By Dave Schwab
Once king of the road, El Cajon Boulevard enjoying a renaissance
Like a coach who works with players individually to bring out their best talents rather than forcing them to fit into a prescribed system, the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association is collaborating with residents and businesses in San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods to find innovative ways to resurrect El Cajon Boulevard.
The idea is to return “The Boulevard” to its past glory.
“Before the freeways were built, the only east-west thoroughfare was El Cajon Boulevard,” said Gary Weber, a former city planner who is now a land-use consultant for the association.
The objective is not to mimic what San Diego’s other Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) are doing, Weber said, but rather to “do our own thing because everyone is unique.”
“We’re a little different because we’re not a square neighborhood but a linear boulevard,” said John O’Connor, the association’s secretary.
“We have a great history here (El Cajon Boulevard) and returning to that is awesome,” said Beryl Forman, the association’s marketing and mobility coordinator. “But at the same time, it needs to be brought up to the 21st century.”
Forman noted that residents’ attitudes about The Boulevard are changing. “People are seeing it as part of their neighborhood, versus this boundary,” she said.
“We’re not just looking to fill old spaces with new businesses,” said the association’s president, Tootie Thomas, owner of the Lips supper club. “We want to create a place where people can live, work, shop and dine.”
Along with other colleagues involved in the association, Thomas is plotting the course for a “new look” El Cajon Boulevard that Thomas has dubbed “The Coolevard.”
Forman said re-imagining The Boulevard has entailed building around “nodes,” concentrations of businesses where economic activity is centered. On The Boulevard, those nodes are at the intersections of Texas Street, 30th Street and the Little Saigon District near 46th Street.
“Those are where businesses are clustered with more activity there,” Beryl said. “We’re nurturing those nodes through economic activity, marketing and mass transit, trying to encourage other nodes to grow.”
Discussing the strengths of The Boulevard, Weber cited “access and centrality.”
“Every freeway passes through here, it’s easy to get here,” Weber said. “We’re at the center of population in the region with statistics showing 20 percent of San Diego’s population lives within a 5-mile radius of El Cajon Boulevard. There’s a lot of opportunity to attract activity.”
“We have a lot of great urban neighborhoods with a customer base that can walk to and from The Boulevard,” Forman added.
“We also have great value,” Thomas pointed out. “You can pick up some great property here on The Boulevard for a great deal, still.”
Thomas added that cultural diversity, like that which exists in Little Saigon where as much as 70 percent of businesses are Vietnamese-owned, is perhaps The Boulevard’s greatest asset.
“That’s a benefit, an opportunity for us,” Thomas said.
O’Connor’s family has owned O’Connor Church Goods store and supply warehouse at 37th and El Cajon Boulevard for 51 years. The O’Connor property has been sold to make way for redevelopment, via the 37ECB Project. The aim of 37ECB is “to create a business incubator that could empower creatives, startups and entrepreneurs on The Boulevard.”
“O’Connor’s is very excited to continue their legacy in recent decades of The Boulevard’s revitalization and economic development,” O’Connor said about his family’s building that previously was home to various commercial businesses from light industrial and office uses, furniture stores and General Dynamic’s Convair Division. The corner parcel of the O’Connor’s block, developed as a service station in the 1920s and as a 7-Eleven in the 1970s, will soon become a community park amenity and a 37ECB anchor.
The 37ECB project envisions a daily food offering, a local coffee roaster, a full-service beverage bar and locally made products in a market setting supporting startups and nonprofits in an emerging arts and entertainment scene.
The project is to include meeting/conference rooms and a small-business center with onsite private dining and production and studio spaces rented by the hour including bike storage, lockers and a repair station. There will also be opportunities for nutritional classes, urban gardening and fitness programs.
“37ECB is a one-of-a-kind opportunity for food and beverage operators, with more than 20,000 square feet of programmable space and capacity for more than 200 creatives and small businesses on-site daily and 200-plus events a year,” said Jay Wentz with the historic, recently remodeled and updated Lafayette Hotel. “The customers are built in.”
The vision of 37ECB is that the repositioning of the O’Connor’s building will initiate the revitalization of the surrounding site for continued growth that eventually will transition organically into a cultural and entertainment district.
Some, like David Iwashita who’s partnered with Wentz and fellow developers, Danny Fitzgerald and Damien McKinney, to implement the 37ECB concept planned for completion in summer 2016, are convinced the O’Connor site is ideal for redevelopment/revitalization. Noting there are more than 50,000 residents in the area (a higher density than Downtown) with a 20,000-plus traffic count along El Cajon Boulevard, Iwashita said, “We are excited about bringing another catalytic project to The Boulevard as an anchor for the new economic development that will bring new commercial business and local job opportunities.”
Fitzgerald said the time is ripe to invest in re-creating El Cajon Boulevard.
“The older neighborhood corridors stretching east along The Boulevard and University [Avenue] to SDSU and north-south connections to Downtown/Mission Valley like Park Boulevard, Texas/Florida Canyons and 30th Street can become the innovative heart of our city,” Fitzgerald predicted. “Through community plan updates and public/private partnerships, we can provide the much-needed supply of zoned land for development of housing and mixed-use environments at a more affordable price level, with commercial space for startups and entrepreneurs.”
Fitzgerald believes the critical mass of progressive community and business leaders in the North Park area and east along The Boulevard coalescing right now is “priming the pump for the innovations needed to start to solve the housing crisis, one of our region’s systemic problems by 2020-25, as well as truly becoming a hot bed for entrepreneurs and startups.”
Adding to, and perhaps partially driving, The Boulevard’s emerging redevelopment are new large-scale, mixed-use residential developments, like H.G. Fenton Company’s project in the 2000 block of El Cajon Boulevard between Florida and Alabama streets.
“Last year, we hired award-winning architects to help us create a project that brings people and businesses together,” Fenton spokesman John La Raia said. “The community will feature 165 upscale, airy urban units with multiple gathering spaces for socializing indoors and out, dedicated on-site parking and approximately 4,000 square feet of street-facing corner restaurant and retail space with live-work spaces fronting El Cajon Boulevard. We are eager to see residents and businesses moving in in late 2017.”
La Raia characterized The Boulevard’s ongoing revitalization as “another golden era.”
“El Cajon Boulevard has a combination of features that make it optimal as a lifestyle destination for both work and play,” he said. “This includes a strong neighborhood feel, diverse culture, excellent location close to job centers and transit, nearby parks and open space. We anticipate more young professionals moving here to live in the new residential apartment communities being developed. We also see exciting new retail and restaurant businesses attracting shoppers and diners from outside of the neighborhood.”
— Dave Schwab can be reached at email@example.com.