I’ve hit this topic before — how El Cajon screwed up years ago in its downtown planning. Yesterday, I gathered some photographic evidence.
Shot 1: 50,000 books is gone. The first bookstore I ever tried to get a job at … and for years, the owner and I would remain on friendly terms. Eventually, I profiled Tom for the Daily Californian. Tom was as much opposed to what the city planners were doing to downtown as anybody. He knew eventually the poor planning would kill his business. As this picture proves, he was right. On the day I took this picture, I discovered for the first time that 50,000 books was out of business. This building has so much potential. There’s nothing wrong with it that a good facade rebate program wouldn’t fix, but the city, I’m sure, is too dimwitted to see it that way. I expect the next time I visit downtown El Cajon, this old building will have met a ball and chain.
Shot 2: Standing on the corner of Main and Magnolia in downtown El Cajon, you can see the Salvation Army story. It’s surprising the store has remained in its decades-old location. The city leaders pretty much despise thrift stores downtown, much to their discredit.
Shot 3: On the corner of Main and Magnolia, looking toward the corner where once stood the grand old Harding building, a beautiful red-brick structure that former City Manager Bob Acker swore would come down before he retired. And it did. Sad. Short-sighted. The destruction of the building destroyed much of downtown’s character. Note the vacant lot. It’s been a decade since the building came down and the City still can’t do anything with the lot. Pathetic.
Shot 4: The city did something right in recognizing that this corner needed improving. At one time a dilapidated Winchell’s donut shop stood here, so it’s hard to argue that the corner needed improvement. Unfortunately, the cure was worse than the disease. Gone is a great bookstore and a landmark restaurant. The buildings you see in this picture came years after the original shopping center was built. At first, this was just an empty corner filled with a big parking lot serving a giant grocery store. They gave Smith’s food tens of millions of dollars to come in town. The chain didn’t even last two years at this location. It’s nice that the new buildings (there’s still a grocery store behind them) make an attempt at pedestrian-friendly (something the city promised from the beginning), but note the open space right on the corner. Poor planning if you’re trying to create a true downtown atmosphere, especially after Magnolia was widened, basically cutting a once-quaint downtown in half. The architects behind this monstrosity should have their licenses revoked. Also, in order to build this poorly conceived shopping center, an the beautiful El Cajon Theater was destroyed, despite numerous community protests to save at least the facade. (When I was in high school the theater was known as the Pussycat and it’s where I saw my first porno — sneaking in underage, of course, but it was that long-lost affiliation with porn that set the city’s moral majority (who ran the council) against the theater).
I didn’t get any pictures of Main Street about a block east from Magnolia. There are a couple of nice looking restaurants that have opened up, both with outdoor, European cafe-style seating. They look good. It’s the kind of thing El Cajon should have started with, not tacked on after destroying it’s main intersection. There is some evidence that downtown El Cajon is turning a corner, but with the likes of the Harding building gone, 50,000 books gone, the Santee-style shopping complex on one corner, and the widening of Magnolia, downtown will never been what it could have been. It’s potential as a truly vibrant hub of East County living and culture has been cut in half. It’s a shame.