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Saturday, Jul 13, 2024
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Changing Jobs

The nature of work in downtown San Diego is changing once again.

People in the business of leasing space in downtown high-rises, such as Nelson Ackerly and Jordan Johnson, want to fill glass-walled office buildings with a wider range of businesses, including young tech firms and others supporting the innovation economy.

It’s just the latest vision of downtown’s potential.

Downtown has always been a place to shop, though shoppers had other options after World War II. Today’s Gaslamp Quarter offers restaurants and night life … and you can still get a tattoo.

The mixture of jobs downtown has always been in flux. Through the decades, retail and hospitality sectors have surged, ebbed and then surged again. Tuna fishing flourished but eventually left. The U.S. Navy, government and the courts stuck around.

Private business is making a comeback in downtown. The U.S. Census Bureau counted 67,150 private sector employees in the 92101 ZIP code in March 2013, up 4 percent from 2004. That is according to the bureau’s American Fact Finder statistics website, whose figures exclude government employees.

There were 3,848 business establishments in the downtown ZIP code in 2013, up from 3,645 in 2004.

Large, private employers today include Solar Turbines Inc., which has about 1,800 employees downtown. Sempra Energy occupies downtown’s newest high-rise with 753 employees. A representative said the business’s downtown head count has grown in recent years.

Moved On

One large business found downtown alluring for a brief spell, then left for greener pastures.

That is American Specialty Health, which maintained its headquarters in a former retail building next to the Horton Plaza shopping center from 2000 to 2010. Downtown offered great amenities, a spokeswoman said, but increased rent and parking costs (the latter doubled) plus a need to house more than 500 employees sent the company to Sorrento Mesa in 2010.

The business, a provider of health services, recently decided to move its headquarters from California to Indiana, though it plans to keep 800 employees in the San Diego suburbs.

Today, a typical downtown lessor is in the traditional FIRE (finance, insurance and real estate) or legal fields, said Johnson, vice president with Emmes Realty Services of California LLC. Tenants, however, are becoming more “innovation oriented.” Emmes is positioning one building, 707 Broadway, as a space for technology and innovation businesses.

Back to City Centers

Nationally, there is a move back to city centers, said Ackerly, senior leasing director with Irvine Co. Office Properties. Irvine Co. also has a strong interest in innovation; it is a partner with the EvoNexus pro-bono incubator program, which is downtown and in two suburban locations.

Now a landlord must be concerned with how to please the most conservative law firm and the most brash high-tech startup. “How do we adapt high-rise buildings to a wider range of customer types,” Ackerly asked. That’s the challenge landlords face.

The legal community was and remains one of downtown’s mainstays.

Twenty years ago, law firms felt they had to be downtown. The 25 largest local firms in the San Diego Business Journal’s 1996 Book of Lists were — without exception — downtown dwellers.

Today, professional services firms feel that they have other options.

In 2016, a little more than half of law firms (14 of the top 25) give downtown as their main local address. Seven list Carmel Valley as their main address; others are based in University Towne Center, Mission Valley and Poway. Four of the largest five are downtown with outlying offices in coastal North County.

Recognizing the flight to the suburbs and other trends, the San Diego County Bar Association now offers temporary office space — including common workspace and private conference rooms — for members in a building a few steps away from the courthouse. Many attorneys now work from home and want an alternative to meeting a client at a coffeehouse, said Heather S. Riley, bar association president and partner with Allen Matkins Leck Gamble Mallory & Natsis LLP. “Sixty percent of members are smalls or solos,” she said.

Retail Scene or Lack of It

There are still retail workers downtown, but it is not like the old days.

The classic American city had big department stores in its downtown core and San Diego was no different. It was home to Marston’s and Walker’s (which became Walker Scott in the mid-1950s). The varied shopping options included Ballard & Brockett for women’s clothes.

The decades following World War II brought the College Grove, Mission Valley and Grossmont shopping centers — and a change in downtown’s fortunes. New freeways ushered in shopping centers and suburban living “and all but killed downtown,” wrote historian

Raymond G. Starr in“San Diego: A Pictorial History.”

The opening of the $140 million Horton Plaza mall in 1985 was the biggest attempt to bring downtown retail back — though it was probably more successful in converting the adjacent Gaslamp Quarter from a sailor hangout to a major tourist draw.

Shabby neighborhoods with adult theaters made way for today’s Fifth Avenue, with fancy restaurants and valet parking.

In some ways, history is repeating itself. Daily newspapers once had their offices downtown. Now The San Diego Union Tribune plans to leave Mission Valley and move 350 people into four floors of 600 B Street.

It’s the building that once housed San Diego Federal, one of several downtown-based savings and loans that faded in the 1990s.

What is the future of downtown?

Cubicles are increasingly giving way to open-plan offices. Creative professionals want to “get off the mesa,” Johnson said. And though high-rise condos are sweeping industry aside, there will always be work to do in downtown San Diego — including work that the departed founders of Marston’s and Walker Scott would recognize.

Today’s Industries

• 19 Percent Government

• 17 Percent Arts, Entertainment, Recreation

• 13 Percent Accommodations

• 11 Percent Utilities

• 10 Percent Professional, Scientific, Technical

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