by Gary H. London

Sometimes such a great idea is foisted upon us that one feels terrible that you didn’t think of it first. The Idea District is imaginative nomenclature for an 80-block area of downtown San Diego’s East Village roughly bounded by City College to the north, Market Street to the south, 11th Avenue to the west and Interstate 5 to the east. This area so far has not especially benefited from the largess of downtown redevelopment momentum.

The brainchild of developers David Malmuth and Pete Garcia, the concept is to create a cluster of “idea” firms and educators such that through their physical proximity will sprout investment, urban revitalization and jobs. These sponsors have proven capabilities (Malmuth stewarded both the much heralded Disney Times Square redevelopment project in Manhattan as well as the Beverly Hills home of the Oscars).

Idea jobs cross a variety of sectors that “come together in a confluence of enterprises which lift them all,” muses Malmuth, who brings big quals to his self-imposed assignment.

Creative Force

What Malmuth and Garcia are up to is attempting to transform this old industrial area at the margins of the city into something of a supercluster. It’s more than just a cluster, as the pharma or infotech clusters are in San Diego. The enticing promise is that idea professions cross over many clusters, reaching into industrial, auto, furniture, animation, movies and video gaming.

Design melds the real and virtual world. There are companies scattered throughout San Diego today already at work in each of these fields.

The idea is to bring them together in one physical neighborhood so that they may cross-fertilize. It is similar to the concept from Richard Florida’s “The Rise of the Creative Class” in which he suggests that metropolitan economies start to really grow after creative people settle in a region. The big employers then follow, and the idea companies become a huge “multiplier” creating many jobs.

The beauty of the concept applied to the district is that because it crosses multiple sectors, its role as a multiplier of jobs could become even more significant than what has already been achieved in other successful clusters.

This is about jobs, says Garcia, “first and foremost.” It is not just an exercise for the architects and urban planners. This has fairly immediate economic meaning in an East Village district begging for definition.

It has been accomplished before in San Diego. The concept of clustering has worked out very well in both the biotech and information tech sectors in the Torrey Pines/Sorrento Mesa corridors.

Yet, there are key differences. Those two clusters are in the relatively new and economically bountiful north city area. The buildings and supporting infrastructure were developed mostly on pristine land, in new buildings within a mainly horizontal land-use pattern.

The idea district is being proposed as an urban redevelopment and revitalization project. In other words, there is something there already. The concept is to take what is there, which is gritty, urban and based on an old economy, and use the new potential jobs in this cluster to physically capitalize on the urban mosaic, paving the way for a new economy so that downtown can compete in the jobs market and evolve beyond luxury condominiums.

Unlike the evolution of the other clusters, this one probably won’t have the large institutional backing of a UC San Diego to tap into an employee, R&D base. UCSD was clearly the backbone of the technology clusters. Though, it can be noted that the NewSchool of Architecture and Design is already in the district.

Making a Name for Itself

Big initiatives have a way of gaining traction. My suggestion, which I offered at the recent idea district workshop earlier this month, is to simply dub the area the “Idea District” without waiting for official proclamation.

So with this article consider it dubbed — at least, by me.

Creating a cluster is really about attempting to force-feed real estate demand into a geographical area. The concept is simple: If demand is seeded early, it may incubate more and broader demand for companies wishing to also locate in the district, persuaded that by doing so they are better able to do business with each other. The cross-pollination would drive new companies and jobs to the district.

With the idea district, promoters are attempting to accomplish this through the initial, complicated stage of not just asking companies to move here but asking the stakeholders (East Village Association, NewSchool of Architecture and Design, California Western School of Law, Centre City Development Corp., City College, etc.) to embrace the idea.

The concept behind the idea district is akin to something taking on worldwide dimensions. Called the “New Century City,” cities such as Helsinki, Seoul and Singapore are melding the efforts of developers, advanced technology and media companies to integrate advanced technology into the urban environment in a series of large-scale urban projects. “These projects aim to create extraordinary value across multiple dimensions: enhancing physical livability, building social capital, and attracting companies, new ideas and investment to their cities and nations,” according to a MIT report.

The type of built environment already in the district mostly consists of a physical plant that is obsolete or at least functionally obsolescent. It just so happens that idea professionals are comfortable residing in buildings formerly constructed for and operated as industrial or quasi-industrial uses. The wide-open spaces within these buildings are appropriate for many if not most of the companies considered to be part of the idea cluster.

Engage Property Owners

Critically, property owners must be engaged in the process.

The bonus for the idea district is the existence of fairly large land holdings whose owners have few immediate prospects and who are essentially sitting out the years (now decades) waiting for progress to find its way to their doorstep. For them, the idea district presents acquisition and development opportunities.

The largest contiguous owner of property happens to have five blocks within the geographical boundaries of the idea district. Recently the Navarro family has made efforts to identify a developer for their properties, consisting of old furniture warehouses. Yet, their success in attracting development interest lies in whether a market opportunity is present.

The idea district, the best plausible solution so far to refine a major swath of the East Village, is all about seeding market demand. It deserves the support of property owners, stakeholders and civic leaders.