The Jacobs Center, a southeast San Diego fixture, is ready to break ground on projects to improve area’s housing, retail, environment

Roxana Popescu, San Diego Union-Tribune – June 28, 2015

 

Here is Reginald Jones, standing in an empty lot near the Euclid Avenue trolley station in his coat and tie, smiling as broadly as the morning is hot. After he gives an overview of what’s about to replace that lot — 52 units of affordable housing — he calls himself a “servant leader,” someone whose role is to help people achieve their vision, rather than impose a top-down vision.

The nonprofit he heads, the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, is getting ready to break ground on the development and 14 other projects in Southeast San Diego, including restoring a creek, building facilities that Jones hopes will one day anchor quality jobs in the area, and beautifying streets with lighting, bike paths and landscaping.

That master plan is not just some pie-in-the-sky dream, but “really reachable,” Jones says. “I see this work accomplished. We can get this done.”

The Jacobs Center, a fixture in Southeast San Diego as a community development nonprofit, is on the cusp of another big growth push. Scars from the recession, a staff overhaul, and the collapse of redevelopment agencies put many of the nonprofit’s plans on hold, but now it has begun to carry out commercial, residential and other projects.

The center was founded in 1995 by the husband-and-wife team Joseph and Violet Jacobs — he a chemical engineer turned entrepreneur and she his partner in business and life. They started a foundation in 1988 that pumped millions into Southeast San Diego, then a blighted area they eyed as ripe for change — the kind of change they felt they could deliver by working closely with residents.

That deep involvement of residents in community change became the Jacobs Center’s trademark, along with the real estate development it undertook to give people access to healthy food, reduce blight and increase locals’ investment in their neighborhoods. The signature development has been Market Creek Plaza, a shopping center that is partly owned by residents.

More than a decade after Joe Jacobs’ death in 2004, and months after Violet’s death in January, their descendants sit on the board of the Jacobs Family Foundation, while the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation continues its work in the community. And things are looking up in the center’s target neighborhoods.

“We’re moving aggressively now after a period of economic downturn,” Jones says.

These projects are the next and potentially final chapter for the Jacobs Center, which plans to cease operations in 2030. It’s now a major landowner in the neighborhood, with its total assets at about $170 million in 2014.

The center practices what’s known as place-based development. Instead of focusing on a theme, such as literacy or public health, it zeros in on a place and addresses issues in depth: housing, environment, access to health care and quality jobs, and so on.

Longtime residents remember when Southeast San Diego was treated like the city’s poor stepchild. Robert Matthews, former president of continuing education for the San Diego Community College District, said the neighborhood has suffered from biases that its residents are poor or professionally underqualified.

In 2001, a Food 4 Less grocery store opened. Since then, the center has worked to convince national chains such as Starbucks and Subway that residents have the cash and the desire to spend it there. The center also invested in the housing stock and made residents a part of the process, Matthews said.

“I, personally, feel that it’s a great beginning,” he said.

The endgame: develop 50 of the 60 acres it owns in Southeast San Diego. (The Market Creek Plaza shopping center and a community center stand on 10 acres.) The challenge: do it in a post-redevelopment agency, post-recession climate with a smaller staff and tighter budget than it used to have. And complete everything by 2030.

That will require focus and efficiency on the nonprofit’s part, collaboration from the city, and trust from residents — things the center has benefited from in the past, which it’s hoping to hold on to now.

Citizen-developers

Long before Jones, long before the Jacobs Center, there was Keryna Johnson. She was 5 in 1986, and living in Encanto. Southeast San Diego, then riddled with blight, wasn’t a place many highly educated, ambitious young professionals aspired to call home.

Those once-troubled neighborhoods — known collectively as the Diamond Neighborhoods — have changed by various measures. The area is still racially diverse, but more Hispanics have moved in. Residents in the city’s Council District 4, which includes Southeast San Diego, spent $1.9 billion in 2014 on retail purchases — mostly outside their district, according to a study issued by the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp.

Some things haven’t changed. In 1999, 23 percent of residents lived below the federal poverty level. Last year, that figure was 24 percent.

Johnson is now 33, has a master’s degree in city planning and works for the county. She rents a few miles north, in El Cerrito — a “very sweet” place — but she’d rather become a homeowner where she grew up.

And she is exactly the type of person the Jacobs Center wants to attract as a homeowner, shopper and involved resident.

What’s unusual about Johnson is that she’s not just a potential homeowner in Southeast San Diego. She’s also part of a redevelopment working group created by the center to get input about ideas and problem solving.

One thing that the Jacobs Center has long prided itself on is the way it involves residents in its initiatives. Instead of announcing, for example, “We’re bringing you this grocery store,” the center’s past and present leaders said they like to have dialogues that start with questions: “What do you want, and is it even a grocery store?”

(Another type of input came when it was fundraising for the Market Creek Plaza. In 2006, it held a public stock offering, which was unheard of at the time for a nonprofit developer. Shares cost $10. The minimum purchase was 20 shares. More than 400 locals invested. There were two kinds of stockholders: those who wanted to have a symbolic stake in the development and those who wanted to learn or teach their families about investment in a familiar setting.)

Johnson joined the group a few months ago, long after the grand strategy for the remaining 50 acres was set, but she has helped with fine tuning.

The group proposed names for the affordable housing development near the trolley, brainstormed what potential recreation uses could go on a particular rooftop, voted on color schemes for Market Creek Plaza renovations and gave input on criteria for hiring practices and retail tenant selection.

In the long term, Johnson said she hopes the growth won’t price out people at the lower end of the income spectrum. She cites North Park and Sherman Heights as negative examples, where cash-rich investors grabbed homes and upwardly mobile homeowners who needed loans were left out.

She also hopes the Diamond Neighborhoods save some room for nature. The Encanto of her childhood was a slightly rural place, she said. “Even as a little girl, just driving around with my mom, I remember that there were some amazing canyons, which we still have,” Johnson said.

Finally, she hopes that any retail plans will include local businesses, and not just national chains, because they pump money back into the local economy. Businesses that tap into the local food movement — a brewery, an urban winery or a public market — would be great, she said.

She’s just one of 14 voices on that group, and one of “thousands” of others the center hears from in a given year, as it asks for input and gives feedback about redevelopment and other programs, said Angela Titus, who’s in charge of community impact and marketing for the center.

What’s under way

The Jacobs Center is working on 15 projects in different stages. Titus said it’s time for action, not talking: “It’s pretty clear what needs to be done. ‘We plan to meet to talk about the plan.’ No, we’re done with that. We’re in the show-me phase. We definitely are,” she said.

Six projects are mostly or fully funded, with money coming from sources including the Jacobs Family Foundation, state and federal grants, bank loans, bonds and tax credits.

The list of work under way or with construction scheduled to start within the next year includes the 52 units of affordable housing townhomes near the trolley station, where Jones was standing that morning, budgeted at $23 million. They’ll be a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom homes, and the complex will include community and child-friendly spaces.

The list also includes the recently opened Walgreens, restoration of an acre of the Chollas Creek watershed (which requires removing invasive species and building trails, landscaping, seating and art), and deals in the works with three fast-casual restaurants, of which two will be national chains.

In the more distant future: a new commercial development on Market Street east of Euclid Avenue, a residential development dubbed Southwest Village, and a large mixed-use property east of 47th Street and north of Market. A quarter of all the new planned housing will be low-income.

Along with continuing to develop housing and retail, Jones said he wants the area to be seen as a resource and a destination among people who live in the rest of the region — for tech or manufacturing jobs, for civic and cultural events, or a quick drive or trolley ride from downtown where people could while away an afternoon shopping or dining.

He cited Boston’s inner-city Dorchester neighborhood — once impoverished and dangerous, now home to a restaurant scene, breweries, art studios and urban farms — as an example of how this neighborhood could evolve.

He brought up Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s One San Diego plan, which aims to improve infrastructure and services across the city. “But if we’re going to have that plan realized,” Jones said, “that means creating opportunity across all of San Diego for not only vibrant community redevelopment, but jobs as well and economic strengthening for all of the city’s residents.”

Vanica, the center’s CEO before Jones, who was with the organization for 16 years and brought Market Creek Plaza to fruition, said the upcoming plans are achievable, but not without overcoming obstacles.

“The barriers are so big to getting these older neighborhoods set up for change,” Vanica said. For example, she said, “it took the redevelopment agency six years to work through the process with the city, to get the right zones in place and then to entitle the land so it could be built to modern standards.”

The new team will face an old problem: San Diego’s infrastructure funding deficit, which the city estimated at $1.7 billion in January. “You can build 50 homes and only have to build a sewer system to serve 50 homes, but if you can’t connect the sewer system in either direction because it’s deteriorated, a lot of good that will do you,” Vanica said.

Another challenge is trust. “It takes a long time to create trust, and any new team has to go through that all over again. The big thing is making sure that people have access: feel like their voices are still heard and … build trust as the team transitions. It’s not input,” Vanica said. “It’s access and voice and working in teams where people actually get to deliberate and share in decision making. A lack of trust is the one thing that can stop anything in its tracks.”

One way to build trust: ensure locals reap economic benefits through construction contracts and jobs. The Rev. Rickey Laster, who lives in Southeast San Diego, said he hopes the center’s administration will make it easy for local construction companies to get work, the same way the old leadership did with Market Creek Plaza.

“The focus was on community contractors and local people doing the work. … I don’t know if the focus is there anymore,” Laster said. He added: “I hope that our community has an opportunity to work there. I hope our community has an opportunity to build it.”

That was the vision of Joseph Jacobs, Laster said.

“Joe wanted the community to build it, he wanted the community to work at, work there, and he wanted the community to own it. … I hope that they will maintain the vision of Joe Jacobs,” Laster said.

Preserving the Jacobs’ vision

Joseph and Violet Jacobs launched their foundation in 1988 and became interested in the Diamond Neighborhoods in the early 1990s.

Joseph observed with concern the Los Angeles riots of 1992, which led him to the idea that community change has a better chance if improvements are both deep — zooming in on narrow geographic areas — and broad — covering housing, the environment, education, job quality and more.

He also believed that residents should be asked, trusted and empowered to help their neighborhoods evolve.

Jacobs was a chemical engineering entrepreneur who was born in Brooklyn in 1916. He received a medal from President Ronald Reagan for his work in engineering and education.

He and his wife (who had experience in advertising, complementing his engineering expertise) built a successful company — while raising three daughters — that eventually left them with ample funds they devoted to philanthropy. Though they lived in Pasadena, they became interested in Southeast San Diego after learning about the area’s problems. They also had family connections in San Diego.

Vanica, who worked with him during the Jacobs Center’s first decade, remembered him as “an absolutely unforgettable character” who dreamed big, saw the big picture, took significant risks and never forgot his roots.

“He was one of these folks who was just equally comfortable being in a room with the chairmen of the board of multimillion-dollar companies as he was in the room with the small micro-entrepreneur,” she said.

One of his favorite stories was about baseball. And life. He had a statue of Babe Ruth on his office coffee table, and he’d point out that the Babe struck out 1,330 times. “And he really believed you dream big. You swing for the fences. If you don’t hit it the first time, you get right back up to bat.”

Jacobs’ key idea about community ownership, Vanica said, could be summarized in a twist on an old saying: Don’t just give a man a fish or teach him how to fish; teach him how to buy the pond.

Since his death in 2004, the center has tried to live up to his vision, with his same tenacity.

Roger Williams, formerly a senior fellow with the Annie E. Casey Foundation and a specialist in neighborhood development, said the Jacobs Center is an “outstanding” specimen in the “panoply of community development initiatives.”

Too often, he said, developers “come in with their solution and their view of how the world should be framed, and impose that on communities and don’t do anything that really involves the residents or makes life better for the residents.” The Jacobs Center does the opposite — it both involves residents and improves their quality of life, Williams said.

Chris Walker, director of research for the national community development nonprofit Local Initiatives Support Corporation, tracks and analyzes neighborhood changes.

“It’s hard to move a market,” Walker said. He said that as with a ballpark, it takes about 10 years for changes to start registering. It can take as little as three years for deep, intensive campaigns, and 20 for campaigns with lower levels of involvement. Success can be measured in a few ways, including how efficient and well run an organization is from the inside and how much its target neighborhood improves along quantifiable metrics compared to comparable neighborhoods at baseline.

To perform such measures, the Jacobs Center is working with a data specialist from UC San Diego, who’s been taking benchmarks of indicators like housing, health and workforce.

After all that research, community input and new growth, when the Jacobs Center sundowns 15 years from now, if everything goes right, its goodbye will be beginning of a new era for the Diamond Neighborhoods: one where residents own the pond and fish in it, too.

Staff researcher Merrie Monteagudo contributed to this report. Popescu is a freelance writer.

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