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Hillcrest Community Braces For Next Step in Growth Battle

September 22, 1985|JANNY SCOTT | Times Staff Writer

Ever since Arnold Saron and his father opened their jewelry store in Hillcrest in 1937, Saron has gazed through the quiet bustle of 5th Avenue to the same four buildings on the four corners of the intersection at University Avenue.

Now developers have big plans for two of those familiar corners. If they have their way, they will build two large complexes of shops, offices and high-rise condominium and apartment towers that will embrace and accelerate the changes altering Saron's world.

"When they go to tear those buildings down, they're going to find out they are put together," Saron mused last week, with a skeptic's relish in the face of something he's not sure is progress. "The guys that go to wreck them are going to lose money. They figure they can take 'em down in two days. It's going to take two months."

Hillcrest, San Diego's tiny pocket of late-night book stores, foreign films, cappuccino machines and urban funk, is metamorphosing once again--this time into a higher, deeper, denser place with sleeker surfaces and a sharper edge.

Land costs and rents are on the rise. Designer ice cream and burger franchises are rumored to be eyeing space. Urban pioneers who once made the neighborhood safe for gift shops are looking for new frontiers--the victims, some say ruefully, of their own success.

Some business owners along the narrow, leafy streets welcome the change; they say it's an expression of an economic energy they hope to harness. But others wonder whether the high-rises signal a war they inevitably will lose.

"The little neighborhood associations made of everyday residents aren't going to be able to win battles against multimillion-dollar developers," said Chris Kehoe, editor of the Hillcrest-based newspaper for homosexuals, the Gayzette. "When those big buildings go up on University, people here will know once and for all that the battle is on."

On the northeast corner, SEG--Southwest Estate Group has proposed Hillcrest Square--a $70-million mix of shops and restaurants, office buildings, and a condominium tower, filling most of the block bounded by 5th and 6th avenues, Washington Street and University.

Across 5th, Ledford Enterprises hopes to build Hillcrest Galleria--a mix of low-rise retail stores, service shops and offices, sloping back under a big copper roof to a 120-foot apartment tower deep in the block.

Nearby, to the north on Washington, Construction Management Services is building four stories of 81 furnished apartments, complete with swimming pool and Jacuzzi. They are to cater to a growing group--corporate transfers, mobile medical professionals, the newly divorced.

Elsewhere, there is smaller-scale flux--plans for a block of stores at 4th and Robinson avenues, a drive-up flower shop in place of a gas station at 5th and Washington. Old houses are being transformed into office space. Others are being displaced by condominiums.

"Because of what land costs are, you have to look for the highest and best use of your capital," reasoned Lucille Ledford Green, hoping to build Hillcrest Galleria on land her family has owned since the 1930s. "That's what they call capitalism, I do believe. You're looking for a return on your investment. It's very simple."

Perched on the mesa between downtown and Mission Valley, with bay views and some of the highest elevations in the city, Hillcrest is one of San Diego's oldest communities, its narrow streets laid out before there were automobiles to ride them.

It grew strongly in the 1930s, a quiet residential neighborhood with easy access to downtown. Later, Mercy and University hospitals made it a focus of medical activity. Public transportation linked it directly to downtown.

But during the 1960s and 1970s, longtime residents say, Hillcrest's business center stagnated. As Mission Valley and San Diego's periphery and suburbs grew, storefronts sat empty along Hillcrest's streets. The average age of its residents crept up.

"If you look at Hillcrest 10 years ago, it was much different," said Neil Good, a longtime resident who started the newspaper Uptown in March. "You had the remnants of old neighborhood shops. The neighborhood wasn't decaying, but it was standing still."

Many trace the current transformation to the late 1970s, when the Guild Theater gave up pornography in favor of art and foreign films. Moviegoers began coming to Hillcrest in the evening. Lines formed. Bookstores took to staying open to catch the late-show crowd.

Ethnic restaurants opened in the neighborhood. Others already there laid down white tablecloths and expanded their menus for the new clientele. Bars catering to gays, a late-night deli and a coffee house added to the night life. Boutiques and card shops moved in.

Clown Town, a clown-supply store, gave way to Greek salads and baklava. A hobby shop turned into a yogurt bar, then a balloon boutique. Pink plastic flamingoes and vintage clothing turned up in shops. Wigs and used vacuum cleaners vanished.

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