Once you leave the western edge of Balboa Park and cross Sixth Street, you’ve entered into an area of Uptown often hurried over hastily. Frequently mislabeled as southern Hillcrest, Northern Downtown — or the area connecting the two — Bankers Hill (or Park West) is a clean, development-friendly corridor seeking to forge an identity of its own.
Although the three organizations to follow are young — all were formed in 2011 — the people behind the groups are thoughtful and seasoned, and all three groups have found quick success thus far.
Although the battle to distinguish itself as more than conglomeration of shortcuts used by Downtown commuters isn’t a fun fight, Bankers Hill seems to be winning it. With notable businesses like the The Hornblower, Croce’s Park West and Bertrand at Mister A’s, as well as a close proximity to San Diego’s most alluring outdoor space, there’s easy indication a bright future lies ahead for Bankers Hill.
—Hutton Marshall, Uptown Editor
Metro Community Development Corporation
The Metro CDC is one of the most interesting groups from this series so far. Like the rest of the organizations originating in Bankers Hill, it’s only three years old, but its rightfully ambitious about what it can provide for San Diego.
CDCs are often used as backbones for other organizations, acting as a umbrella fiduciary assisting groups less formalized or unable to gain 501(c)3 status, which allows an organization, among other advantages, to accept tax-deductible donations.
In many ways, the Metro CDC goes beyond a normal CDC in both function and in the area it confines itself to.
Originally formed as a community group primarily to address concerns with the failed Plaza de Panama project, Metro quickly attracted the attention of other communities. Leo Wilson, the group’s chair, said it had several names in its early days: The Five Points Community Association and the Bankers Hill/ Park West/ Five Points Community Development Corporation were a few. But finally after adding more and more communities to the mix, including parts of Middleton, Western Slope, and Presidio, the group had to pick a name with a bit more brevity.
In addition to its diverse geographic roots, it also pulls from a lot of experience within its own board. Wilson, a former attorney, also chairs the Uptown Planners and has been heavily involved with several organizations throughout Uptown throughout the last couple decades. He said he’s also got a few former city planners, lawyers and other human resources on board too.
With its 501(c)3 status, it’s helped organizations ranging from the Bankers Hill Business Group to the University Heights Community Association by acting as a fiduciary for fundraisers and community events, something it hopes to continue to do for a broad range of groups.
And while it doesn’t pull in significant funding on its own, it hopes to tackle a few projects of its own in Bankers Hill. Wilson said the neighborhood’s lighting isn’t where it should be, and getting funding from the City for such improvements isn’t as easy as one might think. Finishing the Olive Street Park project, a proposed pocket park on Third Avenue, is its other big priority in Bankers Hill, Wilson said.
To accomplish projects like this, Wilson is currently working to establish a maintenance assessment district (MAD) in Bankers Hill. By assessing property owners for a small annual amount, Wilson said the all-volunteer organization could accomplish several needed civic projects in the community.
While the group formed around a specific advocacy issue — the Plaza de Panama project — Wilson said the Metro CDC is now more interested in empowering other community organizations to accomplish their goals, rather than spearhead initiatives itself. With its capable hands, Metro should go far in helping well-intentioned residents navigate the minefield of bureaucracy in order to accomplish community projects throughout Uptown.
Bankers Hill Business Group
Branding an area with a recognizable culture goes hand in hand with developing a prosperous business community. Success stories lie in Gaslamp, Little Italy or North Park, where alluring, easily definable cultures attract San Diegans to come and empty their wallets.
Bankers Hill is now attempting to define itself much in the same manner, although a unique, externally recognizable culture yet to emerge. The main priority right now is to broadcast that Bankers Hill is open for business.
The Bankers Hill Business Group (BHBG) is the leanest of the three Bankers Hill organizations. The group’s president, Jake Sutton, said the group doesn’t keep hard and fast tabs on its membership, but it has about 20 businesses listed on its website, with about 150 on its mailing list.
With the help of the Metro CDC, the BHBG hosts two events each year: the Bankers Hill Art and Craft Beer Festival and Taste of Bankers Hill, taking place in the spring and fall, respectively.
Sutton said that networking and promoting the business community is the top priority. He said getting membership up would be key before anything more proactive is considered, such as establishing a business improvement district (BID) in the area.
BHBG is a “micro-district” in San Diego, which sounds like a mini-business improvement district, but it functions quite differently. While a BID assesses business owners an annual amount to be administered by a board, a micro-district comes in the form of a grant from the City, usually amounting to between $4,000 – $7,000. That’s considerably smaller than San Diego’s smallest annual BID assessment, which in 2010 was $27,000 in Mission Hills.
Settling into its friendly, affluent community, the BHBG should have no problem continuing its road upward for years to come.
Bankers Hill Community Group
The Bankers Hill Community Group (BHCG) is not a residents group, board president Ben Baltic is quick to point out. Rather than purely represent the often anti-development interests of homeowners in an area, Baltic seems geared more toward providing an all-encompassing voice of the community’s interests.
Baltic said the group came together very informally, hoping to act as more of a town hall forum where anyone is free to speak rather than a structured, focused board meeting. Baltic said that form worked for a bit, but as they began interacting with the City and other formal bodies, their free-thinking aversion to things like “board presidents” and “bylaws” didn’t vibe with everyone. Still, even with a more concrete structure, Baltic said the group wishes to act more as a megaphone for the community rather than a way to push to board’s agenda.
Many of their duties align with a residents group. At each meeting they host an expert to speak on a topic of their choosing, which ranges from Balboa Park history to civic planning. Next meeting’s speaker is Bill Fulton, who heads the City’s Planning Department.
The group also advocates for stop signs, crosswalks and other street calming measures. Their white whale is Sixth Avenue, a notoriously fast and furious street. Baltic said it’s a more effective deterrent from park patrons entering Bankers Hill than if you dug a moat in its place.
It also provides community influence on development, hoping to be a voice of guidance than one of protest. Their most recent success was a development on Fifth Avenue (the former site of the Mandarin House). The group convinced the architects to not only add underground parking to its designs, but to completely overhaul the building’s exterior aesthetic to fit the neighborhood.
Its sole source of revenue comes immediately after Pride weekend, where San Diego Pride pays BHCG members to clean up the mess left behind by Pride revelers. That usually amounts to $1,000, much of which goes to making T-shirts for BHCG members volunteering for the cleanup.
The group doesn’t accept membership dues — or really track membership at all for that matter — but there are about 400 people on its email list, and their meeting turnout ranges from about 30 – 100 people. If you’re a Bankers Hill resident mad about something, or you simply want to learn a little more about what’s happening around you, there isn’t a better place to go than this group.
Check back in next week, when we’ll discuss the community organizations of Hillcrest.