A Quiet Development Revolution
in San Diego

Clair Enlow
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When Loebs convened for the annual Fall Study Tour this year in San Diego and Tijuana they found a rich cross-border culture challenged by financial inequality, housing scarcity and lack of affordability, and immigration policies. Clair Enlow (LF ’02) writes about the work of architecture students and recent grads helping to bolster the housing market and transform San Diego neighborhoods.

Curious Loebs crowded into a room at Bread & Salt to hear Hector Perez and a few of his students talk about getting their design projects built. Perez teaches in the master’s program in real estate development at the Woodbury University School of Architecture in San Diego. He was careful to emphasize that the program, founded by Ted Smith more than a decade ago, is design-based. The core curriculum takes place in a studio and not a classroom. Development is an add-on.

Professor Perez, a graduate of Cal Poly and MIT (and designer-developer of La Esquina), was joined by Ojay Pagano, Jeff Svitak, and Kate Meairs, all graduates of the Woodbury program, who presented their own projects. In the process, they talked about what it takes for young architects in San Diego to be developers also.

 

Abpòpa Hillcrest boutique hotel, designed by The RED Office. Photo courtesy of The RED Office.

It really begins with design. Then they find a way to build what they want to live in. Not surprisingly, other people want to live like they do. Their projects are waking up transitional neighborhoods in San Diego with eye catching infill, and creating a new mystique around small, multifamily buildings. They are privately funded and market rate. By design, most are also affordableby local standards. The typical structural type is wood frame over a concrete podium.

These are the kinds of places we will also want to live, because they’re generous with shared space and they make low density urban neighborhoods cool. They are uniquely fitted to leftover urban lots. Best of all, they are low cost, and therefore “naturally” affordable. Still, building these projects is a challenge for recent architecture program graduates. Here’s a list of typical reasons:

They’re neither big nor small.
Transitional urban neighborhoods in the west really want to be single family, and they all hate this kind of thing.
Plan reviewers are baffled by them.
They’re nonstandard.
They drive contractors crazy.
The number of trades involved will blow the budget.
They won’t get financed, because they just don’t pencil.
There’s no market.

The list goes on, but the San Diego group has overcome all of the above, project by project. One reason is that they have to do it to graduate. Another is that they have institutional support. Yet another is that they are self described code nerds, dedicated to mastering the nuances of zoning and construction regulations. They also understand the business of construction finance.

But perhaps their biggest advantage in changing the conventions of development is sweat equity. They have found ways to monetize their own labor (including design), and the labor of others who might be future residents. Many graduates live in their original multifamily infill projects with their own families and friends. But one graduate, according to Perez, has built more than 400 units, and owns a percentage of them.

Graduates are known for microhousing, which really just means apartments with square footage as low as 250. (Most affordable units are in the range of 600 square feet.) Most of their microunits actually seem much larger, primarily because of high ceilings. Little cheats help—like loft space over bathrooms, where the square footage does not count, or bath and toilet areas with sliding doors.

The Louisiana, designed by Jeff Svitak. Photo by Onnis Luque.

In the meantime, their projects seem to be transforming San Diego, one odd lot at a time. Last month, the Loebs toured some of them. Many are mixed use projects with small, loft-like living units and an easy relationship with the open air. But the similarities tend to end there.

Mxd830 (Mike Burnett, 2009, 830 25th St.) is built around studio lofts, with a corner restaurant and a small courtyard that can accommodate parked cars on one side, if opened. Mike Burnett is one of Ted Smith’s first students.

You Are Here (Mike Burnett, 2013, 811 25th St.) is adaptive reuse, San Diego style. The ground level is built around a 1965 Texaco Station. The older structure, with signage intact, is filled with small commercial spaces, and the drive-in pump area is now an open-air courtyard. It’s unified with a network of ramps and decking and a red metal railing system.

The Continental (Jonathan and Matthew Segal, 2019, 320 W. Cedar St.) is a concrete tower of 42 studio loft units (averaging 380 square feet) with ground floor retail. Small balconies give it scale and private outdoor space. Low cost-low rent is achieved by eliminating standard amenities in new apartment projects, like parking (parking is separately rentable), pool and fitness center (not in the project). There is a shared laundry facility on the eighth floor.

 

The Louisiana, designed by Jeff Svitak. Photo by Onnis Luque.

The Louisiana (Jeff Svitak, 2017, 2305-2311 University Ave.) is a small mixed use multifamily structure of 5 stories on a concrete podium. The 15 residential units–ranging from 600 square feet for a studio to 1000 s.f. for a two bedroom, two bath unit–share the building with a restaurant and a few small retailers.

Abpòpa Hillcrest boutique hotel, designed by The RED Office. Photo courtesy of The RED Office.

Abpòpa Hillcrest (Ted Smith, Hector Perez and Kate Meairs, 2019, 3776 Fourth Avenue) is now a boutique hotel with lofty microunits. They’re just seven and a half feet in width in a 20 foot wide structure, with ground floor retail and unheated common spaces on each upper floor.

Like other partner-developers of Abpòpa, Kate Meairs is a member of The RED Office, a network of Woodbury graduates and faculty members. They meet about once a month to compare notes and support each other in different ways, like posting prospective sites for sale on a little online forum.

Kate Meairs, Hector Perez and Ted Smith of The RED Office. Photo courtesy of Breadtruck Films.

For some of the group’s smaller projects, the architect is also the long term owner and the only manager for a multifamily building. They get residual income. But there’s another reward for these architects: knowledge. As long term residents and owners, they know—better than the average designer—how well the project “performs.”

One Loeb attendee asked some obvious questions: Who calls the plumber? And who responds? The answer to both was the same: the architect.

Header image: The Louisiana, designed by Jeff Svitak. Photo by Onnis Luque.