Barrio Logan, a spirited but troubled community fractured in two over the years by a freeway and a bridge and dogged by an exaggerated reputation for crime, is about to become a laboratory for the latest theories of urban planning.
Architects and planners hope that a new redevelopment project including apartments, a shopping center and a Mexican cultural center will bring security and economic prosperity through its open, friendly design. With public spaces in full view of residential and commercial tenants, and with increased foot traffic from the new development, the hope is that undesirables will feel, well, undesired.
But the acid test will be whether such unconventionally secured buildings--lacking high walls and Cyclone fences--will appeal to prospective tenants.
The design of the 144-unit Mercado Apartments, scheduled to begin construction this spring, is nearly final and carries out this new, healthy view of security. But the 100,000-square-foot San Diego Mercado marketplace, which probably won't begin construction until 1993, is still in the early stages of design, and the architecture could head in a more traditional, closed-in scheme if that's what it takes to attract tenants.
Besides its potential as a pioneering urban design effort in San Diego, the project will be revolutionary in another way. It will be the city of San Diego's first comprehensive community redevelopment effort outside downtown, a significant move that could lead to similar improvements in other needy San Diego communities.
Situated on 14 acres beneath the freeway approach to the Coronado Bridge, the redevelopment will make a strong connection to Chicano Park immediately to the north, where colorful murals adorn raw concrete freeway supports.
The Mercado Apartments will be built east of Dewey Street, with the San Diego Mercado commercial and cultural center to the west. Early studies showed the community wanted an informal Mexican-style open-air marketplace. That has evolved into a more conventional commercial development anchored by a 38,500-square-foot Latino-oriented VIVA supermarket, but the project will also include merchants offering ethnic foods, curios and neighborhood services.
Inviting public spaces will glue the project together. A portion of Dewey will be closed at the center of the new complex, developed as a public plaza. The new cultural center across from Chicano Park and a circular open-air food court within the commercial center will complete a series of lively communal spaces.
Architects from the two companies that designed the critically acclaimed Uptown District mixed-use project in Hillcrest are also designing this project, but they face different challenges in Barrio Logan.
"This is different in that it's a deteriorating urban fabric," said architect Carlos Rodriguez of Lorimer-Case Architects, which is responsible for the apartment complex design. Rodriguez grew up in Barrio Logan near the redevelopment site and is familiar with the community's troubled history.
"There have been freeways and bridges that have damaged the fabric, much more than in Hillcrest. What we did was design a project that would face the street. The apartments have front porches and doors on the street. These same kinds of units are also clustered around an interior courtyard."
Parking is concealed at the center of the project and apartments are pushed up close to adjacent sidewalks, so that pedestrians take priority over auto traffic. Because the scale of buildings in Barrio Logan is more modest than in Hillcrest, the apartment complex will consist of low one- and two-story buildings, instead of the three-story structures at Uptown District.
The redevelopment site is close to bus lines and only a block away from a San Diego Trolley stop, and the new project is intended to serve as a model for future mixed-use inner-city redevelopment projects that will rely heavily on mass transit.
In appearance, architects hope these buildings will capture some of the area's Hispanic heritage without resorting to the corny, pseudo-Mediterranean styles that spread across the county like a plague during the 1980s.
The apartment complex--being developed by the Metropolitan Area Advisory Committee, a nonprofit corporation--will have tile roofs, but these will appear as accents on tower elements, instead of being dominant. Smooth stucco walls and deep-set window openings will continue a Mediterranean palette, but with spare, contemporary detailing.
Second-floor balconies with wrought iron railings and first-level porches set under arched openings will extend a tradition of early Mediterranean-style apartments and bungalow houses in Barrio Logan and San Diego. These outlooks will also serve as informal security posts, providing the "eyes on the street" that '90s planners believe will deter crime. A central communal courtyard within the apartment project will continue a courtyard tradition that runs back through centuries of Mediterranean and Hispanic architecture.
The design of the commercial side, being developed by Hopkins Development of Newport Beach, is still in the formative stages.
"One of the things I get very discouraged about is, how do we capture the heritage without the taco look?" asked architect Jerry Silva of SGPA Planning and Architecture, which designed the commercial portion of Uptown District and is handling the same chore in Barrio Logan. Silva grew up in National City and knows Barrio Logan well.
"We have to maintain the heritage and the community orientation," he said, "but not necessarily in a literal way. I don't think the design will go contemporary, though."
A key player in the $27-million redevelopment effort is Rich Juarez, who grew up in Barrio Logan. Juarez left his job as a San Diego City Council aide four years ago to develop the project after he became disgusted with the city's lack of attention to old neighborhood.
Juarez invested $70,000 of his family's money in a preliminary study, and sold his home to subsidize his time. He has since brought in outside developers to spearhead the commercial and residential projects, giving up a significant portion of his financial stake in the project.
And, after 2 1/2 years of dedicating himself, at his own expense, to the Mercado, he took a job a year ago as an administrator with the MAAC. In his new post, he is overseeing the apartment development, but he remains as a consultant on the commercial center, and he vows it will be carefully tailored to Barrio Logan, not just an agglomeration of chain stores.
Ripped apart by Interstate 5 (in 1964) and the Coronado Bridge (in 1969), Barrio Logan was already ripe for redevelopment when discussions began in the late 1970s. It was the city's intention that the area be given over to industrial uses, but residents proved to be a resilient lot, and many remained in their neighborhood.
Those who stayed felt they were given short shrift by the city of San Diego as redevelopment plans proceeded but no actual projects began during the 1980s.
"The reason it may seem slow, and the community feels jaded, is they've been studied to death without anything happening," said Sara Isgur, a project manager overseeing the Barrio Logan revamp for the city's Economic Development Division. "But it took creating a formal redevelopment plan (adopted last year) to pursue this type of development, and it took the city a while to get to the point where it is actively pursuing neighborhood redevelopment.
"When I-5 was developed, the city's thinking was that residents would move elsewhere, and that this was a good location for industrial. Now the city is recognizing its past mistakes."
Will the project fly? Will it turn around a troubled but potentially vibrant neighborhood?
Rodriguez believes some of the area's problems are more perceived than real.
"The perception you get when you talk about a community like Barrio Logan is that it's completely dysfunctional," he said. "You look at other crime-ridden areas like Mission Beach and Ocean Beach, you consider that they have high crime rates, but you don't consider them as dysfunctional."
Yet such areas continued to attract new development while Barrio Logan languished. Now, this underdog is hoping its rapidly improving reputation, spurred by the redevelopment effort and its user-friendly architecture, will overcome years of neglect and enjoy a cultural and economic renaissance.