In the early 1980s, the San Diego Rescue Mission became a casualty of Gaslamp District redevelopment, the Mission's building at 5th and Island avenues condemned in order to free up space for more profitable ventures. Like many of its social-service counterparts, the Rescue Mission was encouraged by city planners to find a new place amid the warehouses and factories of gritty East Village.
So the Rescue Mission purchased property at 1150 J St. for just over half a million dollars. In 1993 it expanded its services, putting up $1 million for 939 South 16th St. Located at the border of East Village and Barrio Logan, the 16th Street facility became the site of the Rescue Mission's Women and Children's Center.
Fast forward a decade: the Padres Ballpark Stadium and its ancillary development projects are poised to become the jewel of the Centre City Development Corporation's (CCDC) ambitious East Village redevelopment plan. A look at CCDC's easy-on-the-eyes online ballpark district map (www.ccdc.com/ballpark/ballpark.htm) shows 1150 J St. in the middle of it all, just south of the ballpark and sitting directly across from the proposed new downtown library, expected to be completed in 2008.
How could anyone have known that the Rescue Mission's J Street property, bought in exile from the prettier parts of town, would become so valuable, appraised at $4.7 million, almost 10 times its original price. Call it economic justice of sorts. Currently in escrow, the J Street property is expected to become market-rate condos. The Barrio Logan property is on the market, too, listed at slightly less than its counterpart-$3.5 million.
That sort of collateral gave the folks at the Rescue Mission the opportunity to get out before they were asked to leave. In March of 2001, the organization purchased the Harbor View Medical Center, once a psychiatric facility and later a community hospital serving a large number of economically disadvantaged patients. The hospital, located at First and Elm streets in Banker's Hill, closed in 1997 and has remained empty since.
Last Tuesday, the City Council granted the Rescue Mission the permit necessary to set up a shelter, transitional housing, food service and a drug and alcohol treatment program in the 90,000-square-foot, six-floor building. In all, the facility will ultimately house up to 416 people trying to get off the streets. To the Rescue Mission's favor is that its programs are aligned with the city's Comprehensive Homeless Policy, established in 1995, which seeks to support any agency that provides continuum of care services for the homeless including emergency shelters, transitional housing and outreach programs. The privately run Rescue Mission provides all of those elements at no cost to taxpayers.
The unanimous yes vote, however, came much to the ire of the Rescue Mission's new neighbors, who comprised a little more than one-third of the packed council chambers last Tuesday. Opponents protested vehemently that a homeless-services center would signal the downfall of their neighborhood and prompt a mass migration of transients uptown.
Rescue Mission President Jim Jackson said that if the council had denied the permit, his organization would have stayed put in East Village. However, Leslie Wade, executive director of the East Village Association, said it might not have been that simple. “[1150 J St.] is a prime spot,” she said, “in close proximity to the ballpark and the Park-to-Bay link that will connect Balboa Park down to the bay along 12th Avenue.
“[The Rescue Mission] could have stayed,” she said, “but it would have been a huge problem. They're trying to redevelop a residential neighborhood around there, and that's been a goal for more than a decade. The more folks that move in, the more people that are going to be un-amused by the homeless ghetto that was created down there in that area.”
Indeed, the Rescue Mission's exit from East Village means one less homeless outreach program that has, not by conscious effort, created during the past two decades the social service ghetto that Wade refers to. If you know where to go and when, an individual can pretty much get by on the free services located within a six-mile radius of East Village. It's a fact that prevents many homeless individuals from taking a step to improve their situation. “You can get three square meals and a bed in the East Village and never have to be in a rehab program,” said Wade.
With homeless outreach, there's a fine line between helping and enabling. Fear of the latter prompted the Little Italy Association and the Uptown Planning Committee, which represents the Banker's Hill and Hillcrest areas, to vote against the Rescue Mission's request for the Harbor View facility permit. Additionally, three Banker's Hill business owners filed a last-minute lawsuit against the city to try to delay the council vote. Superior Court Judge John Meyer, however, rejected the suit, arguing that the City Council was capable of judging the merits of the Rescue Mission's permit request. Opponents also argued that holding the vote now prevented District 2 Councilmember-elect Michael Zucchet, who represents the Banker's Hill area, from voicing his opinion about the permit.
Lame duck District 2 Councilmember Byron Wear, who heard plenty from concerned constituents, made a formal recommendation that the Mission's breakfast program, which currently serves 250 people daily at the J Street site, be phased in slowly, serving 50 people three days a week to start. The number of people served and the frequency will gradually increase per council approval. Another condition of the permit is the formation of a neighborhood advisory committee to serve as a link between the Rescue Mission and area residents.
A large binder at the City Clerk's office holds copies of 715 letters and petition signatures in protest of the new homeless center. More than 3,000 people, however, sent in letters of support for the planned facility. Not surprisingly, both the East Village Association and the Centre City Advisory Committee-CCDC's advisory board-voted in favor of the project. Also in the Rescue Mission's corner were charismatic lobbyist and land use attorney Lynn Heidel, who's also a former CCDC chair, and developer Steve Considine, who helped broker the deal for the new building.
It's support that their opponents label as hypocritical, finding it ironic that some of those most in support of the Rescue Mission's move have ties to East Village redevelopment. As Little Italy Association President Marco Li Mandri pointed out, there's a push to “sanitize real estate around the ballpark” to make it more tourist-friendly. Plus, he argued, a facility that seeks to serve several hundred homeless individuals has no place in a residential area.
“This is not NIMBY-ism,” said Li Mandri at last Tuesday's City Council meeting. “We do not believe this project is within the scope of any community in the city,” he said.
There's no question that the Rescue Mission's plans for the Harbor View facility are ambitious. Programs and services for men, women and children, including those with drug and alcohol addiction and mental illness will be in the same building, though divided by floor and with a secure elevator system. Furthermore, plans for the new facility clearly state that individuals who show up for the free breakfast, offered between 5 and 7 a.m., will be ushered into a waiting area that will be screened off from public view. The Rescue Mission has signed an agreement with the San Diego Police Department aimed at discouraging loitering in the area and has also contracted with the city's Clean and Safe program to provide “litter and loiter control” in the surrounding area.
The biggest concern, however, is the facility's proximity to Washington Elementary School. Five blocks separate the two and there have been complaints about homeless men hanging around the school's perimeter. However, the 5 freeway cuts a line between the two facilities, prompting some to argue that the freeway creates a geographic barrier.
Opponents worry that the Rescue Mission will not only attract more homeless to the area, but they also estimate that there will be 20 to 30 children living at the facility who will attend the school and bring with them problems that stem from an unstable childhood.
Jackson said that he doubts the new facility will be a magnet for the homeless. Rather he said the goal is to work with homeless individuals currently in the area and encourage them to get off the streets and into the Rescue Mission's transitional living program. It's something that he believes will, in fact, be a benefit to the surrounding community. And he said that he doubts the Rescue Mission's East Village clientele will join them in the move.
“Last time I checked,” he said, “if you put a backpack with all of your belongings on your back and you hiked three miles [from East Village to Banker's Hill], that's a long way. You're not going to be going to our area for breakfast, going to Fr. Joe's [St. Vincent de Paul in East Village] for lunch and then somewhere else for dinner and hike six or eight miles a day. It's uphill.”
And though Wade is watching the Rescue Mission leave the area she represents, she's confident it's for the best. “They'll be fine,” she says of the Mission's new neighbors. “You can't convince people that they can live next to a homeless center, but depending on how the shelter's run, if it's of a moderate scale and if it's well-managed, then it can be fine.”