A dozen blocks to the north and seemingly light years away from the chaotic clank and grind that is today's downtown ballpark district, Chris Houston is holding court while he hurries to replace a cracked windshield on a lipstick-red, late-model Mercedes.
A bear of a man with a megaphone laugh, Houston is ripe with stories about what is now called East Village, a neighborhood that he knows can both charm and frustrate. But it's nothing new for the Rodney Dangerfield among San Diego's oldest neighborhoods-or for Houston.
“I am the king of chaos!” he proclaims to anyone who may be passing by this slate-gray morning on 16th Street, just a stone's throw from the southern edge of San Diego City College's sparkling campus. It is a part of East Village that rarely finds the media spotlight, even though by name it is intrinsically linked to the boldest urban-renewal experiment in San Diego history.
“My father-in-law knew the original owners here,” Houston explains in a booming baritone. “I think if I were blood, I'd be fourth or fifth generation from [them].” He speaks reverently about his shop and the Jones family that preceded him. Save for a replaced front window, the stucco building stands much like it did in sepia photos Houston proudly pulls out of a front-office file cabinet.
He's pointing at the son, Danny Jones, a James Deanian figure, and talking about how at the ripe old age of 5, Danny would help his father and uncle pull a big ol' draft horse up and down Broadway. “They'd fix anything you could break,” Houston says. “That's how he learned how to fix stuff. So when they invented cars, they'd break down on Broadway and they'd just shove it over off the street and onto his property, and I think that's how they got into the automotive repair business.”
That business was later expanded to include what Houston now solely practices. He's regarded as one of the best specialty auto-glass guys in town. Just ask his neighbor, Gail Covner, who runs a hectic catering business next door.
“He's been doing glasswork forever,” the New York transplant says. “He handles all these really wonderful, rare glass installations on those collectible kind of cars. And he knows every bit of gossip in East Village.”
The sky has opened up with a gentle rain, and Houston is on about his tenth story of the morning. Pointing a thick finger towards Covner's modest shop, called In Good Taste, he relays that an influential Greek family at one time owned it and ran a grocery store there. “They owned a lot of buildings around here,” he adds.
East Village, formerly Centre City East, brims chockablock with stories. Like the one suggesting downtown pioneer Alonzo Horton died destitute and pickled in front of an exclusive nightclub in East Village or the one about Wyatt Earp, lawman turned local gambling-hall proprietor, frequenting the neighborhood.
But it is also fast losing what is left of its rich history. This may come as a surprise to many, the fact that East Village has a history. “Actually, there is a lot of history down here,” Houston says before launching into an unrelated tale about how Mission Valley was at first envisioned as a Las Vegas-style strip.
It's often characters who give a neighborhood its character, and East Village-at 350 acres, the largest of downtown's eight neighborhoods-is teeming with characters. But head south toward the 26-block ballpark district, and a different picture emerges. Where a thriving community of blue-collar workers once bustled to make downtown tick, now stands piles and piles of demolition debris, blocks of boarded up storefronts and warehouses and growing ranks of society's downtrodden.
For the straight-talking Covner-who refers to the homeless who have used her storefront for temporary shelter as “gentlemen”-the irony of the transformation is too much to ignore. “A city as grand as San Diego, with as much money as San Diegans have and the million-dollar houses they're building all the way up 16th, you'd think that they could get their shit together down here,” she says. “Would it put me off for people to have a safe place to sleep? Absolutely not.”
What does bother folks like Covner and other East Village devotees is how the neighborhood has become a dumping ground for society's problems. Upwards of 85 percent of the county's social services do business out of East Village. But with the recent city-approved departure of the San Diego Rescue Mission from the shadow of the ballpark to a vacant ex-hospital near Little Italy, this too may be changing the face of East Village.
Leslie Wade, spokeswoman for the East Village Association, says when city leaders took on the task of redeveloping the Gaslamp Quarter, they decided to relocate the old soup kitchens into then-Centre City East, a light-industrial area that lacked any political clout.
“Everyone at City Hall was pushing it,” Wade recalls, “and there just wasn't anybody to defend against it. So they created this ghetto.” And now a six-block chunk of East Village's southeast corner “serves the entire regional homeless needs.... The homeless population is just explosive, because people are coming from all throughout not only San Diego but even outside the state, like Arizona. People come from all over to be here during the winter.”
Wade recalls when the city set up a 600-bed winter shelter some years ago in the old Wonder Bread Bakery building near the State Route 94 onramp in East Village, it was constantly filled. “But it turned out what happened was, all the people who lived in affordable apartments nearby gave up paying rent to go live for free in the winter shelter.”
Things changed in the early '90s for Centre City East, when the city's downtown redevelopment agency, Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC), turned its attention to the east end of downtown. Riding high on its success in shepherding the renovation of the west side of downtown with the advent of Horton Plaza, downtown's psychotropic shopping center, CCDC decided to attempt to repeat history in one of downtown's most challenging and eclectic neighborhoods.
In a slick promotional info-magazine put out by the agency last winter, then-CCDC Chairman Peter Q. Davis proclaimed: “Naysayers... will find their concerns misplaced, as East Village will follow in the footsteps of western downtown and become a great success-a place to enjoy and one of great benefit to all San Diegans. The Ballpark will be the driving force this time.”
Ah, yes, the ballpark. It wasn't always in the cards, but that is what East Village is confronted with today. With the skeleton of the stadium bowl now rising out of what was once San Diego's historic Warehouse District, it is near impossible to disregard.
Bob Sinclair, a downtown staple, old-building recycler and property owner since the early '70s, remembers a conversation years ago with Lynne Heidel, a land-use attorney and one of San Diego's most prominent lobbyists. “This was when there was some talk about putting a sports arena down in East Village,” he recalled in a recent interview. “She said, really San Diego will never support an NBA team or an NHL team, but they have always supported the Padres. Let's talk about putting a ballpark down there. And sure enough, it happened.”
Sinclair's self-proclaimed “21st Century Bob World Headquarters” on J Street sits just outside the footprint of the 26-block ballpark district. For now, he enjoys views of the rising sports complex to the southwest and a dirt lot to the southeast that will one day boast San Diego's new main library at a critical new diagonal bend in what may be the district's crowning achievement: a scenic pedestrian linkage along 12th Avenue of Balboa Park and San Diego Bay.
Funky does little to describe Sinclair's commercial lair. He is not your typical, smooth-handed developer. Many in East Village credit him with saving some of the historical adornments-from ancient bricks and doorknobs to massive warehouse windows-from many of the demolished buildings that found themselves in the way of the bulldozers.
He admits that he was nervous when he first heard about the immensity of the Padres' plans; that it might swallow up his eclectic cluster of buildings on J Street. “I was thinking, well, they'll build a nine-block, intimate ballpark,” Sinclair laughs at his short-lived naïveté. “Even though I didn't like the notion of this massive development, there was nothing that I personally could do. Either stand in front of the train or get on the train, and I thought I could be more productive being on the train.”
Yet, he and other East Village pioneers like Wayne Buss, who early on saw and contributed to the charm of the neighborhood, say they may not ultimately survive the coming wave of new construction, which along with the ballpark will include thousands of new hotel rooms and residential units.
“I've told my wife I want to stick it out down here until the ballpark is up and running and maybe after the library is up and running,” Sinclair sighs. “Then, if I don't like it, I'm just gonna leave. Move to New Mexico or something.”
For Buss, the experience of ballpark fever has been especially wrenching. An East Village resident going back 20 years, Buss is widely hailed as the savior of the old, block-long Carnation Dairy Factory at the corner of 10th Avenue and J Street.
A confluence of eclectic buildings now fashioned into highly desirable loft spaces that even drew the city's Designer Showcase series back in 1997 (take that, La Jolla!), the redubbed ReinCarnation Project sits in ballpark purgatory. The complex that rises at most four stories (the height at one point deemed desirable by the city for the area, Buss says), it is destined to fall into the shadows of several high-rises planned for the immediate area, including a massive parking structure to the north.
“J Street was the one street that had a lot of character,” says Buss, who like Sinclair is a consummate tinkerer but also an architect. “There were so many people who used to be down here in the '80s. I mean, we had a quality of life thing going on. We started ArtWalk because there were a lot of people here doing interesting, creative things. Then the Soho effect kicked in, and now it's the Boho effect of the ballpark overwhelming the historic order of the neighborhood.”
Don't get Buss wrong. Like Sinclair, he adheres to a personal code “to recycle the previously used parts of the city and take pressure off the mountain lions,” a reference to cutting back on suburban sprawl. He just hopes East Village doesn't become, as he puts it, “Poway by the sea.”
“I mean, that character was the thing that made it so desirable for people to come downtown in the first place. Get that unique loft-living character, you know?” Buss laments. “It rips my heartstrings out almost every day now as I rise in the morning to the sound of thundering concrete-breaking or to look out the window to see these giant dinosaurs reaching out and grabbing the buildings and ripping them down, bringing down all these beautiful trusses and brick walls and things that are cherished in the Gaslamp.”
He, too, may pull up stakes eventually. “Maybe it's not so much a place I want to be in,” Buss says, “mainly because sometimes it's harder for pioneers to live amongst the pilgrims, once the pilgrims do finally follow.”
And follow they most assuredly will. But just what the Padres will be putting up around their new ballpark is anybody's guess at this point. Flayed recently in press reports over changes planned for a portion of the ballpark district, the Padres have stumbled into a public-relations hornet's nest. Nearby developers who have wholeheartedly backed the Padres and owner John Moores in this billion-dollar redevelopment gamble are now tossing around terms like “bait and switch.”
The controversy centers on plans for the area just beyond the outfield fences to the north of the ballpark. One part, the so-called Park at the Park, continues to be described in promotional material as a public area that “will provide fans with the unique opportunity during ball games to picnic, play and watch baseball from a grassy slope.” Padres officials say they now intend to lower that slope by 10 feet as a cost-cutting measure, and critics wonder whether games will be viewable now. Still others, like Sinclair, believe smoothing out the park will actually create more of a community-friendly meeting place.
In addition, the Padres and JMI Realty, Moores' real-estate machine that's behind the changes, want to sell off parcels in the adjacent East Village Square, where 20-some-story residential and office high-rises are now proposed where shorter office-and-retail buildings were first planned. A video screen that was to be directed toward park patrons also has been scrapped to save money.
Doug Wilson, a well-connected developer who brought Symphony Towers to downtown and the ornate Parkloft condominium project to East Village, is livid about the proposed changes, which he said will block views into the ballpark.
Wilson is not known for histrionics. He claims the cash-strapped Moores-reeling from numerous investigations into his other venture, Peregrine Systems-is now in a “cut-and-run mode” and is trying to get out of further development within the ballpark district.
“I think what they're really doing is trying to increase the density [of the buildings] so they can sell the ground for the most money,” Wilson seethes. “They don't intend to develop it anymore.”
Some of the ballpark's most ardent backers are also wondering the same thing. Earlier this month, developer Tom Carter and downtown doyen George Mitrovich-both strong backers of Prop. C, the voter initiative that paved the way for the ballpark district-wrote to several civic leaders about a meeting they and other staunch supporters held with Charles Black, JMI's executive vice president, in late November.
The pair described the meeting as “at times intense and spirited. Mr. Black gave as well as he got. Mr. Black said he regretted that information about the proposed changes was out, since JMI had not intended to go public on the changes until later-when they had been finalized.”
The letter goes on to note that changes in the Park at the Park constituted “the most divisive issue we discussed.... The intensity of feelings about this proposed change was clear and unmistakable. Mr. Black appeared surprised by this.” The letter then details Black's argument that the park, as now envisioned, would be open to the public for free year-round, and not restricted during game days as previously proposed to 2,500 fans at $5 a pop. The letter-writers seemed unswayed.
Mitrovich and Carter say in their missive: “In summary: Mr. Black is well-liked and respected, but neither he nor anyone else should take for granted that those who have been there for the ballpark, will automatically lineup [sic] to back the proposed changes. To assume otherwise would be an egregious error in judgment.”
The letter ends sardonically with a backhand to two longtime Padres critics: “Our worst nightmare: Being on the same side of an issue as Mr. [Bruce] Henderson and Mr. [Mike] Acquirre [sic]! If there is any justice in this world, we will be spared that possibility. But if we have learned one thing about this seemingly endless drama, it is this: ‘It ain't over 'til it's over.'”
Folks like Wade, Buss and Sinclair hope the same holds true when it comes to preserving what remains of the charm in East Village, despite claims to the contrary that the whole area, thanks to the specter of redevelopment, has been deemed blighted.
For one, Wade worries that the blanket of residential zoning that overlays East Village will force out the needed businesses that allow a neighborhood to flourish by drawing new residents for whom character is important.
“We think, over time, East Village will evolve into a dynamic community,” Wade says, “but we want to see it be mixed-use with residential and some businesses. Right now, even building a grocery store here would require an exemption from the zoning.
“Where I hope we go in the next 10 years is that we come up with a zoning strategy that allows for an interesting mix of uses, that allows for some of the existing warehouses that are so unique to this city not only to remain but to continue some of the uses. Some businesses have been there for four generations.”
And if the city is intent on helping East Village succeed, its leaders will have to confront the most daunting of political conundrums: How best to spread the social services throughout the region. “They made a mistake of concentrating all of these facilities in one neighborhood,” Wade says, “and that needs to be undone. You've got to start to decentralize it. Moving the Rescue Mission was the first step in that.” Others, she believes, will follow.
She concedes that in this era of district-only elections, it will be only the bravest, most self-assured council members who will take the kind of political heat that clearly will be generated by further talk of moving homeless shelters and services to other districts. Councilman Ralph Inzunza, whose district butts up to East Village in the south, has already staked his opposition to moving any such services into his district.
And no one believes that politically entrenched Father Joe Carroll, who also sits on the Padres board of directors, will be asked to move the monstrous St. Vincent de Paul Village, which in fact is talking up its plans to expand in East Village.
Which takes us back to our frenetic caterer pal, Gail Covner. While recently visiting a client at a job site near 15th and J, she found herself despondent. “Here it was the middle of the day, and there were dozens of people sitting on the streets with nothing to do but drink out of brown paper bags. With a city comes the epidemic of abuse. Every citizen has to share that.”
As for Chris Houston, glass man, he's hoping to buy his narrow lot and keep on doing what he's doing for another 10 or 15 years. After that?
“Oh, somebody is going to buy this block. That's what I'm looking at. They do it everywhere. They buy by the block.”