San Diego Business Journal

The San Diego Trolley stop in the heart of Lemon Grove will be key to remaking the tiny city's downtown during the next 15 years.

An ambitious redevelopment plan predicts a mixed-use development of five- and seven-story buildings on the block north of the city's signature lemon sculpture and west of the Orange Line station. Under the plan, more than 200 apartments will share the buildings with office and retail space.

New three- and five-story buildings will eventually spread in all directions, the plan predicts. Right now, downtown Lemon Grove has an eclectic mix of one- and two-story buildings reminiscent of the early- to mid-20th century.

The plan is a good example of transit-oriented development, according to representatives of Mooney/Jones & Stokes, a Scripps Ranch land-use planning firm that prepared the redevelopment document for 58 acres of Lemon Grove's downtown. The City Council adopted the plan in June.

Construction on the first phase of the project , a 7-acre swath by the trolley station , could begin before the decade is out. "We're hoping within the next two to three years," said Carol Dick, the city's principal planner. The city is still in talks with a developer who would like to work on the initial phase.

"When the dust settles I think it's going to cost approximately $100 million," said Neil Senturia, a principal in Tipping Point Partners LLP of La Jolla. The development partnership also includes Jim Nicholas.

Transit-oriented development is actually an old concept, said Brian F. Mooney, managing principal of Mooney/Jones & Stokes. Mooney grew up in Boston, where development is denser near the mass-transit lines.

Instead of the auto dominating the urban environment, people in transit-oriented districts are able to get out and walk among residential, commercial and retail land uses, said Russell Hunt, who led the Lemon Grove planning project for Mooney/Jones & Stokes.

Development in New York and Chicago follows the same rule of thumb, Mooney said, as does development in certain San Francisco Bay Area cities.

Areas such as Solana Beach and Downtown San Diego, with their access to commuter rail or trolley service, have become local transit-oriented development hubs.

Several people involved with the Lemon Grove project say the community's downtown property could be improved. "Underutilized" is the word Hunt uses.

As a precursor to redevelopment, the 7-acre parcel west of the trolley tracks has been dubbed the Main Street Promenade.

"In my mind, it is the most ready to be redeveloped," said Graham Mitchell, Lemon Grove's city manager and executive director of the city's redevelopment agency. "It has the potential for the biggest bang."

In August, the city entered into an exclusive negotiating agreement with Tipping Point Partners. More decisions related to the property are expected at the Dec. 20 City Council meeting.

The market did not favor this kind of development 10 years ago, but it does now, said Mitchell. The city manager added that Lemon Grove, which has a population of 25,000, could benefit from both increased housing and extra funds redevelopment would bring.

The Mooney/Jones & Stokes report also lays the groundwork for redeveloping strips of Broadway and the southern section of Lemon Grove Avenue. The planning firm completed its $140,000 document with the help of Roesling Nakamura Terada Architects of Downtown San Diego.

Eventually, the Mooney report says, the local transit agency may put its trolley tracks below ground, making the area more pedestrian friendly.