By SARAH BROTHERS | Downtown PartnershipDowntown’s streets are starting to awaken. As restaurants gradually reopen and more employees join the commutes of the essential workers who have kept neighborhoods running and to-go orders churning, there’s a question on many peoples’ minds. Will this crisis make the neighborhoods that inspired its residents to live, work and gather here together look different than before this all started?
Creative ideas are needed to help Downtown plan for this next stage of recovery not only to address the impact our time of separation has created and accommodate the necessary changes of our day-to-day to keep each other safe, but also as an opportunity to think bigger and reimagine how urban spaces can adapt to meet the needs of the community.
Some of those “outside the box” ideas are already starting to change the landscape of Downtown’s neighborhoods.
Many have likely seen the temporary murals gracing businesses in the Gaslamp Quarter. Not only do they bring messages of strength and moments of beauty to Downtown, but they are also an example of the kind of creativity that has risen to the challenges created by COVID.
“As the stay-at-home orders sank in, I began to notice businesses starting to board up their buildings as a matter of safety. Our Clean & Safe ambassadors conducted a survey and found that 18-20 locations had been boarded up in the Gaslamp,” said Sean Warner, director of community enhancement for the Downtown San Diego Partnership and manager of the mural program. “It brought a whole new feeling of change to the areas of Downtown we know and love. So I thought, ‘Why not use these unconventional canvases to bring in some hope and joy?’”
Businesses were contacted through the partnership of the Gaslamp Quarter Association and matched with artists and the necessary materials through placemaking funds managed by the Downtown Partnership.
“Public art is an important tool to nurture the character and spirit of neighborhoods during normal times and one that is even more important in times of uncertainty,” Warner said. “By using funding we already had, we were able to meet an immediate need for our neighborhoods while still serving its intended purpose of placemaking and beautification.”
In mid-March, construction also began on the 14th Street Promenade, a linear park that will transform the underused right-of-way along 14th Street into a 30-foot wide park connecting City College to Barrio Logan through East Village. The space will be created by eliminating one parking lane on the east side of the street and reducing the width of traffic lanes, gaining about 16 additional feet for pedestrians and bicyclists. Though this project had been in the works long before the outbreak began, it is an example of the kind of reimagined urban spaces that may greet residents in post-COVID Downtown.
For example, the Downtown San Diego partnership, East Village Association, Gaslamp Quarter Association, Little Italy Association and nine other neighborhood, business, mobility and environmental groups have been working with city officials on a proposal for Curbside San Diego. The Curbside program has identified six pilot locations in different Downtown neighborhoods where additional dining, public space and activities could be extended into streets and sidewalks while allowing for safe social distancing.
These initial six locations were proposed with the hope that additional locations could be requested in the future using the lessons learned and best practices identified from these pilots. Locations are currently proposed in the Gaslamp Quarter, East Village, Columbia District, Little Italy, City Center Business District and Cortez Hill. Each would have schedules and configurations to meet the needs of its neighborhood and provide an opportunity to collect data on what works best. The coalition strives to see the first of these pilots changing the way residents and business can interact as a community in Downtown’s streets sometime in June.
Change may also go beyond the physical ways the community experiences the neighborhood, like the ongoing conversations between the DSDP Clean & Safe homeless outreach team and other regional stakeholders to challenge how we approach the difficulties of housing unsheltered residents in the future.
Many of these conversations are big. They require the community to take the opportunity of coming together once again to see the neighborhoods with fresh perspectives and reimagine the Downtown of the future. Luckily, Downtown’s residents, businesses and neighborhoods have no shortage of creativity or passion for this place where they live, work and play. The reasons Downtown has been strong in the past will continue to serve the community well as it navigates this next chapter. Writing a bright future. Together.
— Sarah Brothers is the director of marketing and communications at Downtown San Diego Partnership.