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It Takes an East Village, a Little Italy, a Gaslamp…

Chelsea Bakewell can’t picture living and working anyplace other than downtown San Diego.

It’s a place, she said, with plenty of theaters and high-end restaurants, as well as many families — a place “geared toward any stage” of life.

“My fiancé and I can see ourselves retiring and living downtown,” said Bakewell, a 27-year-old marketing and public relations manager for Red Door Interactive who walks to work each day.

And contrary to what many might think, she said, you don’t have to be involved in the party scene to appreciate downtown amenities. “They have a scene for everything. … There really is just a lot going on.”

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The process isn’t complete, but since redevelopment in downtown San Diego began gaining momentum in the 1970s, the district has evolved into a diverse place where people can live, work and play. The 92101 ZIP code added 180 businesses from 2002 to 2011, according to the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp.

Nevertheless, downtown has a long way to go in terms of addressing social issues like the homeless and the need for more jobs there, said Michael Stepner, a professor at the NewSchool of Architecture and Design who was San Diego city architect from 1988 to 1992. Better transit serving downtown is also needed.

Still, he said, downtown’s story is positive, having evolved from a high-crime area into a collection of vibrant neighborhoods. He also cited plans for remodeling and repurposing Horton Plaza, the downtown shopping mall that opened in 1985.

“We have come a long way,” Stepner said. “We have a long way to go. … But we are making progress.”

A Diverse Population

A variety of housing types downtown has attracted people from all income groups, Stepner said.

“There are young people and older people who have moved out of their suburban homes,” he said. “You have high-, low- and medium-end residential. That provides for diversity.”

Meanwhile, progress is being made toward getting more businesses to locate downtown, said Kris Michell, president and CEO of the Downtown San Diego Partnership.

There are about 75,000 employees downtown, Michell said.

“Downtown has a pretty vibrant tech economy system,” she said. “Where talent goes, companies go. And that is

downtown.”

A Magnet for Young Adults

In a 2011 report, the nonprofit CEOs for Cities group found that young adults with four-year degrees were 94 percent more likely to live in “close-in urban neighborhoods” than young adults with less education.

“Urban centers are almost a calling to these young folks,” Michell said.

She said millennials — people born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s — are attracted to urban areas. Millennials have several downtown neighborhoods to choose from, as defined by the Downtown San Diego Partnership: Little Italy, Cortez Hill, Columbia, the Gaslamp Quarter, the Marina District, East Village and the Civic Center-Core. And, in turn, many technology businesses are being drawn downtown by the large number of young workers who choose to live and work there.

“There are startups, incubators, accelerators, people who are growing their businesses,” said Steven Cox, the CEO and founder of downtown-based

TakeLessons.com. “Companies are attracting highly talented people who live the idea.

“My employees love downtown,” Cox said. “I have a younger group of people from their 20s up through their 30s and 40s. We have people who ride their skateboards to work.”


‘Everything You Need’

And it’s not only millennials heeding downtown’s call.

Ron Donoho, a 48-year-old freelance writer who calls the East Village home, has lived downtown since 1995. Having moved there from Manhattan, he said that compared to New York City, downtown San Diego seemed very suburban.

“I am very downtown-centric,” Donoho said. “I have friends who joke that I never leave. Everything you need is within a walk or a bike [ride] away, and I like that convenience.”

Similarly, Joyce Glazer, a professional writer, has been living downtown for 21 years. She appreciates the sense of energy she finds there.

“It is pretty exciting to live in the city,” she said. “The more activity on the streets, the better I like it.”

Striving to Be Better

Real estate economist Gary London of The London Group Realty Advisors said that although downtown is a great place live and to play, it has not fulfilled its potential as a place to work.

“Basically, with some exceptions, the commercial office market is very stagnant,” London said. “There has been precious little development of office space downtown. Some of the Class A has slipped into Class B status, and rents have dropped dramatically. There is a substantial vacancy problem.”

Downtown faces tough competition for office space from complexes along the Interstate 5 and Interstate 15 corridors, London said. “The other problem is you have a regional office market whose recovery is steady but sluggish.”

A Brighter Future

Jerry Sanders, president and CEO of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, considers the redevelopment of downtown hugely successful, given the progress made since the 1970s.

“It gets better all the time,” said Sanders, a former San Diego mayor and police chief.

Sanders foresees ongoing improvements, particularly in the East Village, over the next decade.

“The east end still is pretty rugged,” he said. “A lot of homeless, a lot of pretty tough areas. They are already starting to do some building there. I think you will see apartment complexes there that cater to students. I think it will be very exciting.”

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