Catchin' the wave

Special Issue | From Jesus People to Petco Park, San Diego has prospered by not preening

Issue: "Building a city," March 24, 2007

SAN DIEGO- As gazillionaires go, Mike Farres, 81, is one who likes to fly under the radar. Slim and of average build, he favors jeans with shirts of low-key plaid-nothing too fancy to go with his silvery walrus mustache. He isn't much of a talker, either. You have to listen closely to catch his breathy words, which he dispenses as though he has few to spare. Friends say Farres, who made his fortune in San Diego real estate, is even a bit of a curmudgeon.

But to survive the downtown street corner where, in the 1970s, Farres first opened the Wine Bank, a small, fine wine shop, a slight unsociability might have been a key asset.

"We had a lot of hobos coming off the trains," Farres remembers. "They were OK, not dangerous. But then we started getting a lot of druggies selling on the corners. You had to be pretty careful at night where you walked."

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One of the oldest shops remaining in downtown San Diego, the Wine Bank sits at the corner of 5th and J. When it opened, 5th Avenue led north to porn shops and strip joints, and south to produce warehouses and an unadorned waterfront-an electrical supply store here, a mom-and-pop restaurant there; not much commerce of consequence.

Farres himself catered to the downtown businesspeople, architects, and lawyers who liked their office space cheap and their wine expensive. Even during business hours, he kept his store doors locked. Visitors had to ring a buzzer and show themselves at a window, whereupon Farres would decide whether each person was a customer or a crook.

As it turned out, crime paid-at least it paid Farres. The neighborhood's felon aesthetic enabled him to buy the whole block at 5th and J, including the decrepit Brunswig Drug building in which his store sat, for a song.

Today that block is only a fraction of Farres' real estate holdings-and it sits at the heart of San Diego's burgeoning Gaslamp Quarter and Ballpark District, a 2.2-square-mile area into which developers and investors have poured nearly $10 billion dollars, much of it in the last decade. The once-blighted area now boasts block after block of sidewalk cafes, trendy galleries and clothing boutiques, and pricey specialty shops, such as The Paperie, where the discriminating gift-wrapper can acquire textured-cotton paper dusted with dried larkspur for $14 a sheet.

During the day, tourists and conventioneers shop and eat. At night, laughter fills the streets as visitors and residents join to bar- and restaurant-hop beneath the glow of globe-topped 19th-century-replica street lamps. It's like New Orleans, minus the dirt and naked women.

The renewal of the Gaslamp Quarter simmered along in the 1980s and '90s. But it was Petco Park, the San Diego Padres' new home field, that lit a bonfire under developers. Construction began in 2000, and since 2001 builders have completed about a half-million square feet each of new retail and office space, and more than 1,200 new hotel rooms. Condo towers also sprouted and more than 8,500 residential units took shape.

"I wouldn't have believed it," said Farres of the idea that anyone would want to live downtown, much less pay half a million dollars and up to do so.

Downtown San Diego's evolution into an enclave for well-heeled urbanites is a remarkable new chapter in a city known mainly for its year-round sunshine and laid-back, beachy feel. The city, California's second largest with 2.8 million metro residents, doesn't glitter like L.A. or posture like San Francisco. When Farres moved here from Ohio in 1956, San Diego was just a little seaside haven for surfers and fishermen.

"There were only 40,000 people here. The tuna industry was big here, too," he said. "There was a big military base. That was about it."

Today, San Diego County has the highest military payroll of any U.S. county and is home to more than 100,000 sailors and Marines. Jonathan Buettner, Chief Operating Officer of the San Diego County Republican Party, says the strong military presence here contributes to the city's unusual distinction as a politically moderate-to-conservative metropolis in a state whose other big cities are radically blue.

Voter registration in San Diego proper skews Democratic. (That's why the city council is controlled by people like Donna Frye, whom Buettner calls a "shrub-hugging, save-the-seals, throw-good-money-after-bad" liberal.) But successful conservatives living technically outside the city limits in places like Coronado, Del Mar, and Rancho Santa Fe invest big dollars in San Diego and, Buettner said, "demand a voice." That's one reason, for example, that the trendier planning elements of downtown's miraculous renewal seem to scream Vanity Fair while the actual methods for making it all happen-such as a 9-to-1 ratio of private-to-public dollar-scream National Review.


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