El Cajon Craves Starbucks

— It's still not La Jolla. The buildings along Main Street between Magnolia and Avocado in downtown El Cajon form a hodgepodge of 20th-century architectural styles, from an early-century board-sided, post-and-beam warehouse to 1960s stucco boxes. Many façades need new paint. Signs vary widely in size and style. One in ten retail spaces, including the enormous former Cal Stores sporting goods store, stands vacant.

But after five years under the Downtown El Cajon Management District, this center city strip, in the shadow of the enormous brown brick East County Regional Center, looks wonderful to long-time residents and business owners such as Mike Fenton, owner of Muzik Muzik, a vintage musical instrument shop, who remembers what was there before. "When I opened my shop in this area in 1984," Fenton explains, "you wouldn't have wanted to come down here. There were prostitutes everywhere, and it was male prostitution. F Street Book Store was the only place doing business down here. Eighty percent of the shops were empty. And you could pick up space down here so cheap, between 30 cents and 50 cents a square foot, because it was so bad. As a matter of fact, I was only paying 25 cents a square foot for the place I was in. My own friends wouldn't bring their kids to take lessons in my store because they were afraid to come down here."

That was the daytime situation. Nights were worse. "I used to live in the apartment upstairs, I moved in in 1990," Fenton recalls. "I was calling the cops every single night."

Asked why, he hesitates then asks, "Are you sure you want to know? I came home one night and there was a guy giving another guy a blow job on my front door step. I used to find people masturbating down here all the time, people walking around naked in the alley. Drugs. Transients screaming and yelling at 3:00 in the morning, beating each other up. I had three cars broken into. I had a 1966 Volvo that was stolen. And after I got it back, I found a guy sleeping in the backseat one night. After that, a transient came by one night and stabbed all my tires and broke the mirrors off. His only excuse was, 'I was drunk.' "

In the mid-1990s, Fenton and other business owners, land owners, and the local chamber of commerce began searching for a collective solution to the downtown problem. Terry Saverson, chief executive officer of the El Cajon Chamber of Commerce, recalls, "We brought in a consultant from San Francisco. His name was Merritt Share. He told us that in order to have any change we had to have some money. And there was a brand new law that had been passed in January of 1996 that established a method for raising that money. We had to go out and talk to every business and property owner and explain what could happen if we all got together."

The plan Saverson pitched to businesses and landlords was for the formation of a property-based improvement district (PBID). Unlike a business-improvement district (BID), in which the businesses in a certain area would be assessed, in a PBID the property owners in the area would be assessed to create a common pool of cash that would fund the renovation of the district. The assessment would be a line item on their property-tax bill determined by three factors: frontage, lot square footage, and building square footage. Another important feature of the PBID: it would have to be voted in every five years by 51 percent of the property owners in the area.

Saverson said initial reaction to the proposal was split 50/50. "We got a lot of people saying, 'I'm putting out all the money I can put out. I can't afford to pay any more.' But others saw the need and felt like maybe it was better to put some money in it and see a positive change than to just see nothing and watch things go downhill further."

To build support up to the required 51 percent, the chamber of commerce held meetings with small groups of property owners. "We asked them," Saverson recalls, " 'If the management district were to happen, what would you like to see it supply?' The number-one issue was security. That was on the top of their list."

The issue went to a ballot in June 1996 and was passed, making El Cajon the third property-assessment management district in the state --first for a city under 100,000 -- and the first in San Diego County. June 2001 marks the five-year anniversary, and renewal ballots are currently in the hands of property owners who have until June 26 to return them.

"I was really disheartened at first," says Fenton, a strong advocate of the PBID who pays around $2000 a year in assessment on the 6000 square feet of building he owns. "We had three district managers before Claire Carpenter, and they were all terrible. Actually, at the onset, there was a little bit of change because they got security in, and they started doing something about the transients. But when Claire came in two and a half years ago, it was like night and day. Within the first three months that she was there, things started to change."

Under Carpenter, a former art-business owner who had worked on Ocean Beach's Newport Avenue renewal program, Downtown El Cajon Management has narrowed Main down to two lanes with diagonal parking and curb pop-outs. They've also planted magnolias, ginkgo biloba, and Bradford pear trees along Main Street. And Carpenter instituted special events to promote Downtown El Cajon, including a summer outdoor concert series in Prescott Promenade and a Wednesday farmer's market followed by an evening car show. "We are now the largest weekly car show in Southern California," Carpenter boasts. "It's huge; it was a success the first night."

Carpenter, whose salary of $55,000 comes out of the annual district management budget of $366,000, says the special events help overcome El Cajon's "biggest problem, which is image." Asked to summarize that image, Carpenter answers, "I think people thought it was redneck ... poor ... blighted ... ugly. Those were probably the most common stereotypes. Unsafe was probably another one."

To combat the unsafe image, the management district spends $80,000 on a private security patrol. Another hurdle for downtown redevelopment was the fact there was no reason to go there, outside of the regional center. "It was a terrible vicious circle," says Saverson. "There weren't stores to attract shoppers, and there weren't shoppers to patronize possible new stores."

A dearth of restaurants was, and still is, another problem. Aside from an old-fashioned diner on Main and Avocado, there were no restaurants downtown at the inception of the management district. "There's no place to go," says Lisa Saneda, arts education coordinator for the East County Performing Arts Center. "Most theatergoers like to either do something before or go someplace after, and it's been a problem here in El Cajon. Basically there's just a Mexican restaurant, Por Favor, so if you don't like Mexican, you're out of luck."

The Performing Arts Center fields calls before every performance from theater patrons looking for somewhere to eat. "We tell them Por Favor," Saneda says, "and then the next closest thing is Anthony's or the Brigantine [in La Mesa]."

That fact that people attending the theater in El Cajon are spending their dining money elsewhere galls Carpenter, and she's made attracting restaurants to downtown a top priority. But so far only Por Favor owner Gabriel Marrujo has taken up the challenge. "Well, when we first went in there in 1998," Marrujo says, "it was a gamble. There was still a transient problem. There was a homeless ministry right next door plus F Street Books. There was a homeless problem in the alley and in the front and people sleeping and urinating all around. Our customers from our other stores were asking me, 'What are you doing going over there?' But we were assured that the homeless ministry was going to be relocated, and we could see the changes that were going to come along on the street. So we decided to take a gamble."

Marrujo's other three Por Favors are in Fletcher Hills, Lemon Grove, and La Mesa. The latter two, like the El Cajon location, are also in traditional downtown areas. "We like to be in older, downtown sort of locations. We saw La Mesa doing the same thing in the early '80s when we opened there. And at the time, La Mesa had some transient problems, but it worked out for us there, and it's a great location now."

His El Cajon Por Favor is doing well enough that Marrujo plans to open a full-service American cuisine restaurant two doors down.

"Por Favor is always packed," says Fenton, whose music shop sits between the Mexican restaurant and the planned American restaurant. "During the car show, you have to get in line to get in there, especially if you want to sit on the sidewalk patio. Anybody who had a restaurant business, if they had half a brain, should be looking for buildings down here. You can get cheap property, which is going to cut your overhead down, and there's tons of labor around here. When Por Favor advertised that they needed waitresses, there were so many people coming down looking for jobs."

Retail space in downtown El Cajon currently runs between 70 cents and $1.25 per square foot, as opposed to around $4.50 a square foot in Hillcrest's Uptown District.

After restaurants, Carpenter would like to see some mixed-use residential/retail development in her district. Ground has been broken on one such development on the corner of Main and Magnolia. After that, Carpenter envisions a strip of "unusual retail" and live-entertainment venues. "Our overriding mission," she says, "is to create a pedestrian village, an arts and entertainment shopping district."

Asked if she brought an anticorporate attitude to El Cajon from her former job in Ocean Beach, Carpenter laughs. "We're creating a new identity here because El Cajon lost its identity over the last 20 years. So we don't really have the sense of preservation, for lack of a better word, that OB has. OB is trying to maintain a lifestyle and a philosophy that has been there a long time. Still, we believe strongly that we don't want El Cajon to be homogenized. We don't want to be a Rancho San Diego. Our dream would be to take the best of both worlds, to be able to support entrepreneurs, mom-and-pops, unique shopping environments, and have the more national tenants that bring credibility and a solid financial base."

At present, downtown El Cajon has no national tenants. Attracting one, Carpenter believes, would help the district over the next hurdle in its redevelopment path, what she calls the "peculiar demographics" of El Cajon. "Right around this downtown area," she explains, "is a half mile of low-income apartment dwellers and subsidized housing. Sometimes those corporations can't look past that. They don't see the billions of dollars of income in the hills surrounding us that are only a mile away, two miles away, three miles away in Granite Hills, Mount Helix, and Fletcher Hills. We are surrounded by wealth."

The challenge is explaining that to a corporation. "A Starbucks would do it," Carpenter says. "We need the validation that a Starbucks would bring. We need to be on the map."

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