A Slow and Steady Revival in San Diego

With philanthropist Sol Price's help, the City Heights district is enjoying a renaissance.

by Kate Herman
Blueprint, Jan-Feb 2002

On any given morning in San Diego's City Heights district, more than 100 children giggle and shriek as they play in the toy-strewn Head Start playground. Passers-by might overhear them chattering in several of the neighborhood's 30-plus languages. Such a cheerful scene makes it tough to believe that just 10 years ago the city council declared a state of emergency in this same neighborhood due to its high crime and dilapidated housing.

Since then, City Heights -- a posh shopping district in the 1960s -- has been brought back to life thanks to an innovative partnership between the city, San Diego County, and local philanthropist

Sol Price. Community buildings in striking Southwestern colors, a townhome development under construction, new schools, and numerous shops are the heart of a holistic neighborhood improvement scheme that reflects New Democrat principles of opportunity, responsibility, and community.

"It's no longer a problem of people moving out of City Heights -- it's about controlling the numbers of people coming in," says Murray Galinson, chairman of the board of San Diego National Bank and a board member of Price's philanthropic organization, Price Charities.

Price, 86, a retired lawyer and co-founder with his son, Robert, of the renowned Price Club wholesale chain, is widely credited with the neighborhood's comeback. Price Charities has donated more than $40 million toward the $140 million improvement project. In addition to the housing development, future plans include a health clinic and an office building for nonprofit groups.

One of the most notable features of City Heights' new police substation is its large picture windows, which are intended to invite interaction between cops and citizens. At the library, adults use the Internet to keep in touch with far-flung families -- some on the other side of the world -- while children read in cozy, overstuffed chairs by a gas fireplace.

The project's comprehensive approach to community rejuvenation appeals to residents and city planners alike. The rehabilitated five-block neighborhood includes a community resource center; a performing arts building; a public pool, tennis courts, and playgrounds; and three schools.

"In my 80s, I finally got smart enough to say, 'I've got to do this all in one place to do it right,'" says Price, who helped rehabilitate Los Angeles neighborhoods destroyed during the Watts riots in 1965. He later worked on community rehabilitation projects in Houston and other cities before turning his attention to City Heights, near his boyhood home.

This time, Price hasn't simply opened his wallet. He has been an active participant in the community's revitalization.

"You cannot do this kind of project by simply giving a grant and not being proactive and involved," Price says. "You need [business] people with discipline to back it up, and it also takes a partnership with the public sector."

Price first became involved in City Heights' revitalization in 1992, when he lent San Diego $3 million to jump-start the construction of a local police station. At a typical bureaucratic pace, such a project could have taken more than five years to complete. With Price's loan, the station -- which includes a recreational facility open to the public -- was up and running in 1995.

Price also came up with novel ways to make the 116 new townhomes going up in City Heights more affordable. His charitable group will maintain ownership of the land that the homes are being built on and will sell only the "improvements" -- meaning the structures themselves. Buyers can opt for an almost unheard-of 50-year mortgage at only 5 percent interest.

"For most people, it is not easy to get into homeownership," Price says. "By giving owners that extended pay-out period and what we consider to be very modest interest rates, we're trying to make it that much easier."

In addition, homebuyers will be able to "pay" part of their mortgages by performing community service, which can be completed by any member of the purchasing family. In a city where the median cost of a single-family home is $360,000, the pay-through-service option can bring the cost of a three-bedroom townhome down to $140,000.

The townhomes will be ready for purchase by the area's lower-income families in October 2002. They will have garages, landscaped yards, and access to on-site child care. Another 34 rental units will be made available to the city's lowest-income families. While Price recognizes that every community needs rental housing for its lowest-income families, he says nothing solidifies a community more than a solid base of homeowners. "Ultimately, if you want a stable neighborhood, you need to give people ownership of something they can be proud of," he notes.

The City Heights revitalization plan also includes a strong education component. The neighborhood now has three public "model schools" designed to give new teachers an intensive study of the challenges of inner-city areas. Price likens the schools to teaching hospitals and their teachers to medical residents.

"There ought to be a much greater commitment on the part of higher education to generate teachers with an in-depth understanding of the problems of inner-city children," Price says. "For starters, it is clear that kids in the inner city don't have nearly the level of parental involvement in their education as suburban kids do."

Price points to a recent success story as proof that this heightened awareness works: In 2001, 10 students from Hoover High School in City Heights were accepted to the University of California-Berkeley.

With City Heights' population growing rapidly, Price hit upon a creative way to deal with rising school enrollments. He found abundant space in the museums of nearby Balboa Park, which were seldom used during weekdays. Now, classes take weeklong field trips to the museums on a rotating basis, immersing themselves in the museums' resources and maximizing available space in the neighborhood's schools.

At about $1,000 per student per year, Price says, the museum program is "not cheap."

"But to a great extent, it is money we [Price Charities] would have given to the museums anyway," Price reasons. "This way, the museums benefit even more by developing long-term members in these kids, many of whose parents also are visiting the museums for the first time."

The results of this community-based education have been overwhelmingly positive, with reading scores up and behavior and attendance patterns improving. And with museums located in every major U.S. city, Price says, this initiative is replicable nationwide.

Areas immediately adjacent to the redevelopment project's five-block perimeter have begun to change for the better as well. Storefronts in these places show signs of improvement, as though their owners want to keep up with the new kid on the block. That reaction is exactly what Price wants.

"There is a feeling around the core village that this is finally a real neighborhood," says Price, who happily greets the children on the Head Start playground each time he visits. "Six, eight blocks away, it may be a different story. But they're starting to catch on."