Jan. 15 2014 10:41 AM

Local family endeavors to create a legacy of urban sophistication

Urban planner Stacey Lankford Pennington and artist Chris Konecki, at the event space SILO in East Village
Photo by Joshua Emerson Smith

On a sunny January afternoon in East Village, Stacey Lankford Pennington looks south along 15th Street at a developing urban corridor visually punctuated by the Coronado Bridge. Behind her on C Street, construction workers fire nails into an expanding San Diego City College campus.

"This is the last remaining undeveloped quadrant of our Downtown in any kind of contiguous, tangible way, and so it's our responsibility to get it right," the urban planner says. "That said, it's very complicated."

Walking the area between 14th and 17th streets and Broadway and G Street, Pennington points out properties where her father's development company, Lankford & Associates Inc., plans to build a roughly 7-acre project called Makers Quarter.

"What our master plan does is prioritizes open space and public realm from the very beginning, and that's a really unique thing," Pennington says. "You don't see development teams think about open space and quality-of-life issues, usually."

With little room for additional sprawl, city planers and private developers have embraced vertical density and urban infill to accommodate growth. It's no exception in East Village, where giant apartment complexes have cropped up in the city's former warehouse district.

However, instead of leveling aging structures and throwing up cookie-cutter condos, Lankford & Associates has put Pennington to work on coordinating an outdoor event space called SILO, located at 753 15th St.

The space is much more than a public-relations campaign, she says. "This is a community effort to ensure one of the last frontiers of our Downtown is done successfully."

The open lot—decked out with graffiti-style murals—has been the scene of a number of happenings organized by Pennington, including beer tastings, movie screenings and arts-and-culture talks, as well as private events thrown by companies such as Car2Go and Yelp.

Eventually, SILO and an urban garden that nonprofit Humane Smarts was selected to put together across the street will be replaced by buildings. But the idea is that these projects will help developers and architects understand what's attractive for a new generation of urban dwellers.

Lankford & Associates also contracted local artist Chris Konecki to oversee the artwork, which includes murals by hip names like Neko Burke, Persue, Kyle Boatwright  and Konecki himself.

The idea that the energy at SILO will find its way into the development of Makers Quarter is worth a shot, Konecki says.

"I think it'd be awesome to have a neighborhood in San Diego that mirrored some of the cooler, more funky neighborhoods around our country," he says. "I think of San Francisco as a big example. Portland would be an amazing benchmark to strive for. To have the feel would be awesome."

The developers of Makers Quarter claim they can capitalize on that sentiment to the benefit of the whole community.

Young working professionals with significant purchasing power, mostly concentrated in the tech industry, have made sophisticated, urban landscapes economically viable, says Rob Lankford, president and co-owner of Lankford and Associates.

"San Diego and many other urban environments are turning more and more to folks' desire to have authentic and sustainable places, and the urban fabric geared to a public realm," he says. "That's different than we have seen."

At the same time, what's happening at Makers Quarter is not only about trying to lure six-figure-earning software engineers to San Diego with urban designs inspired by San Francisco or Austin.

It's also about legacy. The well-known, local Navarra family, owners of Jerome's Furniture, acquired all of the Makers Quarter property over several decades. Right before the recession of 2008, it entertained an offer to sell, but when the economy collapsed, so did the deal.

In 2011, the family decided to take a different approach, holding a competitive-bidding process to find a developer to help create a project that would have a lasting impact on the city.

"What the family witnessed was typical development strategy being pursued in Downtown," says Mark Navarra, vice president of the family business. "The family circled back and said there's a better way to do this. There's a better way to build a vibrant neighborhood."

The project is about creating a "sustainable urban environment," the forth-generation San Diegan adds. "It's very important to the family that we leave more than we take. The upper East Village was good to the family. We would very much like to see that neighborhood, after so many decades in not living up to its potential, turn into something terrific."

What exactly does that mean? 

During the next 15 years, Makers Quarter—named for the idea of promoting the crafts and artistic trades—would transform into a dense, vibrant and walkable urban landscape, according to a preliminary master plan. With 2.5 million square feet of built space, accompanied by 157,090 square feet of open space, the plan envisions a large public plaza, a widened 14th Street sidewalk and ground-floor retail units inhabited by small, creative businesses.

The plan also calls for renovating and integrating existing historical structures, such as the Boxing Coliseum located at 15th and E streets.

"Somebody told me that the definition of what the young professional set want these days is somewhere you can take your dog and throw a football around at the same  time," Lankford says. "Those are spaces that are unique, but we're excited about creating them."

The development team also includes national construction company Hensel Phelps and Atlanta-based international developer Portman Holdings, whose architecture branch, John Portman Associates, created the master plan.

While John Portman Associates will likely design several of the buildings, the development team has discussed contracting with a variety of architects, Lankford says. "We all understand that differentiation is what makes projects very successful."

Of course, many development projects have launched with lofty goals, only to trade community amenities for increased profits.

"There's the potential for really creating just another highend neighborhood and driving out all those creative forces that are blending together here," says former City Architect Mike Stepner, who now teaches at the NewSchool of Architecture and Design in San Diego. "It's an innovation cluster that could add to the economic vitality of the area. I think we could lose that if it just becomes just another high-end residential neighborhood."

Perhaps with this in mind, the Navarra family said it would continue to shepherd the project, retaining ownership of the property into the immediate future.

"As a landowner, we only have so much control, but we chose our partner very carefully," Navarra said. "There's always a worry that the end result doesn't meet expectations."

For now, Pennington will continue to run the SILO event space and gather input from the community about what it wants to see developed in the neighborhood.

"I'm optimistic," she says. "It's just that I think that it's complicated to go from something that's so sincere and authentic like SILO. No designer would have drawn this. So, it's that whole conundrum."

To a large extent, the community will determine the impact that Makers Quarter has on the character of San Diego, Pennington adds.

"Of course, I want all this to happen, but to make it happen, the spirit of what we have going at SILO has to amp up," she says. "Two thousand fourteen has to have even more community participation, and that community participation has to mature and evolve to help shape the longterm development."

Write to joshuas@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on twitter at @jemersmith.

Correction: The original version of this story reported that Lankford & Associates Inc. hired nonprofit Humane Smarts to create an urban garden in East Village. However, the development company didn't pay the nonprofit for its work on the project, according to company officials.


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