With a focus on generating revenue and jobs, Calexico Mayor Bill Hodge points to development success in El Centro as a model to emulate.
Part of the border city’s plan is to put residential housing adjacent to retail business in its downtown, a process known as “mixed-use” development. Toward that end, Hodge asked the city manager's office in January to put together an action plan for downtown.
"We now have interest from developers who want to put residential units in downtown," he told this newspaper recently.
Should mixed use succeed in Calexico, El Centro could return the favor and look to its neighbor to the south for inspiration. The two cities have similar problems—once-vibrant downtown retail areas besieged by decades of decay and steady loss of commerce.
Asked if El Centro might be receptive to the idea of adding housing to its downtown mix, officials noted doing so would require overcoming several obstacles.
First, mixed use is currently prohibited in downtown El Centro due to previous city council action, said Norma Villicana, city director of community development.
While mixed use had previously been allowed in downtown El Centro, giving it the go-ahead again could open a Pandora’s box, one official noted. An example was a June 2018 proposal for a residential facility to help federal inmates transition back into society. It would have been built at 355 W. Olive Ave.
The city council denied a zoning change for the facility after complaints from residents and merchants who said they feared it would simply worsen the problem of drug users plaguing downtown.
"Merchants were up in arms," said Council Member Cheryl Viegas-Walker. "If you allow housing in downtown, you have to allow all types, including residential treatment facilities."
Downtown merchants expressed mixed views on adding housing, with some firmly opposed and others conditionally favoring it.
Tom Anderson, owner of Miss B Haven, a tobacconist/adult boutique at 476 W. Main, said he has a dim view about downtown housing.
"It would just add to the negative effects we already have with drug users and the homeless," said Anderson. "Within the last seven days (about Aug.7-13) we had we had four occasions with EMS (emergency medical services) picking up somebody in the neighborhood. Sometimes it's hard to get people to shop when they have to engage with drug users."
Sentiments were similar a few blocks west at the Simply at Home antiques and collectibles shop at 569 W. Main. Nancy Gaston, the bookkeeper, was working the front counter on Aug. 16 and answered a firm no to housing downtown.
"With the methadone clinic around the corner (Fifth and State streets), nobody would move downtown once they saw the drug use," said Gaston.
Wendy Luevano, owner of Simply At Home, arrived shortly thereafter and maintained Main Street should be for business. Residences in the neighborhood would be as disastrous as the halfway house would have been, she insisted.
"In theory, housing downtown sounds good but I don't think it would work," she said. "But if housing were built and it drove away the bad behavior it'd be good. What would help, is a business like the DJ Club that just opened near the Town Square. But few want to come down here because of what Main Street has turned into the last 30 years."
Bill Caldwell, owner of Antiques & Auctions at 455 W. State, took a more nuanced view. He alleged the residential hotels on State Street that had been cited by the city for code violations were run by slumlords. A more attentive owner could be beneficial.
"If it's done correctly, affordable or senior housing ... and it's brought up to code, kept clean and safe, it would work," insisted Caldwell. "But all that has to be part of the equation. The way it is now it won't work."
Walker supported Caldwell's contention pointing out it is in the best interest of any business owner to make their property as inviting as possible to bring in customers. A headwind to that is the many vacant buildings downtown that attract the dumping of trash and serve as gathering hubs for drug users and sometimes the homeless.
"It's always better to have a functioning parcel in use for either commercial, residential or government use. No one would dispute that," said Walker. "But a developer has to convince a banker a project will pencil out, make money. So, it's absolutely unacceptable to allow these vacant lots to attract drug use or any type of criminal activity."
Still, all those vacant buildings do have owners, Walker pointed out, owners who are responsible for keeping those properties clean. If a property is in the hands of an absentee owner they can hire a local property manager to maintain it.
"So, if we can't get voluntary compliance, there's options through the courts," said Walker. "We can compel owners to clean up (through a code enforcement officer) or forfeit their right to the property and the city can declare it a nuisance."
Should the city win its case, it could impose a lien so the sale of the property can only be cleared if the owner first pays the lien. The city cannot mandate owners develop a property but can encourage development by modifying parking or landscaping requirements, or by extending the time to pay off impact fees.
El Centro has already invested $10 million in downtown, contributing to the Town Square at Seventh and Main, new sidewalks, bulb-out curbs on Main Street, the transit terminal (Seventh and State streets), retro lighting, banners and benches.
Walker maintained she shares frustrations but said it would require a huge infusion of developer dollars to get downtown back on track. It needs a variety of retail options, including restaurants, entertainment and consumer-goods stores.
"Now there is a lot of service industries downtown, which is great for the day, but we need business that can attract people at night," said Walker. "You need to make good choices. We can deter crime by putting locks on dumpsters, install security lighting and cameras."
However, residents and merchants should understand while the city can provide a welcoming environment, it is up to a developer to take the initiative, officials said. Doing infill--development on existing buildings--is frequently more expensive. Often it is more profitable to build on barren land rather than rehabilitate a structure or, in case of those unreinforced masonry, demolish it.
Some Main Street businesses owners were more amenable to mixed use. Lizette Diaz, owner of Trend Setters Salon at 425 W. Main, favored downtown living space.
"Residences next to retail? ... Yes, most definitely," said Diaz. "Having people live here will help clean up the area. It might encourage the homeless to move elsewhere and it may be helpful to businesses."
Also enthusiastic about the prospect was Jessica Solorio, director of Spread the Love at 463 W. Main, a nonprofit helping the homeless. When informed of Calexico's pursuit of mixed use, including a pedestrian only promenade, she responded favorably.
"He's (Hodge) thinking out of the box, I like that." said Solorio. "It might make it more convenient to shop. In San Diego there's apartments downtown and it works. And if it works, other cities might follow suit."
Walker noted it can be a matter of spending priorities. If a city spends more on development rehabilitation there will be less for other services that residents like, such as parks, recreation centers or libraries.
"A lot of larger cities go to mixed use because they don't have enough land, but that's not a restriction in Imperial Valley," she said. "Developers first look at the hard costs for a certain project. I can be x-amount of dollars, but then what is the rent going to have to be? Developers will not build housing if it is not going to be profitable."