Just a few blocks from San Diego's skyscrapers, there's corn growing in the middle of a parking lot.
The corn is part of a thriving garden, which winds around the side of an aged, peach-colored house at 1543 Front St. The 10-foot stalks are the pride of the Rubio family, which has rented the house for years.
To the people who own the surrounding parking lot, however, the house and its corn represent an exasperating holdout from the past. For years, they have tried to buy the house so they could knock it down, build a large parking garage on the entire block and cash in on the land boom downtown.
But so far there has been no deal. And the result is a strange scene along San Diego's urban landscape: an old frame house standing alone, a small peninsula among blacktop and cars.
"It does seem a little weird, a house here surrounded by two parking lots," said 18-year-old Miroslava Rubio, who lives with her family in the house. "But it's OK. We don't mind."
The plight of the lone house on Front Street is a small example of the kind of changes rippling through San Diego's inner-city neighborhoods, where land prices are increasing as redevelopment efforts take hold. On the borders of major developments like Horton Plaza, old, sagging boarding homes, houses and warehouses and commercial buildings are being eyed by prospective owners intent on making way for office buildings, stores and parking garages to fit the "new" downtown.
That was the idea nearly 35 years ago when Dr. Roy M. Ledford, a local surgeon, began a campaign to buy up the 12 lots bounded by Front Street on the west, Beech Street on the south, First Street on the east and Cedar Street.
"My father spent the last 25 years of his life putting that block together, piece by piece," said Lucille Ledford Green, his daughter. "He always had great faith in downtown, although downtown did not reflect that faith at that time."
One of the lots Ledford wanted to buy--the house at 1543 Front St.--was purchased in the mid-1950s by Walter and Virginia Wilcoxson, who now live in Mission Hills. Wilcoxson, who worked in the map division of the California Department of Transportation, bought the property shortly before the state decided to route Interstate 5 due north and build an exit ramp that emptied out on Front Street.
The highway ramp opened in 1962, and three years later, a Holiday Inn was built in the area. Both of those developments made Ledford even more interested in acquiring the block, his daughter said.
Yet when he died in 1974, Ledford was several parcels short of his dream--one of which was the house at 1543 Front St.
Green, who took over the management of her father's assets, said the family decided to continue trying to buy the property, and it sent their partner and accountant, Robert Kevane, to woo Wilcoxson.
"It's very difficult to talk to the people," Kevane said. "I would say, myself personally, I talked to them 30 or 40 times."
Each time, he said, the answer was no. The Wilcoxsons refused to sell, even after the Ledford family made it known they would be glad to buy it for 50% above market price--or somewhere between $225,000 and $300,000, Kevane said.
But the Wilcoxsons are "simple people, old country," who don't take too well to "outsiders," said their daughter, Tess Wilcoxson-Stowers, who is also the real estate agent handling the house in question.
"The fact is, it (the house) has been there for a long time, and I see no reason to be hasty in disposing of it," Wilcoxson-Stowers said.
She said the Rubios, a family of seven, have been living in the house for more than 10 years, and are paying between $300 and $400 a month in rent. In addition, there is another family living in a smaller house located on the rear of the property.
The lot is protected by an unpainted wood fence, which itself is protected by several large cactus plants. Top-heavy sunflowers grace the Front Street walk of the home, and on the southern side is a small garden with corn, sugar cane and a papaya tree, not to mention rows of chile plants.
While the Wilcoxson homestead eluded Green and her family, the other lots on the block did not. Eventually, they took control of the 11 parcels, and three months ago had the entire block--minus the Wilcoxson house--paved over as a large private parking lot for California First Bank employees.
The move to pave the entire area--most of it had been a parking lot for some time--came after Wilcoxson-Stowers sent a written offer to Green and her family proposing to sell the house for nearly $670,000. It was rejected, and now Green, her family and their accountant are making plans to wrap an eight-story parking structure around the lone house.