Fab Lab Moves Downtown as San Diego Sets Out to Create its Own SoMa

A redevelopment plan to create a “Makers Quarter” in downtown San Diego’s upper East Village is beginning to come into focus with the arrival of Fab Lab San Diego, a nonprofit DIY workshop that supports entrepreneurs, offers classes, and provides fabrication services.

The San Diego Fab Lab, established in 2007 as part of MIT’s Global Fab Lab Network, has been setting up shop in an enormous warehouse on the downtown corner of 14th and E Streets. It is one of the first tenants to move into the six-block Makers Quarter, a project just south of San Diego City College that has been at least three years in the making.

“We’re really excited about this downtown zone, which has been given this identity as being supportive to makers,” says Katie Rast, co-founder and director of Fab Lab San Diego.

The Fab Lab will continue to offer such classes as “Intro to Electronics” and “Intro to 3-D Printing.” But the downtown space is much bigger than what FabLab had previously in the Ansir Innovation Center in Kearny Mesa, and Rast is anticipating some new business opportunities. She says they are renovating a 3,200-square-foot corner of a one-time furniture warehouse. There is enough extra space to sub-lease space to local entrepreneurs, and to provide them with access to Fab Lab’s “geeks in residence,” tools, and production equipment.

Katie Rast

Katie Rast

As a nonprofit, Rast says, “We’re a little more focused on community,” and in recent years, she says she has sought to cultivate more extensive ties with San Diego’s startup ecosystem and to help fill a gap in their manufacturing needs. When a group gets funded through Kickstarter, for example, Rast says Fab Lab can help entrepreneurs work through their first few steps of ideation and prototyping. Rast also wants to establish closer ties with manufacturers in nearby Tijuana, which would enable startups to move more smoothly from making sample products to producing 1,000 units or more.

By staking an early claim in San Diego’s emerging Makers Quarter, Rast also sees an opportunity to help establish a new hub for “maker” startups and to welcome businesses with a social conscious into the neighborhood. “There is a lot of brain power and good intentions in designing this area, and in laying the foundations for what it will become,” she says.

Fab Lab represents “a powerful symbolic tenant” for the Makers Quarter project, says Stacey Lankford Pennington, an urban planner working on the Makers Quarter project.

The Makers Quarter Silo

The Makers Quarter Silo

The Makers Quarter was conceived as a key element in the development of a broader, mixed-use “I.D.E.A. District” (Innovation, Design, Education, and Arts) that encompasses a 35-block downtown neighborhood better known as an inner city refuge for San Diego’s homeless. Developers say they have drawn inspiration for the project from the success of other urban innovation hubs, such as SoMa—San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood—and Seattle’s South Lake Union area.

While downtown redevelopment continued in the years after San Diego’s new baseball stadium, Petco Park, opened in 2004, the East Village “was kind of where development stopped when the market crashed in 2008,” says David Malmuth, a downtown real-estate developer. Malmuth formed a partnership with builder Pete Garcia in 2011 to advance their shared vision for the entire I.D.E.A. District.

The I.D.E.A. District “blossomed out of that downturn,” says Pennington. “It provided a moment to pause and reflect on what we’ve been doing wrong and right.”

Among the changes that resulted, Pennington says, was a more holistic and comprehensive approach for developing the entire 93-acre East Village neighborhood. Malmuth and Garcia “did an amazing amount of grassroots community outreach,” Pennington says, enabling them to create a shared vision for an urban neighborhood that mixes existing warehouses with new and renovated housing, space for startups, professional offices, parks, and public spaces.

The East Village neighborhood encompasses San Diego City College, the Thomas Jefferson School of Law, and the NewSchool of Architecture and Design. Connecting with those institutions, as well as downtown artists and culture, is where the concept for the I.D.E.A. district came from, Malmuth says.

A "Food Truck Friday" in Silo public space at Makers Quarter

A “Food Truck Friday” in Silo public space at Makers Quarter

As Malmuth and Garcia wrote in 2012, their underlying goal was to create an urban environment with the characteristics that would attract 24-to-35-year-olds who are college-educated, often with post-graduate degrees, and working as entrepreneurs or in knowledge-based industries. “The missing piece downtown is jobs,” Malmuth says. So any redevelopment needs to attract “highly educated and innovative people who are well paid.”

Their thinking was influenced, at least in part, by the work of Portland economist Joe Cortright, who has identified correlations between cities that attract young talent and a region’s overall economic prosperity. The criteria needed to attract the young and talented, include walkable (and bike-able) urban neighborhoods with a rich mix of such cultural amenities as vegetable gardens, craft breweries, stores, and restaurants.

But “instead of an ethos of ‘build it and they will come,’ ” Pennington says the development team “added a layer” to their development plan by finding ways to connect with the existing East Village community. In the Makers Quarter, for example, Pennington says their development plan calls for re-purposing a huge warehouse that was used in the 1950s as a furniture factory, warehouse, and showroom.

“Having that kind of a maker space is a critical part of making the ecosystem successful,” says Malmuth. He has described the I.D.E.A. District as the consummate project of his career, which includes working with Disney on the restoration of New York’s Amsterdam Theater, and a mixed-use development in Hollywood that includes the auditorium for the annual Academy Awards show.

So far, however, most of the projects in the I.D.E.A. District have been relatively low-cost efforts like Silo, an outdoor space for community events and other activities, and a nonprofit “Smarts Farm” garden. “Right now, we’re on the street marketing our first phase of commercial office space,” Pennington says.

Meanwhile, Malmuth and Garcia have been working with partner Lowe Enterprises to develop a full city block owned by the San Diego Community College District in the middle of the I.D.E.A District. Their plan calls for building 100,000 square feet of “creative office space,” 138 apartment units, and stores and restaurants in a major public space.

In other words, the heavy lifting needed to make the I.D.E.A. District a reality has only just begun.

Concept for Interior Courtyard of IDEA District Project (Courtesy IDEA Partners)

Concept for Interior Courtyard of IDEA District Project (Courtesy IDEA Partners)

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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