As this issue of CityBeat went to press, the San Diego City Council was taking testimony regarding the merits and shortcomings of a planning document that will guide downtown San Diego's development for the next 24 years. Under state law, every city must have such a blueprint in place, and it's been nearly 14 years since San Diego's updated its plan. The result has been unbalanced development leading to underused space and lingering pockets of blight.
Garry Papers, manager of architecture and planning for the Centre City Development Corporation, the redevelopment agency responsible for implementing the downtown plan, acknowledged this imbalance.
“I struggled with it a little bit, too, when I first moved here,” he said. He faults the 1992 downtown plan, under which city planners simply wanted to attract development to an area that cultural critic and former San Diegan Mark Dery once referred to as “the mongrel metropolis.”
“The plan tried to incentivize mixed-use development just about everywhere and anywhere,” Papers said. “We didn't want to discourage any developer by saying, ‘Uh-uh, that's not the right use for that part of the block.' So, in some ways, we have let things just unroll as the market wanted to.”
Scattered development has meant that some areas don't get much foot traffic. Too many interesting shops and restaurants don't get the attention they deserve because their surroundings are in flux. Even the downtown Museum of Contemporary Art seems rather isolated, situated in a southwest corner of downtown. But with two residential buildings under construction next door (one apartment, one condo), perhaps there's hope.
Something San Diego lacks is a healthy public-transit system that, in turn, encourages foot traffic, which, in turn, helps local business. Not only that, but a natural flow of foot traffic generates, for any city, a sense of energy. In San Diego, the transit system is, literally, built around downtown—save for the tracks that run past City Hall—denying the city those core areas that naturally develop around public transit.
“The trolley system hasn't reached capacity to create energy,” Papers said. In Portland, where he worked in city planning before moving to San Diego, “trolley and street-car [lines] have started to create some of those nodes.”
The proposed downtown plan update was written with the idea of central hubs in mind. Each downtown neighborhood would have a “center”—a plaza, park or a main street. These centers would be distributed equally throughout downtown, Papers said.
“The goal is to try to create an open space and a pretty complete assortment of your daily needs or weekly needs within a five- to 10-minute walk of every spot in downtown,” he said.
It would seem natural that the people who'd benefit most from a boost in amenities are the folks who work downtown. But critics of the plan say it doesn't provide enough affordable housing for the growing population of service workers employed in downtown hotels, restaurants and bars. That means more parking and more car traffic downtown. The Center on Policy Initiatives (CPI), a labor-oriented think tank, estimates that only 18 percent of the downtown workforce can afford to live in family-size housing units (two bedrooms or more).
Paul Karr, spokesperson for CPI, called the downtown envisioned under the plan “a playground for the wealthy.”
Karr says it would seem a given that planners would want people who work downtown to live downtown—that would mean less car traffic and more use of amenities like parks and grocery stores.
State law says a redevelopment area, such as downtown, must ensure that at least 15 percent of its residential units are affordable to people making less than 100 percent of the area median income, which is roughly $63,000 in San Diego. Karr says that still doesn't provide much diversity in housing options.
“I think it's really a shame,” Karr says, “that we're at a point with downtown development here in San Diego where something as simple as somebody working for a living being able to afford to live near her job is an unreasonable expectation. Talk about an altered paradigm. That wouldn't have been a conversation a couple decades ago because that's not how we used to do this.
“If we don't set [affordable housing] goals,” he said, “we're destined to build an unsustainable downtown.”
Papers expects that in the next couples of years, the downtown housing stock will comprise fewer high-end condos and more “reasonably affordable” housing options. But housing for all kinds of workers might not be a reality.
“I can't say that the average hotel maid will be able to afford them, but other types of workers will,” he noted.
Just as CPI wants downtown planners to be mindful of affordable housing options for downtown workers, John Eger, professor of communications and public policy at San Diego State University, says the city needs to focus on adding features downtown that will attract workers who are part of what's become known as the “creative class”—people who work in biotech, design and technology. Creative people seek out “attractive, aesthetically pleasing cities” that appeal to their sensibilities, Eger said. “There's a connection between being a creative, innovative society and having a dynamic downtown.
“If we're going to maintain jobs and not have everything outsourced to Bangalore or China,” he said, “we have to create [a city] to retain and nurture the creative worker.”
Cities like Portland and Boston are considered hubs for the creative class. For San Diego to get there, Eger would like to see city planners implement big, bold ideas, something akin to Seattle's new downtown library—a somewhat incongruous, reflective building designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaus. The library has become equal parts learning space and cultural attraction.
The library is near what's considered Seattle's center. Eger described the area around the library as a “beehive of activity”—a stark contrast to San Diego's downtown library, which Eger called “decrepit.”
For now, there's a sign up where a proposed downtown library will one day be, but, unlike the condos that surround it, construction hasn't even begun. There's no money for it. Regardless, it's included in the plan, a document more than three years in the making that's drawn lots of attention from diverse special interests in San Diego.
“There's a lot of people bringing up valid criticism,” Papers said. “But I ask their patience as we evolve into a more mature city.”