It's not like the people of Barrio Logan haven't been screwed before. In the 1950s, the neighborhood, then part of Logan Heights, suffered the indignity of a massive rezoning plan by the City Council. The mixed industrial and commercial zones that had previously been limited to the blocks immediately along the waterfront were extended well inland. Residential areas were suddenly surrounded by warehouses, auto repair shops and junkyards. In 1963, the federal government joined with the city to declare the area blighted and rammed Interstate 5 through its heart. Five years later, the neighborhood south of the freeway, increasingly known as Barrio Logan, was bisected by the Coronado Bridge. Vehicular noise and exhaust fouled the air, and the construction of both bridge and highway caused the destruction of 5,000 homes, uprooting thousands of residents.
To mollify the neighborhood, the city promised a park in the bridge's shadow. When it tried to back down on even that agreement, the neighborhood revolted. The Chicano movement found a home in Barrio Logan, and neighbors united to demand their park. Thus, Chicano Park was born. Newly emboldened, the neighbors continued their campaign, and spent the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s evicting the junkyards and the worst of the polluters.
So, when developers sick of high land prices in East Village start eyeing the neighborhood as the next Little Italy, the locals are ready to eye them right back. Or, as Rachal Ortiz, the chair of the Barrio Logan Redevelopment Project Area Committee, put it: “If they want to take my neighborhood, I'll resist like a mamma jamma. I don't care who we have to stand up to.”
Barrio Logan is such a choice piece of real estate; perhaps the residents should be amazed no one has tried to redevelop it before. Generally defined as the area between 28th and Commercial streets and between the I-5 and the north shore of San Diego Bay, Barrio Logan abuts East Village and is a short bike ride from Downtown. It has a trolley stop and no fewer than three exits off the 5. Petco Park is so close that Barrio Logan residents probably hear the roar of the crowd each time the Padres plate a run.
“Barrio Logan is the red-headed stepchild that everyone stepped over,” said Graham Downes, an architect and developer known for repurposing industrial buildings in up-and-coming areas. “It's sitting there, bang-slab in the knuckle of more industrialized Logan Heights and Downtown.”
Downes owns two lots in the neighborhood, and he's among a slew of prospectors who bought land in Barrio Logan when prices were low and the housing market hot. Downes said speculators began buying up property years ago intending to turn it into high-priced condos. Land prices have jumped to what Downes considers ridiculous highs, often as much as $100 per square foot, which is getting into East Village territory.
Anyone strolling north on National or Logan avenues from Cesar Chavez Parkway will find no fewer than five construction sites in various stages of completion. One of them, on the corner of National and Sigsbee, is almost finished. The project is called Bohemia Row Homes. Its developer, Greg Paquette, is the kind of guy who likes to look ahead. He owned property Downtown and sold it in order to buy land in East Village ahead of redevelopment efforts there. In 2004, he needed a headquarters for another of his forward-thinking projects, an all-electric-vehicle transportation service called Mini-Cab. He looked south.
“I saw blue tarp, which I knew means it's going to be cheap,” he said. “Any time you go into a poor area, you see blue tarp over a leaking roof, it's because they can't repair the roof. People will stay away from that. When I see an eyesore, I see potential.”
The property he bought is the present site of Bohemia, and the future site of another project. He's excited about Bohemia, a market-rate project aimed at young, upper-middle-class families. Each garage will use a lift to raise cars up a level, so that a second car can be parked beneath it. Kitchens will have granite counter tops, and each unit will have its own yard. He's not as excited about unit No. 6, though, the smallest condo he's offering. It's an affordable-housing unit.
“The city made us do it,” Paquette said.
City regulations allow developers who include a certain amount of affordable housing to select a rules exception from a specified list. In exchange for the affordable unit, Paquette was granted a certain kind of sidewalk clearance that allowed him to preserve the yards.
Paquette has four units nearly sold, he says, and he's so optimistic about the rest that he plans to break ground on another development, Factory Row, this summer. He pointed to the recent announcement of a new commercial building just north of Commercial Street that will house a Target and a Lowe's Home Improvement. He likes that the Mercado project, a big mixed-use development near the entrance to the Coronado Bridge, is finally emerging from limbo after 10 years. He sees the opening of hip restaurant The Guild and Ryan Brothers Coffee as evidence of the yuppie businesses soon to come.
“That area is going to go off,” he said.
What would that mean for the people now living in Barrio Logan?
“You mean Logan Villa, right?” Paquette chuckled. “It's a rumor we're starting. Doesn't the name ‘barrio' refer to—I don't know—I think in certain circles… well, maybe that's just me.”
The word Paquette was probably fumbling for was “poor” or perhaps “crime-ridden.” More importantly, it's not a word he thinks will attract rich buyers. The owners of The Guild have the same worry, having once told a CityBeat reporter they'd like to call the neighborhood “SoCo” for “South of Commercial.” But, in point of fact, the literal English definition of “barrio” is a district of a city where many of the locals speak Spanish. But in Spanish, the word simply means “neighborhood.”On pretty much any Saturday in Barrio Logan, a neighborhood is what you'll find. Because people actually walk to shop, the sidewalks are busy with chatting neighbors. A steady stream of people flow in and out of Panchitas Bakery in a strip mall on Cesar Chavez Boulevard and Logan Avenue, with their bags of pan dulce and conchas, and, quite often, an ice-cream cone. There's an hour-long wait at the hair stylist, and the place is alive with laughter and Spanish chatter. A bit farther down Logan, a line has formed outside the 75-year-old Cuatro Milpas restaurant.
Customers look through the window at the frying tortillas and pots of refried beans and hot sauce. Across the street at the senior center, a woman in a blue formal dress and flip-flops is frantically preparing for the celebration of a baptism.
Dustano Tomas is the chairman of the senior center, and he's lived in the area for 35 years.
“There's change everywhere. The condos are coming, with new people,” he said. “I know the community members don't like it.”
Perhaps more accurately, the community members are terrified about it.
George Diaz, 48, is a construction worker on one of Graham Downes' projects. Not only is he worried, he's utterly defeated.
“Money makes everything go,” he said, standing outside Panchitas. “There's not going to be no more neighborhood. No more barrio.”
The opinions are no more diverse than the vibes of the neighborhood. On some blocks, detached houses with tidy lawns and fresh paint jobs line up in military formation. One street over, the telltale blue tarp can be seen, stuck beneath tarpaper. The porches lean drunkenly off their foundations. Closer to the waterfront, there are auto- and motorcycle-repair shops and big warehouses from the days before much of the Port of San Diego's business had shifted to National City.
But the real life of the neighborhood seems to be happening off the street, along the alleyways that slice between buildings. Perhaps because it was the first warm day of spring, there seemed to be barbeques happening on every block. Music played from small radios or boom boxes leaning against lawn chairs while small children chased each other into the street (causing panic among the mothers). In one alley, two men are shouting at each other, possibly over the behavior of a small boy who clings to the leg of one of the men. Elsewhere, men sit on the stoops of buildings, bottles wrapped in brown paper clutched to their chests.
Alex Palacios, 27, was changing loads at a Laundromat near Panchitas, trying to mind his two children while he chatted.
“It will be a little bit more normal, I guess,” he said about the wave of development poised to swamp his neighborhood, before admonishing one of his daughters to hush up. “New buildings make the neighborhood better. It will feel more modern, not so outcasted from San Diego. But I don't want Downtown.”
Palacios has lived in the neighborhood for only two years, but he grasps the core problem: How can Barrio Logan become part of the city, to enjoy the fruits of new development and modernization, and yet still retain its personality? Maria Martinez has lived in the area for 15 years. She knows people who lived in the same house for decades but were evicted when the owners sold to speculators or developers.
“I don't want it to become all condos,” she said.
Martinez lives in the Mercado Apartments, the 144-unit affordable-housing development on Newton Avenue intended to be the first half of the Mercado project. In 1995, the project was the first new residential complex built in Barrio Logan in 50 years. When it was built, its developer, the MAAC Project, went to great lengths to involve the community. As a result of those discussions, dishwashers were removed from units to create more storage, and gas stoves replaced electric stoves because, as an article in Smart Growth Illustrated (a publication of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) noted, “they are better for heating tortillas.” The complex has become the kind of project city officials and community leaders point to when they talk about rebuilding and yet also preserving the neighborhood.
The project has already sired two offspring, notably the La Entrada Family Apartments and Los Vientos Apartments, both of which will have 89 rental units priced for families with very-low and low incomes. To apply for a two-bedroom apartment, a family must earn no more than $19,000 or $38,000 annually, respectively. The projects will include community space and children's play areas. Los Vientos will also have space for adult-education classes and a computer lab.
AMCAL, the developer of Los Vientos, has a long history of doing exactly this kind of project. The site required industrial cleanup and a lot of low-income apartments. But AMCAL is still a for-profit corporation. Normally, it would take its profit through a developer fee paid by the city, but it has volunteered to defer that fee for the time being and collect it later through rents. AMCAL has decided to delay its fee in order to get the construction moving faster. Still, to come to Barrio Logan, it must have seen an opportunity. What drew the company to this spot in this neighborhood? “Barrio Logan has been an area that needed revitalization for many, many years and has been overlooked,” said Thomas Davis, an AMCAL vice president and project leader for Los Vientos. “The sites are located within a block-and-a-half of Petco Park. The location was right into the corridor to get into Downtown San Diego.”
In some respects, AMCAL and Greg Paquette saw the same opportunity. Many of the buildings in the area are vacant or run-down, so for a while at least, land could be had at a low cost. The neighborhood has great location. Zoning laws are tight but liberal enough to foster at least a few big developments, which is crucial for making a profit on economies of scale. This is how development and redevelopment have happened in San Diego pretty much since World War II. When Little Italy was being rebuilt in the late 1990s, a small group of local architects and developers calling themselves the Little Italy Neighborhood Developers (LIND) asked the Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC), which manages redevelopment Downtown, including Little Italy, to try an experiment: Instead of building one monolithic, beige, stucco, block-sized building, break it into several lots, each with a different architect and developer. CCDC agreed to the proposal and decided to use the block bounded by India, Beech and Cedar streets and Kettner Boulevard as the laboratory. The result is a multi-textured group of buildings, representing different sensibilities, that today house everything from a restaurant and a salon to apartments. The project is considered a success both in terms of aesthetics and function.
Teddy Cruz, an architect and a recent addition to the CCDC board, sees it as the model for the future.“It's about complexity,” he said. “This is an opportunity to think of incubator spaces, to rethink the street itself, how it is appropriated by informal economies, farmers markets. There is a series of histories in these neighborhoods, how the structure is used, how community-based agencies are active in producing social culture.”
Cruz has garnered an international reputation for his work implementing this idea, which he refers to as “pixilation.” Much as a computer image comprises many dots of different colors, a neighborhood comprises many small structures that form a coherent whole. In urban planning terms, that means avoiding exactly the types of projects already underway in Barrio Logan, be they affordable housing or luxury apartments. Three years ago, Cruz persuaded some of his architect friends to purchase nine lots south of the Coronado Bridge in Barrio Logan. The plan was to create a new kind of community-based urban architecture.
“For me it's been very compelling to imagine that housing or density can be evaluated as the amount of social exchanges per acre,” he said.
Graham Downes is not part of the group assembled by Cruz, but he shares the philosophy. He's built his own reputation for purchasing decrepit industrial buildings (like the Old Wonder Bread Factory in East Village) and working within them. He's already built Blockhaus, on Logan Avenue, which houses a catering company and at one time even had Greg Paquette for a tenant. The building maintains its stern cement-and-steel exterior, but the inside is modern and comfortable. He recently purchased the National Bakery building (a business Maria Martinez patronized during its 50 years in existence) on the corner of National Avenue and Beardsley Street, and he intends to turn it into Nacional Haus, a series of 21 live-work lofts.
Downes argues (and Cruz agrees) that a crucial part of the pixelation model is finding ways for people to live near where they work. He deplores the failure of planning in San Diego that led to people living in North County and driving to University City and Downtown to work. He believes the city's failure to provide incentives for underground parking has led to awkward commercial strips where rows of businesses are interrupted by parking lots. He has nothing but criticism of the one-size-fits-all approach to development that has turned East Village into a hodgepodge of buildings with no coherent main street.
“It's really very poor planning—some of the worst I've seen,” he said.
So not only have Downes and Cruz managed to put themselves in opposition to condo developers and affordable-housing developers, but they also find themselves attacking city bureaucrats as well.
Possibly, they know they have nothing to lose. In 1999, when the LIND block was nearly complete, Peter Hall, then the president of CCDC, told the San Diego Union-Tribune, “We're all better for it, but I wouldn't do it again.” In all cases, the problem is the same: Profit comes from really big projects. And city officials prefer to deal with one developer, rather than coordinate with many.
“For bureaucrats and developers, it is easier to deal with one format,” Cruz said.
But they may have an ally in pushing for this model of development in City Councilmember Ben Hueso, whose district includes Barrio Logan. Hueso counts Cruz as a personal friend—during CityBeat's interview with Hueso, Cruz called Hueso's cell phone. Hueso grew up in nearby Logan Heights (and still lives there) and has fond memories of Barrio Logan. He strongly favors creating the kind of neighborhood where people live, work and play. As a young city bureaucrat, he worked with the nearby Sherman Heights community as that neighborhood revived itself, and he considers the neighborhood-oriented way that happened a big success. He wants to see the same kind of thing happen in Barrio Logan.
“I want to see a community that has expressed itself so well politically express itself just as well architecturally,” he said. “But I'm ready to listen.”In a remarkable break for a neighborhood that has gotten all too few of them, two events totally outside of its control will give the community a chance to catch its breath.
The first is the economy. For Barrio Logan, the housing market could not have crashed at a better time. Sure, the neighborhood is suffering its share of foreclosures, but the tight credit market has put the brakes on new development. Downes points out that land prices are high, in part, because speculators have decided to bank their properties, collect what rents they can and wait for the economy to come back. Whereas before, builders leaned hard on city officials to approve plans and issue permits, now the long approval process is as much a benefit to them as a hindrance. Until San Diego's housing glut is consumed, Barrio Logan will have time to make considered decisions about its future.
The second is Mayor Jerry Sanders' decision to inject some energy into the process of updating community plans citywide. A community plan is the guiding document for how a neighborhood is permitted to grow. Most neighborhoods, including Barrio Logan, have community plans, and most, but not including Barrio Logan, have community planning committees to enforce them.
Barrio Logan's plan was last updated in 1978. It still contains references to industrial areas that have been more or less defunct since companies began moving south to National City in the 1970s and 1980s. It lists parks that were never built, and it places tight limits on building density. The update of Barrio Logan's community plan will be the battlefield upon which the philosophies of redevelopment will contend.
“I think the scenario will play out something like this,” Greg Paquette said: “In two years, the community update will be done. More than likely it will have increased density, which will stimulate developers. Now there's real money.
They're going to have to build to a certain scale to get their money out.”
Paquette is a genial guy, but there's menace behind those words. Neighbors are already gearing up for the meetings of the Community Plan Update Stakeholders Committee where the rewrite will be discussed and all issues aired. Old alliances have been revived, old grudges remembered. Developers will show up to push things one way; Cruz and Downes will be there to push another—and in the middle, the residents will be trying to have their say. No one is unaware of the stakes.
“The outcome is going to change people's lives,” Hueso said. “For better or for worse.”