Life sciences and technology firms have been flocking to the San Diego metro area for the past decade—often choosing to locate on the outskirts of downtown. Consideration and efforts are underway to make the market’s urban area a destination to work, live, and play.

A panel featuring leaders in San Diego business development and academics joined moderator Lisa Cholmondeley, principal and design manager at Gensler, to discuss strategy in a session titled “San Diego’s Life Sciences Ecosystem: A 21st-Century Transformation” at the 2022 ULI Spring Meeting in San Diego.

Panelists were Nikia Clarke, senior vice president of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation (EDC); Jeff Graham, executive director, real estate, at the University of California, San Diego; Andrew Saba, vice president, asset management, at Stockdale Capital Partners; and world researcher Sofia Song, global cities lead at Gensler.

Reflecting on her recent global study of 25 city markets—13 of which were in the United States, including San Diego—Song said downtown San Diego is promising but is not ready yet to become a work/live/play destination.

Homelessness, safety concerns, traffic congestion, parking fees, cost of living, a lack of green space, and the fact the city was not viewed as a “lifestyle hub” were among the reasons the panel gave for that opinion.

Finding the “Secret Sauce”

The “secret sauce,” as Cholmondeley described it, would need to include conversion of downtown to a “clean, quality, safe” area where walking spaces, especially the sidewalks, have been improved, Graham said. “Homelessness has taken over park spaces,” he said. “There are few trees and not enough shade, making these public spaces not so comfortable. Downtown doesn’t meet the definition of being a destination.”

Many workers have become comfortable with the “remote work” capabilities they have enjoyed for the past two years, Song said. To spur action, the city’s business districts must become more livable, she said. Saba said San Diego is best known for its live/play lifestyles, as well as its weather, and should better leverage them.

Life sciences is a sector that exploded in the past two years during the pandemic, and San Diego was already primed to take advantage of that, Clarke said. “CRE [commercial real estate] investment capital needed a place to go, and it went to life sciences,” she said.

A battle has taken place between technology and life sciences companies to come to San Diego, Clarke said, but “it’s near its high water mark. It’s going to start to recede, and then we’ll see what’s left over,” she said. “On the other hand, this gives the city a chance to transform its skyline over the next 15 years, and you are seeing that already in places such as the Midway neighborhood.”

Clarke also said developers and businesses need to focus on where people will be living in the next 15 years and not necessarily where they live now. Developers and businesses then need to work to make those areas more attractive, she said.

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way

Saba said it can be difficult to identify those most-promising areas now. “When you look at successful urban development years later, you can tell it’s a no-brainer,” he said. “But here, there’s hesitation right now because the cool kid hasn’t jumped into the pool yet, and people are waiting for that move.”

Company CEOs need to be willing to live in the city and live there now, Graham said. Now, they live in their larger homes in North County or outside the city.

Clarke reminded the audience that San Diego has always had a mind-set of “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” and that could surely apply again in this situation. “All the right incentives need to align for this to get going,” she said.

For one thing, Graham noted, the city just invested $2 billion to improve the trolley transportation system, and given that many local students lack cars and are studying life sciences locally, they could want to use that transportation to get downtown and avoid the freeway traffic.