Atmosphere project no longer up in the air

Apartment house will provide 205 affordable residences

Atmosphere site seen from across Fourth Avenue
  • Atmosphere site seen from across Fourth Avenue

On March 25, 2010, the Reader published a story titled “What's Up with the Big Cortez Hole?” The hyped Atmosphere condo development had fizzled and left a giant construction hole between Fourth and Fifth avenues (between Ash and Beech streets). The deep and hazardous site with exposed rebar was eventually filled with dirt and fenced in.

After years of negotiations and financing plans, Wakeland Housing and Development Corp. has begun work on the new Atmosphere: an $80 million, 12-story, 205-unit affordable-housing development. Construction walkways are now in place at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Beech St.

Demolition will begin immediately on two empty buildings on the site previously occupied by California Stamp Co. and Spencer S. Busby law offices. Owners of those properties were paid $2.4 million plus relocation costs to vacate.

An adjacent building, the Beechwood hotel/apartment property at 1475 Fourth Avenue, was not purchased for inclusion in the Atmosphere construction site. The property was recently listed for sale (at $2.7 million), but it's been taken off the market, said Josh Browar, a senior associate with South Coast Commercial. He explained that the owner decided to do renovation work on the building.

Browar said Wakeland wasn't interested in the Beechwood lot, as they've locked in their plans, approvals, and costs for Atmosphere. Wakeland might have been interested two years ago, Browar added.

Ken Sauder, president of Wakeland, echoed what Browar said. “Increasing our footprint would change the project and we would need to put together a new financing plan, which could take several more years.”

Currently a senior vice president at Jones Lang LaSalle, Jeff Graham was immersed in the Atmosphere project while VP and later president of CivicSD. Graham is now a boardmember at Wakeland. Without redevelopment money, the project had to seek funds elsewhere. It includes tax credits, state infill funding, Mental Health Services Act program, project-based Section 8 vouchers, and a San Diego Housing Commission loan.

As for the Beechwood, Graham said, if the property is re-listed, this “could be a good opportunity for an affordable-housing developer to acquire it.” Its units are said to be 99 percent full most of the time.

Atmosphere will include studios and one-, two- and three-bedroom units; completion is slated for early 2017. Rents are expected to be $394 to $1,191 per month, based on income. Fifty-one apartments will be reserved for special-needs residents.

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As much as I hate to see public funds used (indirectly through tax credits), this type of affordable housing development is desperately needed. The per square foot costs are usually exorbitant on them. It makes you wonder if the bidding process is really working in the public's favor. I'd like to see more affordable housing built in some of the outlying cities like Santee, and El Cajon. These are generally less expensive areas to build and nearer to employment centers. Perhaps, fewer tax credits would be used and a wider range of people would benefit from them.

One reason for having Atmosphere in that location is the senior center right across the street at 4th and Beech. And it's close to buses and trolleys. I think the tax credits were needed for the creative financing involved, after the loss of redevelopment dollars. I don't know how the bidding process worked on this project. Obviously the construction company is doing it for a profit, not out of altruism.

At long, long last. I don't miss the hole and rebar a bit. The addition of affordable housing benefits all San Diegans. As far as public funds are concerned, I don't see any charities stepping up to the plate to build projects like this. I can't imagine the members of the Lincoln Club or the Chamber of Commerce jumping up with their checkbooks open to fund a 205 unit affordable complex. However both organizations are willing to spend bunches for voter incentives to prevent the implementation of a new minimum wage, or prevent effective zoning for Barrio Logan. While at the same time touting millions in taxpayer funding for a new Chargers stadium and expansion of the convention center. Both projects are nothing more than cheesy welfare for the already wealthy.

Well, as the wealthy today say to the poor: "Let 'em eat ramen noodles!"

I wish someone would define affordable. The apartments down the street rent (1br.1ba) for $,1850 a month. There are two large apartment building nearby that rent the same 1/1 unit for $2,100 but were built with some public funds so they have "affordable" units available for $1,600 a month. The cost for a worker is over $9 an hour. With transportation and food and utilities etc. you won't have any low wage workers living there.

This development is truly affordable: $394 to $1,191 per month (the last rate is for a 3-bedroom apartment). It doesn't get any more affordable than that.

Here's a photo update. When I went by today, the two buildings on the site were gone. Now the excavation for underground parking and the foundation will begin.


by dwbat

August 30 update: Here's another pic taken from the same angle--3 months later.


by dwbat

Oct. 21 UPDATE: Lots of progress, as you can see in the photo I shot today.

NOVEMBER 24 UPDATE; Here's today's photo.


by dwbat

February 3 update: Photo taken from the 5th Avenue side.


by dwbat

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