Why vacancies in Hillcrest?

The macro vs. the micro view

Nishiki Ramen, leased but not yet open
  • Nishiki Ramen, leased but not yet open

We’ve all seen commercial spaces, some at large shopping centers, strip malls or standalone, which either remain vacant or have a lot of turnover. Businesses come and go, with months of vacancies in between. Are those spaces jinxed?

Vacancy next to Wells Fargo

Vacancy next to Wells Fargo

The popular shopping center, The Hub Hillcrest Market at University Avenue and Vermont Street has three vacancies. That’s not many for a large and successful commercial center. But what does it reveal?

Closed Nutrishop

Closed Nutrishop

Regency Centers is an owner, operator, and developer of shopping centers nationwide. It manages The Hub from its Solana Beach branch office. The Hub’s demographics show a daytime population of 36,656 in a one-mile radius, and 370,745 in a three-mile radius. Average household income is $84,869 ( one-mile radius) and $81,997 (three-mile radius).

On University Avenue across from Ike’s Place, there are two restaurant spaces, where eateries have opened and closed. The one closest to the avenue had previous lessees, including Pick Up Stix and Whistling Duck Tavern. Both closed down. Is there an explanation why?

Nate Benedetto, principal at Next Wave Commercial has some answers. “People talk about locations being 'jinxed' or 'cursed' but I don't believe in wizards,” said Benedetto. “Pick Up Stix has lost momentum countywide, and closed several locations,” he explained. “Whistling Duck failed to attract the industry buzz that is needed to make things work in high-rent shopping centers.”

Set to move into that space is Nishiki Ramen, which has an outlet in Kearny Mesa. Next door to Nishiki Ramen is one of three Hub vacancies. It was once occupied by a seafood restaurant. Next to Ralphs is a space vacated by Nutrishop, a vitamin and supplements store. It enjoyed a four-star rating on Yelp.com. A third vacancy is on Vermont Street, adjacent to Wells Fargo.

Benjamin Nicholls, executive director of Hillcrest Business Association., has a different explanation of turnover, whether it’s in a shopping center like The Hub, or free-standing restaurants in Hillcrest. Nicholls says Hillcrest is “between a rock and a hard place. There are two major problems.”

While he says Hillcrest has some of the best restaurants in San Diego, “we’re not seeing new residential development” as in Little Italy, Gaslamp Quarter, East Village and North Park. The density in those neighborhoods affects the “base of customers.” Nicholls says most developers avoid Hillcrest residential projects because of preservation activism, and likely “$40,000 in legal bills” to deal with it. And he added: “We have a parking problem.” Proposals for a Hillcrest parking structure like the one in North Park failed to advance.

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It's a poor musician that blames his instrument. Nicholls continually blames the neighborhood for not being as wealthy and densely populated as he would like. But as this article shows, the facts don't back up his constant complaining.

Little Italy has almost the same population as Hillcrest but an average household income that's $6,800 less. Only 1,000 people live in The Gaslamp and 13,000 in East Village. And despite North Park being over twice the size and population of Hillcrest, it has a average household income that's $20,000 less.

But what Little Italy and The Gaslamp and East Village and North Park do have in common is a commitment to historic preservation—the very thing Nicholls wrongly claims Hillcrest has too much of—as an engine for economic growth. Well that, and "advocates" who don't go around trash-talking the locals.

Hillcrest was one of the top 10 neighborhood in the country when Nicholls took over its business association. Where he needs to look for what has gone wrong is in a mirror.

Personally, I think part of the problem is that many people in the urban core don’t care to eat in a shopping center restaurant. There are plenty of Hillcrest restaurants in street storefronts along Fourth, Fifth and University avenues which are doing fine. And even with their historical caches, North Park, Little Italy and Gaslamp certainly have turnover in restaurants. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least 25% of all eateries fail within two years.

I think a storefront brain surgery clinic might be more successful than the typical new restaurant opening! The competition is brutal.

Considering that every square inch of pedestrian access is commercialized, I'd day that there are very few vacancies. If it were even possible to count the number of retail outlets, I'd say they outnumber vacancies by 99-1. It's not enough that they fill every eye-level storefront, they also spill out onto what were once spacious sidewalks, to the point that wheelchairs, shopping carts, bicycles and now scooters can't pass each other. Many more shops and offices are on the second floor of these buildings.

Yes, everyone knows that parking is a problem that limits retail success here. 'Historic preservation'? Only a few nutcases will find historical points of interest here. The old Sears store with its' ample parking might have qualified, not much else. More density is inevitable. It will be profitable, and it is the correct choice for city planners. Parking and access for private cars will be less of a problem in the future.

That ugly old Sears barn in Hillcrest could hardly be considered historic or worth preserving.


by dwbat

Nice picture of Sears. That was the last time there was a vacant parking spot in the neighborhood. But yeah, it was an ugly building and Hillcrest was ugly too in those days. It's better now and will be even better in 10 years. We have some good people here working out the problems. Note that the Uptown Planners meet here on the 5th.

City planners and the community long called for the Hillcrest core to be designated a historic district. Nicholls worked with lobbyists to kill it; and now we're seeing the results. Studies have consistently shown the environmental, social, and economic benefits of historic districts.

The Gaslamp certainly has density: but if it didn't have character, no one would go there. That should be the model for Hillcrest—not UTC.

OK, I'm neutral here. I live in North Park. But I don't see how one can compare Gaslamp Quarter with Hillcrest, as the former has truly historic buildings, going back to Wyatt Earp. It draws a wide range of tourists, while Hillcrest does not. What are the historic buildings in Hillcrest? I'm scratching my head to think of any. Certainly not Pernicano's.

My understanding has always been that historic buildings are different than historic districts. Of course historic districts have historic buildings, but its more an issue of a character unique to that location, usually having to do with a vernacular quality. What being a historic district would do is require development to acknowledge Hillcrest is both a typical and a unique example of how San Diego was built a hundred years ago, and eventually became the center of the LGBT community. That wouldn't mean everything should or would be preserved, and density shouldn't be added, but the quality that is already there would be used as a template for moving forward. Quite frankly this is how mature and wise cities allow their built world to evolve and expand. And yes, both buildings that were Pernicano's long ago have some value that is worth having a respectful and intelligent discussion about, which again doesn't mean they should be preserved as museum pieces. The eclecticism and variation that buildings (and parts of buildings) from different eras add to the built world is invigorating, psychologically healthy and intellectually meaningful. The best way to make sure this happens is through reasonable historic preservation. I quite frankly think if the developers worked with the community to create Hillcrest historic district they would find an easier pathway to add new developments and density, and we would all end up with a better Hillcrest.

Thanks for the explanation of the two terms. I do remember the old Craftsman house, where Tap Lighting is located, at 3690 Sixth Ave. That may be considered historic.

I haven't read it in a while, but the Secretary of the Interior's description of historic districts is pretty interesting. Its very clear new development should look like its just that, new, but is also respectful to what's around it.

Parking is so bad in Hillcrest that it draws very few from outside the neighborhood. San Diego's version of mass transit is unreliable.

The 10 bus that goes west from North Park on University to Hillcrest/Mission Hills to Old Town is often full, and you wait a while for one to come by. The 3 bus (south on 4th, north on 5th) doesn't arrive often enough. Luckily Uber/Lyft is helping somewhat.

Lots of bus lines serve Hillcrest: 1, 3, 10, 11, 120. Most have frequencies of 15 minutes or less. But traffic in Hillcrest means they are slow and run behind schedule. And the ridership seems overwhelmingly transit-dependent; people without cars. I’d be surprised if more than a handful of the bus riders who come to Hillcrest to shop or dine have a choice of transit or auto. And of those with cars, they now will choose Ubrr or Lyft over a bus. We used to take the 10 from North Park before Uber came onto the scene. But the buses in the evening were invariably dirty and usually included a couple of sketchy riders who made you think twice about boarding. It’s an issue with transit systems generally, I know, but exacerbated in San Diego because the city is poorly served by msss transit outside of a few urban corridors.

Maybe we need Uber/Lyft mini-buses to take groups of people to shop/dine.

RE: "sketchy riders" You're not kidding. The worst are the homeless people who literally stink up the bus. I complained to MTS a while back about this, and was told a driver has the authority to get those types off the bus. But I've never seen it happen. I think they should call security, and let them handle it. Other riders should not have to put up with that disgusting smell.

Nov. 5 update: It's 5 months later, and the empty Nutrishop space is still vacant.

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