The I.D.E.A. District was conceived and built by Pete Garcia and David Malmuth. The transformative urban initiative is intended to create 13,000 design and tech jobs over the next 12 years and stretch across 35 city blocks in San Diego’s East Village. In the foreground is I.D.E.A.1 apartments and lofts, designed by the Miller Hull Partnership. (I.D.E.A. Partners LLC)

Suburban greenfield projects fade away as stakeholders focus on connecting cities and reinvesting in areas with preexisting infrastructure and transit.

A shift is taking place in “America’s finest city” as San Diego appears to be trading in its suburban sprawl for urban living.

The move comes as developers in the area are increasingly accepting the fact that San Diego County has hit its “suburban growth boundaries,” according to Andrew Malick, founder and principal of Malick Infill Development. As such, it is becoming more incumbent to build up.

“What we’re seeing now is that the development community, which was predominantly master-planned, single-family homebuilders that would entitle a project and then flip it to homebuilders,” Malick says. “We now have an urban infill pattern starting to happen, and that’s more multifamily, multistory buildings.”

Malick helped write AB 2372, a bill intended to make it easier for developers to build affordable housing. In fact, Malick Infill Development co-developed Parco, a new mixed-use development at Eighth and B streets in downtown National City, the second-oldest city in San Diego County. Parco features 127 rentable studios; one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments; and townhouses, which are for smaller families, couples, and singles. There also are three- and four-bedroom rowhomes, which are for larger families.

Coleen Clementson, deputy CEO for planning, projects, and programs at the San Diego Association of Governments, echoes the increased interest in urbanized areas.

“When I first started my planning career in San Diego, we were doing a lot of greenfield, suburban-type development,” she says. “Now, much more of the focus is on reinvesting in our urbanized areas, really focusing our growth and development where there’s existing infrastructure and new transit.”

That includes the new UC San Diego Blue Line Trolley Extension that opened in November 2021. The $2.1 billion project has created a connection from downtown San Diego to the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), adding nine new stops and offering rich opportunities for transit-oriented development. Clementson refers to the trolley extension as a “blank canvas for something to be built.” This is especially true since the majority of the line’s transit stations have space for development.

“The nice thing is that these are publicly owned properties, so we want to work closely with the development community to really maximize what could be built there,” Clementson says. “Like around the rest of the nation, San Diego is no exception in that we have an enormous lack of affordable housing, so [we’re] really pushing for these to be opportunities for housing. People can live right there at the train station.”

A rendering of Parco, a mixed-use development a project by Malick Infill Development at Eighth and B streets in downtown National City. (Chipper Hatter/The Miller Hull Partnership)

Other options include commercial development as well as live/work units. Clementson says the agency is also aiming for the areas to be bike- and pedestrian-friendly.

The Blue Line Trolley extension is opening up a realm of possibilities since local residents will also be able to make connections into Mission Valley, which includes Riverwalk, a planned mixed-use community from Houston-based real estate investment group Hines and the Levi-Cushman family. It will feature roughly 4,000 multifamily units, 140,000 square feet (13,000 sq m) of retail uses, and 1 million square feet (92,900 sq m) of office space to be built on about 200 acres (81 ha) upon completion, according to the Hines website. Eric Hepfer, managing director at Hines, says that phase one’s completion date is 2025, and the completion date for the entire project is 2037.

South of the Border

Mission Valley is also home to another planned community development, Civita, as well as the new San Diego State University Mission Valley campus. The Blue Line Trolley extension is an add-on to the existing line, offering its own opportunities for development and extending south to Mexico’s border at San Ysidro, a district of the city of San Diego.

The United States/Mexico border at San Ysidro is the “most heavily trafficked land port in the Western Hemisphere,” Clementson points out. Right across the border, in Tijuana, commercial real estate is booming.

“The last 10 years, we have received more development than in the last 20 years combined,” says Hector Bustamante, CEO of Tijuana-based Bustamante Realty Group.

The new development projects are changing the face of the city, according to Bustamante. For example, the Landmark Tijuana—a mixed-use project with 193 condominium units, retail space, a hotel, and an office tower—is being developed by Bustamante Realty Group, developer GFA, and real estate company Thor Urbana Capital.

Tijuana has become the number-one city for developers to invest in over any other city in Mexico, says Bustamante. Half of the real estate built there now is being constructed by outside developers. The medical tourism industry is a contributing factor as well as the fact that locals are ditching their single-family houses for condos in the city.

Sharlinee Ceniceros Toscano, founder of the local all-female architecture firm Se Hace Arquitectura, agrees that there is definitely a push for more “vertical housing” in Tijuana as a result, which many people consider better than living in single-family homes because it lets them live closer to retail and other commercial areas in the city.

Los Patios Build and Hub & Spoke Communities are building Los Patios, a 40-unit residential project designed by architect Kate Meairs at 1776 National Avenue in the neighborhood next to downtown San Diego. (Los Patios Build Partners)

Toscano says it will be challenging to ensure that there are enough public spaces and for people “to learn how to live in vertical, but I guess it’s a good thing for Tijuana.”

Bridging the Divide

Barrio Logan, a vibrant San Diego neighborhood and one of 14 California Cultural Districts, has long been known as a “hotspot for Chicano art, culture, and authentic Mexican food,” says developer Héctor Perez of Los Patios Build. Perez has joined forces with Alexander Alemany, CEO of developer Hub & Spoke Communities, to build Los Patios, a 40-unit residential project at 1776 National Avenue in the neighborhood adjacent to downtown San Diego.

“I think what this project will do is significantly activate the pedestrian uses along National Avenue and serve as a bridge between locals and downtowners,” Perez says.

The nearly $12 million, 29,500-square-foot (2,740 sq m) project features loft, double-height units, each with its own outdoor patio, built around a central courtyard. The units also have plenty of natural light and ventilation. The project’s parapet walls extend beyond the normal handrail height and become decorative. The project also includes two commercial spaces facing National Avenue that will house two restaurants—El Pez, a Mexican fusion sushi bar, and Café Madeleine, a Latin-inspired French café.

“Both Hector and I are Hispanic developers, and we’re very proud of the project and what it represents for the Latino community here in San Diego and at Barrio Logan,” Alemany says.

The developers broke ground in September 2020, and the project is scheduled to be completed later this year.

Interior of Los Patios, a mixed-use project in Barrio Logan, designed by architect Kate Meairs. (Los Patios Build Partners)

Residents will be able to take in views of Chicano Park, which has the largest collection of outdoor murals nationwide and is a National Historic Landmark, and the Coronado Bridge to the south. Locals will also be able to see the vastness of Balboa Park, which houses the famous San Diego Zoo and is the largest urban cultural park nationwide to the east, and San Diego Bay, with its USS Midway Museum, to the west, and views of downtown San Diego to the north.

Innovation 2.0

An increasing number of development projects are also heading downtown. Pete Garcia and his partner, David Malmuth, began working on the I.D.E.A. District in East Village, two blocks from San Diego City College, 12 years ago. The I.D.E.A. District is a transformative urban initiative that is intended to create 13,000 design and tech jobs over the next 12 years and stretch across 35 city blocks in downtown San Diego’s East Village.

San Diego’s thriving innovation district, which Garcia refers to as Innovation 1.0, is centered on UCSD and the Torrey Pines area in the north part of San Diego County. While it was more of a suburban area, “we felt like the social trends at that time were really calling for an urban lifestyle,” he says.

San Diego’s small downtown was being developed with high-rise residential projects. There was no “technology concentration or mind-set,” Garcia says. “So we felt like there was an opportunity to create an Innovation 2.0 and have it cited within the urban fabric, the downtown. . . . We have a beautiful downtown, which is on the bay, but it was basically a bunch of old-type high-rises with corner offices for lawyers and accountants because that’s where the courts are.”

However, they were met with plenty of doubters who questioned them about why they would even consider building in the area, which lies between two major freeways and is within walking distance of the bay and the central business district. San Diego City College is also located there as well as Balboa Park.

“People said, ‘Are you crazy? You’re going to go to the East Village? Why would you want to do that?,’” Garcia recalls. “And we said, ‘It’s got the right bones.’”

Garcia says they considered the neighborhood a diamond in the rough with its older industrial buildings. The community is located just a couple of miles away from pedestrian-friendly Little Italy, which comprises 48 square blocks as well as a host of cafés, pubs, stores, San Diego County’s biggest farmers market, and the new open-air, 10,000-square-foot (929 sq m) Piazza della Famiglia.

Without the capital to purchase land in the East Village, Garcia and Malmuth created a master vision for the area instead. Thus, the I.D.E.A.—or Innovation, Design, Education, and Arts District—was created to be “the nexus of design and technology,” according to Garcia.

“Our premise that the social trends indicated that we needed for San Diego to continue to be competitive and to be an 18-hour city, we really needed to have an innovation district downtown,” Garcia says. “We needed to expand it geographically and also in terms of the scope, bringing design in it.”

Their goal was that it should be a sustainable area. The plan ended up with about 7 million square feet (650,300 sq m) of developable buildings comprising about 40 percent residential space, 40 percent office space, and 20 percent retail space in a walkable, bikeable community that would attract tech and design companies downtown.
It did not work out as planned.

“We were never successful in getting tech companies to move downtown,” Garcia concedes. “When we were able to get some of the tech companies to move downtown, they were small companies.” These included startups, but they could never convince a major anchor tenant like an Apple or a Google or a Qualcomm to relocate there.

They teamed up with developer Lowe Enterprises and LaSalle Investments to develop IDEA1, a successful mixed-use project with 295 market-rate apartments, about 9,000 square feet (836 sq m) of office space, and roughly 8,000 square feet (743 sq m) of retail uses. “We wanted to embody the concept of the I.D.E.A. District,” Garcia explains.

Other developers are eyeing downtown, too, including Kilroy Realty, which purchased the land across the street to build an 840,000-square-foot (78,000 sq m) tech campus. Life-sciences real estate investment trust IQHQ is planning to build a $1.5 billion life-sciences and technology campus. A giant hole currently marks the spot. The San Diego Padres are developing land in East Village into a 2 million-square-foot (185,800 sq m) mixed-use project. Yet Garcia points out that no one has announced a tenant.

Oceanside’s Transformation

Changes are coming to the coastal city of Oceanside, too, which encompasses 42 square miles (109 sq km). The area, with a population of 175,000 residents, has its own vibe.

“It’s an overnight transformation that took probably 10 years,” says Michelle Geller, economic development manager for the city of Oceanside. “Oceanside’s year-round great weather, sandy beaches, and eclectic downtown full of independently operated restaurants and shops make it a sought-after visitor destination. It is also a thriving jobs center, a regional transportation hub, and home to notable employers in the biotech, action sports, and food/beverage manufacturing industries.”

Some big projects have recently been developed, including the 161-room Mission Pacific Hotel and the 226-room Seabird Resort. Both opened in 2021 and are two of the biggest beachfront projects to be erected in San Diego County in the last few decades, according to Geller.

Camp Pendleton—the biggest U.S. Marine base worldwide—lies north of the city. The base is a big economic driver in the area since many people go into Oceanside to shop and dine at local eateries.

A plethora of new restaurants have also recently opened. They include two new chef-driven restaurants: Matsu, a Japanese restaurant on Tremont Street, and Valle, a Mexican eatery with views of the Pacific Ocean. Dija Mara, which offers Southeast Asian fare and casual dining, was recognized last year by the Michelin Group. The San Luis Rey Mission, a historic landmark, is also nearby. “It dictates the aesthetic of the neighborhood,” Geller says.

The city has also been encouraging more affordable housing projects. One that is under construction is the 59-unit Greenbrier Village Apartments at 563 Greenbrier Drive designed for homeless and lower-income residents.

Several units with algae growing in the ECOncrete Tide Pool in the Port of San Diego. ECOncrete is an incubator that is focusing on deploying a pilot to replace traditional riprap with modular tide pools along the coast. (ECOncrete and Port of San Diego)

Another big draw to the region is the Port of San Diego. Its Blue Technology program was created six years ago to focus on environmental and economic opportunities, says Brianne Page, spokeswoman for the Port of San Diego. A Blue Economy Incubator is an innovation launchpad for “new, water-dependent business ventures on San Diego Bay focusing on sustainable aquaculture and port-related blue technologies,” Page explains. Through the Incubator, a partnership has been created between the Port and early-stage companies to facilitate pilot projects in the aquaculture blue technology space.

The Port has approved nine projects to date through its Incubator, including shellfish nursery operations, copper remediation technology, a drive-in boatwash, a smart-marina application, a marine-debris-removal vessel, seaweed aquaculture, bio-enhancing shoreline-armoring technology, and a new approach to soil remediation in marine environments.

“One example coming from the incubator is a company called ECOncrete, which is focusing on deploying a pilot that is replacing traditional riprap with modular tide pools along the coast,” says Jason Giffen, vice president, planning, and environment for the Port of San Diego.

The incubator acts as an innovation launchpad by providing early stage companies with key assets and support services. These are focused on facilitating pilot projects, including assisting with subject matter expertise, permit-ready infrastructure, entitlement assistance, marine spatial planning tools, market access, and funding.

“We’re not a traditional incubator/accelerator that’s offering brick-and-mortar office space or buildings,” says Giffen.

“We’re really focusing on what we can do, facilitating pilot projects through pilot project facilitation, permitting, and really giving companies a launching point to deploy and test their products in a real-world environment.”

The Port of San Diego, which manages roughly 34 miles (55 km) of shoreline, and Chula Vista are also working together to transform an underused industrial landscape into a thriving residential and resort destination on the Chula Vista waterfront in San Diego Bay, Page notes. The project will create new public parks, protect natural coastal resources, provide conference and visitor-serving amenities, and build an important asset for the San Diego region, the South Bay, Chula Vista residents, and visitors.

The Port, which is also updating its Port Master Plan, is proposing constructing 76.5 acres (31 ha) of coastal wetland habitat at Pond 20 to create a mitigation bank, the first of its kind for San Diego Bay. From Oceanside to the Port to Tijuana, local developers’ combined efforts are signaling toward transforming the region into a more urban environment in the future that will include improving accessibility and increasing affordability.

KAREN JORDAN is a business writer based in Los Angeles.