular courtyard with outdoor seating for the project’s restaurants. These will include one operated by George and Piret Munger, who founded, and later sold, the Piret’s chain in San Diego. The portion of the project west of Vermont will include a Ralphs supermarket and other commercial uses.

The eastern edge of Vermont will be lined with street-level shops and upper-level loft living units. At the far eastern edge of the project, two-level townhouses will make a well-scaled transition to the adjacent apartments and houses that line the opposite side of Richmond Street.

Similar thoughtful scaling and layout has gone into Village Hillcrest, designed by San Diego architect Ken Ronchetti in conjunction with the San Diego firm BSHA.

According to Naslund, some people in the Uptown planning group question the height of the hospital, which will front Washington Street, at the northern edge of the project. At seven stories, they feel it may overpower the neighborhood.

Detailed Facades

Along 5th Avenue, though, the project gets high marks for the fine-grained detailing of the two-story facades, to be done in light stucco, tile roofs and towers that hint of the many prominent period towers throughout the city, most notably in Balboa Park. The mix of street-level shops and second-story apartments will carry the character of old Hillcrest.

“Maybe there is a Westwood-type community in our future. Growth is inevitable,” mused Kehoe, referring to the upscale Los Angeles neighborhood.

Added Naslund: “I think the thing all of us don’t want to see Hillcrest lose is that neighborhood charm.”