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Voice of San Diego

Voice-of-San-Diego-1by:  (8/29/13)

East Village’s ‘Rad Lab’

Downtown San Diego’s East Village has been the target of formal and informal redevelopment efforts for decades. Its current mix of luxury condos, artist lofts, a baseball stadium and many vacant lots reflects its state as a work in progress.

Current Condition : Photo by Design Tempo

Current Condition : Photo by Design Tempo

Masters students at the neighborhood’s NewSchool of Architecture and Design made newsthis spring with their proposal, enthusiastically embraced by Filner, to address East Village’s transitional nature.

The idea: Use shipping containers to build a communal outdoor area with space for multiple tenants in a vacant city-owned lot at Park Boulevard and Market Street.

The project, marketed as “Rad Lab” by the student team, whose members have since formed a company called Design Tempo, is negotiating a two-year lease (with a mutual option for a third year) with Civic San Diego, the city-controlled nonprofit that used to handle redevelopment projects.

Civic San Diego’s plans for the lot fell apart when the state ended the redevelopment program, which used new property tax money to subsidize large-scale development projects.

It’s now looking to sell the property to a developer for millions of dollars. But economic conditions still aren’t in a place that anyone expects the site to sell anytime soon.

So, while the property’s owners – taxpayers – wait for the market to come around, they can rent the unimproved lot to four young people with a plan to turn it into a community gathering spot.

They’re calling it an “experiment in flexible temporary urbanism.”

After Intervention - Conceptual Rendering by Design Tempo

Across the 28,000-square-foot lot, Rad Lab will have space for a large beer garden, eight stalls for food trucks, a central stage for community events, a dog park and an indoor space that could be used for a retail tenant. Similar projects have succeeded in San FranciscoLondon and Brooklyn.

They’re hoping to attract tenants and implement design decisions that will keep the project changing throughout its life.

“On a month-to-month basis, it won’t look the same as it did before,” said David Loewenstein, Design Tempo’s COO.

Filner called Rad Labs was a good example of the sort of imaginative project he was expecting from the city’s new Civic and Urban Initiatives incubator. He initially approved the project after the students pitched it during one of Filner’s “office hours with the mayor” events at City Hall.

“Within 60 days you will see in East Village the most remarkable public gathering space,” he said. “Just by taking some vacant land and using some creativity and architectural principles and a sense of what you want to do, in a neighborhood, and it’s going to be incredible.”

Filner’s timeline was a tad ambitious.

Loewesnstein said they’re hoping to hold a grand opening at the beginning of January.

The group is in the closing stages of negotiating its lease with Civic San Diego. They group says it’s nearly ready to announce a few tenants, and are working to secure permits that’ll outline when and how they can operate. Civic San Diego has agreed to make the lease term begin on the group’s first day in control of the space, so it doesn’t waste its short two-year period wrangling permits and approvals.

The entire development cost, Loewenstein estimated, will come in at just $300,000.

But more than 80 percent of that, he said, will be recoverable.

That is, once they reach the end of the lease, they’ll be able to pick up the majority of the astro turf, shipping containers and other improvements, and reinstall them at a new vacant lot somewhere else in the city. And so on.

“Once we start building and operating, we’ll immediately start looking for locations to replicate the Rad Lab,” Loewenstein said. “The biggest problem we face is this hasn’t been done in San Diego before.”

He said much of what they’re working on now — outlining the terms of their conditional use permit, for example — involves creating a streamlined approach that can be replicated throughout the city.