The photographer pretended to be looking at carpet samples. Then he started snapping pictures of the arklike interior of Julie Melim's carpet warehouse. Melim looked up from her office, walked out, and asked if she could help.
"He turned around, and he was trying to stuff the camera down his backpack. And he just said, 'Oh, no no no no no,' and hustled out of here. I thought: there's something going on."
This was a couple of months ago. Melim, who with her sister owns the Carpet People warehouse at 11th and K, wasn't the only victim of sneak camera attacks. She and her neighbors suspect the photographer was sent by pro-ballpark forces to look for alternative uses for their buildings when the ballpark arrives. "He was probably checking us out for a possible sports bar," says Melim.
But now even that alternative doesn't seem so bad. Latest news to hit Melim: her 71-year-old arch-roofed building is in the way of a proposed street. It will be leveled. No questions asked.
That's what's happening in East Village -- formerly known as Centre City East -- these days. Legendary lofts, like the Candy Factory and the Artplex building are now sitting on death row. So is at least part of the red brick Western Metal building, which houses the Farmers' Market, despite San Diego's Historical Site Board labeling it an "outstanding structure...influenced by the Chicago school." Others, like the 1913 Simon Levi lofts at Seventh and J ("a fine example of Industrial Class Architecture") and the elegant 1927 Kvass Construction building on Eighth between J and K ("interesting blend of several architectural influences") face an uncertain future: they stand where the Padres want to put their "outfield park" and sports retail outlets, within the gates of the proposed ballpark.
The reason the East Village hasn't developed, Melim claims, is that for two decades the city has been threatening to turn most of it into a sports arena. "As far as I'm concerned, the whole area [has been] destroyed by the sports arena/ballpark information. People felt nervous about investing in the area.... Now when they come in and say they're going to bulldoze it, you feel like everything's being dissolved. We're just sitting here waiting. If they're going to kill us or if we're going to survive, I don't know."
In the lofts of the condemned Candy Factory, three blocks west, Chris McGirr also feels excluded from the planning process. But she's gearing up to fight. From 1924 to '49, the Showley brothers made such tooth-rotters as Cluster Ruffs and St. Francis Milk Chocolates in this building. Since the late '80s it has been live-work lofts to people like McGirr. "People are mad about this," says McGirr, 38. "My neighbors are talking about how left out they felt from the [city's planning] process. It takes me three hours now to make it from my [loft] to my car, I have so many people coming out and saying, 'What's going on? What's going on?' "
So last Friday, McGirr, along with loft-living lawyer Kent Wilson and other residents of East Village, threw a party to announce the formation of a fight-back organization, the People's East Village Association, PEVA. The title itself is a defiant message to the already extant eva, the East Village Association, which caters mainly to landowners and openly supports the Padres' plan.
Around dusk, 50 gowned and suited people traipsed past a homeless man with a shopping cart to gather inside Wilson's brick-walled, art-filled loft. Wilson occupies the second floor of the Artplex building at 9th and K. The 1913 building is also threatened with destruction to make way for the Field of Dreams. Looking out over a rain-greened empty block that used to be an Ace parking lot, the guests ate canapés, listened to a cappella singing, and set to figuring out what to do.
"What we have here is a Trojan Horse," declared Wilson, who says he's not opposed to a ballpark in East Village "under the right circumstances." But as it is now, he says, the ballpark is just a cover for the Padres' real agenda: the office complex the Padres want to build along with the ballpark in East Village, so the resulting property taxes will pay the estimated $250 million basic development costs. After the PR disaster of the Qualcomm Stadium renovation costs, the city prefers the Padres' plan to asking citizens to pay for the project by raising taxes.
"The Padres have not shown cross-sections of the office buildings they propose," says Wilson, "only the footprints. Because when you see the massive scale they're talking about, it's quite amazing. It's my understanding that the tallest of these buildings is one and a half times taller than the Harbor Club condominiums. The ball team is being used as leverage to put in [this] out-scaled office project on Harbor Drive. It will destroy this East Village historic neighborhood."
The stadium, too, he says, will loom too large over the Gaslamp and East Village. "[Looking at plans], you don't get an idea of how massive this stadium is," he says. "You're going over 150 feet up in the air, over several blocks. It's going to wall in one end of Fifth Avenue, especially if they add on to the convention center."
Wilson doesn't want the city to give TOT (transient occupancy tax -- hotel-room tax) dollars to pay for this either. "Not when the arts and recreational and other city services remain under-funded," Wilson says. "And the traffic jams would destroy the area on the 81 days when games will be played. And the project would displace appropriately scaled hotels that could be built in East Village and generate area business and taxes 365 days, not just 81 days, a year."
"I guess if you place a value on professional sports only," agrees McGirr, "and you completely disregard history, then the [Padres] plan would be doing what it's supposed to do. But if you have any value at all for history, then that should be weighed heavily into the equation, and it's not being weighed heavily at all." She sees a wider conspiracy afoot. "There's a stadium shakedown, a stadium subsidy racket going on across the United States," she says. "The government and the citizens are taking a back seat here to the Padres' wishes. Essentially there's no due process in the process."
Don't tell that to McGirr's landlord. He's not even here tonight. Linville Martin, the man who restored the Candy Factory and got it its historic designation, doesn't buy the conspiracy theory and wants nothing to do with PEVA's campaign.
"It's a children's crusade," scoffs Martin. "You look around for that sort of theory because how else can you possibly justify your position? [As a tenant] you don't have a vested interest. Your actual connection to the community is only based on two or three years' residence. You've paid rent and so you feel as if you have vested rights!" Martin is beyond sentimental about East Village or his Candy Factory. "Let me tell you something: if my building gets condemned out, I'm not going to profit. The end of this year will be the first year I'll be making money. I've owned that fucking building for 16 years, and I haven't made a fucking penny. All I've done is put money into it and deal with whiny-assed tenants."
Martin says in the 16 years he's owned the Candy Factory (living there for 3 of them), he has fought dozens of battles to "save" what was Centre City East. "If those [PEVA] people make the same kind of commitment that I have made and agree to stay in the area for 16 to 20 years, then maybe they can speak and have some sort of credibility."
But what about the artistic, young, entrepreneurial designer-architect community that has grown to form the fabric that is East Village today?
"Architects have what I call a 'garage mentality.' They're there because it's cheap rent. And why the cheap rent? Because nobody else wants to be there. Why is the artistic community there? Because they're pioneers, because they care about the community and they want to help it develop? No, because it's cheap rent! Everybody's competing for the young professional: but you think you could get a family to live there in East Village? Would you take your children there? No. There's not a bloody school for how far? I actually lived down there with my first kid. Till I said, 'Hey, I'm off to the suburbs,' where at least you don't have to decide whether or not it's safe to leave your baby in the car or the groceries while you're taking one or the other into the building. "
But isn't his historic building worth fighting for? Martin laughs. "Why is my Candy factory historically registered? Because I had to do a dog-and-pony show like you wouldn't believe in order to convince the Historical Sites Board that it had some historical significance -- which was totally bogus! The reason I did it was because there's a relaxed building code that I could operate under then and make the improvements I needed to make at a reasonable price, in order to create the kind of living environment that I did. Otherwise I wouldn't have been able to afford to make the conversion to the lofts. But there's no fucking historical basis for it. It was a goddamned candy factory! It was built in 1924 and stopped operation in 1949. What possible historic significance is that? It's not a historically significant building. It doesn't say anything architecturally. It doesn't say anything in terms of any historical event that took place."
Martin says he has teamed up with planners and architects to try "appropriate" small-scale development projects in the area before. But investors never believed the projects would bring people into the community. "[PEVA] tells me a 'slowly evolving process' is going to take place that's going to be led by the architects and artists in the area? Please. I'm embarrassed. It takes a development of a monumental scale [to make] a radical difference in the area." A development, in other words, like the Padres' ballpark. Besides, he says, even if he wanted to fight them, he couldn't.
"I recognize that I am in fact powerless, and there are much greater forces than Lin Martin in this universe. And maybe I'm not as provincial as some other people are. Maybe I can see that there is in some way a sacrifice that everybody has to make in order for good things to happen. On the other hand, if the children's crusade -- the PEVA -- are successful and the ballpark doesn't happen, gee! I might just keep my building and make money."