Building Up California

A high-rise condo boom in San Diego may show the way out of a statewide housing and sprawl problem

"What I do is, I tell a developer I've got 40 people who are committed, and that way he can go ahead with a project. You're No. 41 on my list. But I'd be willing to bring you in, if you're willing to make a commitment," the broker says, while producing a sheet of paper from his leather satchel, then scooting it toward the couple. "This is privileged information. This price list hasn't been released to the public."

The couple look at the list, then at each other. Will the building accommodate two Great Danes, the woman asks. An SUV? The broker nods, smiles, and yanks his lure.

"I bought my unit two years ago for $494,000," he says. "Last week someone offered me a million two."

Across the street, Jeanette Kagan, a saleswoman for Bosa Development, is selling units in a hole in the ground that next year will become a 39-story, 222-unit building called the Grande Santa Fe Place. There are only nine units left, the cheapest a 10th-floor two-bedroom for $1.824 million.

"Plenty of people who want to move in there right now would love to sell their $2 million homes and move into a $2 million condo," says condo king Nat Bosa. "But there's not enough to sell them."

Two blocks away from the Marina District Starbucks, ex-Marine Barry Finnegan flogs condos at Associated Realtors. The cheapest two-bedroom he can find downtown is a $519,000, 920-square-foot unit, he says, about the size of an airport bathroom. The seller recently bought the apartment as an investment and is reselling it before the unit is completed. More than 20 percent of the new downtown units are flipped by speculators upon completion, he says.

"If you had come two or three years ago, I could have got you new construction downtown for $350,000," he says.

With the best downtown San Diego sites spoken for and the units in his next building, a 43-story tower a couple of blocks from the Grande, selling at a brisk clip, Bosa is taking his Vancouver-style developments up the coast.

He's bought a parcel of land near San Francisco's downtown ballpark, designated for condominiums, designed for living sans cars. "You'll get out of your unit and get on the trolley," Bosa effuses during one of his frequent hops from his home in Vancouver to his condo in San Diego's Marina District. "This car orientation is going to have to stop."

Just to the north of San Diego, in Irvine, Bosa has begun construction on two 18-story condominium buildings that will provide a total of 232 apartments; he says these are the first-ever condo towers in Orange County, an area known for its endless landscape of cul-de-sacs and strip malls. "We're 80 percent sold just coming out of the ground," Bosa says. "You're talking about a very little blip in terms of demand. If you go in there and do what we're doing times 10, everybody would do great. Once you get it started, one friend talks to the next and asks, 'How is it?'

"It's a beginning."

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