Response brings forth issues of what is best for Hillcrest business district
By Anthony King | GSD Reporter
Response to the proposed Walgreens pharmacy renovation for the vacant medical building at 301 University Ave. in Hillcrest has been swift and intense, following a story published in San Diego Uptown News (SDUN) on Jan. 6. The article stated the building located across from Urban Mo’s Bar & Grill will become a Walgreens before the end of 2012.
With an initial response from Hillcrest Business Association (HBA) Executive Director Benjamin Nicholls condemning the proposal, further insight into what is best for the business district in Hillcrest came into question.
“The HBA has a vision of an even mix of restaurant, boutique and art-based retail and professional services, such as lawyers and doctors,” Nicholls said. “I believe we have enough square footage in the neighborhood devoted to drug stores and grocery stores right now,” he said, adding, “we have too many of this type of large-chain drug store.”
Nicholls added, “The challenge for the business community is getting the right mix of businesses. A community that lacks diversity in its business mix is going to fail.”
Nicholas Moede, owner of Rich’s San Diego and current HBA board president, said he could not speak on behalf of the board but said he personally feels against the Walgreens proposal. “Walgreens does not provide any significant community benefit since there are already two major pharmacies within a two-block radius,” Moede said.
In 2007, a boutique hotel was proposed to be developed on the site, encompassing the entire 300 block of University Avenue. In the SDUN article, property co-owner Bruce Leidenberger of La Jolla Pacific Development said the proposal was dropped because of economic reasons, saying the market “took a nose dive” before plans could proceed.
In April 2011, Leidenberger proposed to demolish the vacant building to develop a parking lot expansion until plans could be solidified for a new business on the property. Uptown Planners approved the proposal because of its temporary basis, but the San Diego Development Services Department (DSD) rejected it for the same reasons: it was a temporary change only. For Nicholls, the DSD decision was shortsighted because of what he said is one of Hillcrest’s pressing issues.
“Frankly, a short term parking lot would have been better than a long term Walgreens,” Nicholls said. “If the City had been flexible and allowed Bruce [Leidenberger] and his people to make 301 University into a parking lot back in April, then we’d have 40 new spaces right now and the option to talk about creative projects in the future.”
Cecelia Moreno, owner of Crest Cafe, agreed with Nicholls, saying that either a boutique hotel or short-term parking lot would have been more desirable than a Walgreens, although she also said an active business in the location is better than a vacant building.
“From a personal business perspective,” Moreno said, “I would say that I understand [Leidenberger] and his partners’ needs to lease out the space. I don’t feel like we actually need another large pharmacy in close proximity to others, [but] that being said, I understand their need to lease out an empty building.”
Moreno, who previously served on the HBA board and is a current member of the Uptown Parking District, said “the fact that [Leidenberger] is placing a small development there now is due to economic realities, period.”
Leidenberger said his company had not received any other proposals to lease or purchase the property “over the course of the last few months.” He also said he could not release terms of any deal with Walgreens due to a confidentiality clause.
Walgreens Media Relations Specialist Vivika Panagiotakakos said, “At this time, I cannot provide any comment on this location because there is no lease signed.” She was also unable to speak on the fate of the current Walgreens pharmacy in Hillcrest, located at 640 University Ave. This location is designated as a pharmacy only, different than the proposed store at 301 University Ave., which would potentially provide a larger retail selection.