SD DMV Office Targeted for Urban Renewal

Imagine a government office building that features loft apartments, shops and restaurants.


Not to the state of California.

Officials are looking to apply that groundbreaking concept in San Diego.

Their approach?

A 'mixed use' redevelopment project housing government, residential, and retail/commercial functions, to replace the Department of Motor Vehicles office on its Normal Street site in Hillcrest, built in 1960.

"It's a way to leverage the equity in the property," says Eric Lamoreaux, spokesman for the state Dept. of General Services.

Lamoreaux explained that under a public/private partnership agreement, the developers -- San Diego-based Lankford & Associates -- will take the economic risks, and share their profits with the taxpayers.

He said the state has developed other facilities under similar "build to lease" economic arrangements, but never one involving mixed uses.

The agreement stems from legislation sponsored by State Sen. Christine Kehoe (D-39th/San Diego) in 2008.

Assuming there are no deal-breaking devils in the details, those wearisome waits at the Hillcrest DMV office figure to get more tolerable once a brand-new, 50 percent bigger building takes its place.

The taxpayers would get the new office for free, essentially, along with a cut of the proceeds from the apartments, retail and commercial tenants that'll be included in the 5-story midrise.

Plans also call for underground parking, and continued access to the Hillcrest Farmers Market.

So far, neither the state nor developer is offering specifics as to the project's cost, or number and of residential and retail/commercial units, saying those projections will be developed by way of public input and official review processes.

If the project is approved, Lankford & Associate would have a 65-year-lease, plus extensions for up to 30 more.

Community leaders hope it'll be synergistic with the nearby Uptown District shopping mall, a thriving economic anchor for two decades now.

"I've heard of these projects being thought of in other communities, but this is the first that's coming to fruition," says Leo Wilson, chairman of Uptown Planners, the city of San Diego's official planning group for Hillcrest, Mission Hills, Bankers Hill, Middletown, the UCSD Medical Complex, Park West and University Heights neighborhoods.

While Wilson praises the concept, his group faces a long process of 'due diligence' to make sure it'll be executed to the standards of the Uptown community plan.

"We want a very nice, walkable urban community with very attractive buildings, with 'commercial' that's inviting to people," Wilson said in an interview Thursday.  "If, to put a project together ‘public/private’, the worst scenario would be, 'Is this going to be a tenement?  Are there shortcuts going to be taken because of issues involving the finances?'"

But at this early stage, with the concept being unveiled to the public at an Uptown Planners community meeting Thursday evening, there seems to be cautious optimism.

"I think it'll succeed," says Barbara Machado, a stylist at an Uptown District salon.  "I like coming to one place, doing all my shopping in one spot.  So if I can go to the DMV, my little apartment up there, and all the stores, yeah, I'd go for that.  Yeah."

The DMV portion of the project will take about 14 months to complete; the residential and commercial phases, a total of 18.

During the construction, the staff from the Hillcrest DMV office will be farmed out to other department field offices throughout San Diego County, to help handle the overload of Hillcrest customers who'll be referred elsewhere in the meantime.

"That's just one of the things we'll have to put up with, with the change," said Old Town Dolas Jackson, as he waited for his noon-hour license renewal appointment Thursday in the Hillcrest DMV office.

"If you're going to work, you're going to work," Jackson said of the DMV staffers who'll have to commute to far-flung locations for the duration.  "If you want to get your license or whatever ID you need, you've got to be willing to travel.  That's what it's going to take."

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