Transforming a blighted area by building authentic community connections
Located at the intersection of transit, education, open space, and San Diego’s hippest urban neighborhoods, Makers Quarter is an urban hub in the East Village anchored by Punch Bowl Social, 10 Barrel Brewing Company, Spaces, BASIC Agency, Broadstone Makers Quarter and You & Yours Distilling Co., among others. While the neighborhood is now a part of the thriving East Village character, it was a significant void in 2011 when SLP Urban Planning first became involved.
Initially, the redevelopment efforts of Downtown San Diego were largely concentrated around the central core, including Little Italy, Marina District, Gaslamp Quarter, and Ballpark District. Development pressures gradually shifted towards the East Village, and the property owner of several contiguous blocks in the Upper East Village issued a Request for Qualifications for a master development team. SLP worked closely with LPP (Lankford & Associates, Phelps Development, and Portman Holdings) to prepare a vision and strategic framework for the area.
At the time, the area was really the space in between San Diego City College and the Ballpark District. The land use was primarily storage. Freeway access, which has become an asset, positioned the area merely as a ‘pass-through’ zone, into Downtown San Diego.
While attending the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, Stacey was deeply influenced by Professor Margaret Crawford, who taught ‘Everyday Urbanism,’ which embraced the character and detail created in cities by their residents and businesses. During her time as a Frederic Sheldon Fellow, where she documented modular and temporary housing systems in parts of Europe, she was heavily influenced by Trinity Wharf, a creative cluster created by repurposed containers. The concept of ‘urban pop-up revitalization’ was nascent at the time. These factors, together with a strong belief that the age-old notion of ‘build it and they will come’ would not work in the Upper East Village, inspired an early Tactical Urbanism Concept Diagram (8/2011).
Tactical Urbanism Concept Diagram (8/2011)
Developing a Branding Framework
SLP prioritizes the initial visioning process as a defining point in a project, which creates alignment of key players around a value system that can guide the planning, design and implementation phases. In this case, that visioning effort, combined with the market feasibility analysis and early stakeholder engagement, led to a close collaboration with BASIC Agency in creating a brand for the neighborhood — Makers Quarter. This strong foundation established a tone of voice, aligned with a value system, that framed all of our efforts, including the launch of tactical urbanism initiatives in Spring, 2013.
MQ Brand Tone of Voice
In early 2013, before ‘pop-ups’ and tactical urbanism were commonplace in the urban planning and placemaking toolkits, SLP led an interdisciplinary team to ‘launch’ Makers Quarter via an integrated model that combined strategic activation, digital marketing, physical urban planning and design, government relations and community engagement – stitched together through a series of ‘experiments.’
The first experiment was Warehouse1425, the transformation of a vacant warehouse space into a masterpiece of murals, curated by local artist, Christopher Konecki. We had a hypothesis that there was an interest in local arts that wasn’t being filled, at a very grassroots level. The first night, the community was invited to this ‘pop up art gallery.’ The most revealing thing was that Makers Quarter had not gone ‘live’ yet; all of the outreach was through local, organic channels from the artist themselves. The attendance was overwhelming.
Placemaking and Community Engagement
Warehouse 1425 kicked off an impressive series of interventions that were initially experiments, but evolved into effective agents of change in the neighborhood. Vacant dirt lots and underutilized parking lots were given new meaning as SMARTS Farm and SILO, both in the context of the vision for Makers Quarter as well as for the people they engaged.
Early on, the concept of repurposing an asphalt lot into a community garden was an important way to address issues of sustainability, thinking about the urban heat island effect and hyper-local food sources, as well as community building and education. Initially, there was an interest in collaborating with City College. As things advanced, a local non-profit, HUMANE Smarts, developed a community garden and educational program that far exceeded any initial hopes or expectations.
Across the street from SMARTS Farm, at the corner of 15th & F Street, SLP Urban Planning proposed the concept of repurposing a blighted dirt lot into a community venue. Based on the valuable insights from Warehouse 1425, we embraced the community’s interest in a stronger connection with the local arts community. SLP invited Christopher Konecki to become the curator of thousands of square feet of blank walls, which became the first step to transforming the site into what we called, SILO.
We launched programming at SILO in Fall, 2013 through a series of curated, values-aligned community events. Our goal was to demonstrate, through that alignment, our intention for this dirt lot transformation.
Tenant Attraction and Economic Development
In addition to community building and activation, the importance of the tactical urbanism and integrated communications framework was the tie to economic development and tenant engagement. Between 2013-2017, the central focus was to frame this neighborhood as a future employment hub. In most cases, development sites would have to achieve similar goals through rather traditional ‘campaigns’ of sorts — digital and printed communications, presentations, renderings, pitch decks and more. In our case, in addition to these tactics, we used SILO as the foundation to our campaign. We had a platform to engage with prospective equity partners and anchor tenants through programming.
Ultimately, SILO played a pivotal role in attracting initial investment and tenant commitments in Makers Quarter
Urban Planning and Design and Entitlements
Given the scale of the masterplan, it would inevitably evolve over the years. Early on, SLP worked with the development team to develop the following planning principles:
- create an employment hub
- establish, enhance and promote linkages
- foster a walkable and healthy lifestyle
- create an authentic, dense and sustainable place.
These principles have been the heart and soul of all of the urban planning and strategic activation efforts.
The multi-disciplinary nature of SLP Urban Planning became especially helpful during the entitlement phase for each of the pieces of Makers Quarter, including public presentations, community engagement and overarching communications.
Makers Quarter, today
Makers Quarter, today, is anchored by Punch Bowl Social, 10 Barrel, Broadstone Makers Quarter and Block D. SLP Urban Planning played a pivotal role in each of these projects. In an effort to perpetuate the foundation of community engagement and collaboration, Stacey Pennington and Ron Troyano worked closely with businesses in the neighborhood to create the Makers Quarter Neighborhood Association, a 501(c)6.