Taken to the Cleaners? : Fees: Centre City East business owners say they shouldn't have to bear the financial burden of removing the mess left by the homeless.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Most property and business owners in the Centre City East district of downtown San Diego acknowledge that their neighborhood is a mess.

During the day, hundreds of street people gather at nearby social centers for meals and health-related services. At night, many of the homeless seek out places in the neighborhood to sleep. The result, business people argue, is trash--lots of it--along with an increasing wave of violent, drug-related crimes.

Despite Centre City East's problems, many property and business owners are opposed to a recent San Diego City Council vote that incorporated their neighborhood into an assessment district that generates funds to pay for street sweeping and graffiti removal. Centre City East is bordered by Interstate 5 on the east, Commercial Avenue on the South, 6th Avenue on the West and C Street on the North.

The fight over the assessment isn't the first time business and property owners in the older and decaying part of downtown have been at odds with the city.

For years, Centre City East residents and businesses have fought unsuccessfully to keep the neighborhood from becoming what some have described a dumping ground for homeless shelters, food kitchens and social agencies that cater to the poor and homeless.

"The city swept (the homeless) from the Gaslamp District and moved them here," said Chris Warren, executive director of the Pacific Coast Technical Institute at 1476 Island Ave. "It's very unfair and unjust to make us pay to clean up after them." The technical school, which teaches welding and related crafts, faces a $790 yearly assessment, Warren said.

"This assessment district is simply treating the symptoms, not the cause, which is the street people," said Paul Jones, who, along with his wife, Del, manages the Public Storage facility that opened about a year ago at the corner of 16th and Market streets. "We stand in our apartment window at night, and, down in the front parking lot, they're . . . making drug deals."

Warren, quoting figures supplied by the San Diego Police Department, said 118 crimes were reported just on the blocks near the technical institute during a two-month period that ended July 15. Among the reported crimes were 25 burglaries, 20 robberies, four murders, two rapes, 12 petty thefts and four assaults on a police officer.

One businessman, in an attempt to chronicle the neighborhood's growing problems for his out-of-town bosses, recently videotaped crack dealers who were brazenly selling drugs on the street near his building. "The only thing they

fear are video cameras and police," the businessman said.

Other business owners complained that they regularly see people smoking crack cocaine outside their front doors. One manager said the police regularly use his loading dock to monitor suspicious, drug-related activity across the street.

Another man described the assessment as "craziness . . . you're making us, the businessmen, pay to clean up trash that's dumped by these people who are performing illegal acts."

The owner of a business that has been in Centre City East for 60 years, argued that his company's $1,000-a-year assessment was unfair because "we have no trees on our property, there are no (city) benches . . . the biggest source of our problem is that the city has pushed the transients and undesirables into our area. That's where the litter comes from."

Many business owners complained that the city crews that will sweep streets three times each week will have little or no effect on crime in the area. The counterman at a wholesale store, who asked that his name not be used, doubted that he'd ever see a city crew on the streets. "I'll believe it when I see it," the man said.

Despite opposition from Warren and others, the San Diego City Council earlier this month voted to extend an existing assessment district from the central downtown area into Centre City East. As part of that expansion, the council assessed property owners $138 for each 100 feet of street frontage in Centre City East.

Centre City East tenants and property owners won a partial victory when the City Council agreed to scale back an original assessment charge of $238 per 100 feet of frontage. The additional $100 in assessment would have provided for the care and watering of trees and greenery, along with litter control.

But, as Centre City East property owners and business people noted during two recent council meetings, their neighborhood offers little in the way of greenery. The few trees and plants that do exist are generally cared for by private property owners.

Still, the council vote prompted many tenants and owners in Centre City East to argue that the city, not individuals or companies in neighborhood, should foot the bill for what they see as a societal problem.

Public Storage, which takes up a full city block, is being assessed about $8,000 annually under the new program, Jones said. That assessment is untimely because the state-of-the-art storage building remains just 20% filled.

"We'd expect to be 50% to 70% full," said Jones, who lives in a small apartment in the storage building. Jones blamed the neighborhood's growing problems with the homeless for the facility's inability to attract customers.

"This is a difficult neighborhood in the daytime," said Jones, who is expecting a transfer to another of Public Storage's locations. "The company's biting it. . . . It's lost money from day one. This neighborhood's got us nailed."

Evidence of Jones' concerns is visible from the street, where vandals have smashed many of the decorative windows that were installed to make the poured concrete building look more like an office building. But, with so many of the $245 windows destroyed, Jones no longer replaces the broken panes. He instead covers the concrete behind the decorative windows with black paint.

Local businesses have been using common-sense approaches to the worsening problem.

Fences, many topped with razor wire, increasingly surround parking lots and loading docks. Lawns and green areas are being fenced in order to prevent transients from using them as sleeping areas.

Warren and other managers regularly sweep up and cart away the used food containers, mattresses, clothing and assorted trash that is dumped daily on doorways, stoops, parking lots and sidewalks.

Warren's crew also hoses down doorways where "the homeless urinate and defecate . . . it's really bad." Similarly, the manager of a nearby electronics parts store noted that, when he fenced his property in a year ago, it took "10 gallons of disinfectant to clean the back alley" to the point where it no longer smelled of urine.

One store manager has hit upon a novel solution: He allows a group of about eight homeless people to sleep on his loading dock. In return, the homeless police the area each morning, removing trash and sweeping up dirt. "As long as it's clean, I don't care," the man said.

Assistant City Manager Daro Quiring acknowledged that Centre City East poses a difficult problem with the clientele attracted by social service outlets such as St. Vincent de Paul, Life Ministries and God's Extended Hand Ministries.

"One reason that (the neighborhood) has such a large number of social service agencies is that it's been the path of least resistance," Quiring said. "When council is confronted with requests to locate these facilities" there is usually less organized opposition from Centre City East than other downtown San Diego neighborhoods.

Council members acknowledged that Centre City East's problems won't disappear with the expansion of the assessment district.

But Councilman Bob Filner, whose district incorporates Centre City East, argued that it would be "short-sighted" to not incorporate the neighborhood into the assessment district, because the problem would, with time, simply get worse.

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