A six-year-old attempt to build a $650 million high-density, mixed-use development in northern San Diego continues to stir debate about the role of new urbanism in a city known for suburban sprawl.
In February, the San Diego City Council approved the 1.4 million-square-foot (130,000 sq m) One Paseo project by a seven-to-two vote. But an opposition group gathered enough signatures for a referendum, forcing the city council to either repeal the decision or schedule a public vote on the project. (The council was scheduled to decide on May 18. Meanwhile, the owner of a neighboring shopping center, who has been bankrolling the opposition, filed a lawsuit against the project, charging the city and the developer, Kilroy Realty, with violating environmental review procedures.
Kilroy wants to build a mix of retail, office, entertainment, and residential space on 23.6 acres (9.5 ha) in Carmel Valley, an affluent area dominated by tract homes and strip shopping centers with vast surface parking lots. Plans for One Paseo call for a self-contained “Main Street”–style project, including ten buildings ranging from two to nine stories, a movie theater, 10.8 acres (4.3 ha) of open space, and more than 600 apartments.
Project backers say that One Paseo closely follows the city’s stated goal of creating a “city of villages,” channeling growth to high-density, infill projects. In its 2008 General Plan update, the city formally endorsed the village strategy.
“It is a poster child for the San Diego master plan as a city of villages, which is a great concept,” says Howard Elkus of Boston-based Elkus Manfredi, the architect for the project.
The One Paseo design calls for clusters of development on the 23.6-acre (9.5 ha) parcel, connected by a narrow street, pedestrian walkways, underground parking, and public areas. The two office buildings sit at the low end of the site, which slopes 70 feet (21 m) and is surrounded by existing office, shopping, and apartment complexes.
“The whole development has to be scaled and articulated to relate to its four sides, because they are all very different,” Elkus says.
While the project has been hailed as an example of “suburban retrofitting,” even some supporters of the village concept are hesitant to endorse One Paseo. The site, which is zoned for 500,000 square feet (46,500 sq m) of office space and surface parking, sits on an existing six-lane road near the intersection of Interstate 5, the main north–south artery in the area. The local stretch of freeway is already one of the worst traffic bottlenecks in the city, and the project offers few links to the region’s mass transit system.
“On its own terms, it is a very, very good project,” says William Fulton, the city’s former planning director, who left last year to take the helm of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. “But it is an island in an auto-oriented suburban development.”
To help appease complaints, the developer cut 30 percent of the space from the project, eliminated a hotel, reduced the height of the tallest buildings by 10 percent, and added green space to soften the borders of the project. The developer also integrated a network of bike paths, proposed a sophisticated synchronized traffic light system, and agreed to provide shuttle service to a station for the coastal commuter train, the Coaster, a few miles from the project. “That’s what they needed if they were going to conform to the General Plan,” Fulton says.
Kilroy executives believed they were close to a vote on the project in 2012, but progress stalled when then-Mayor Bob Filner demanded another environmental impact review. (Filner resigned from office a few months later in the wake of sexual harassment charges.) “That added 18 months to the timeline,” says Jamas Gwilliam, vice president of Kilroy Realty.
Despite the changes, the project was opposed by four community planning groups in the area, as well as by the councils of the neighboring cities of Del Mar and Solana Beach. But the city’s planning commission and planning department disagreed with the community planning groups and endorsed the project. “Those who have planning in mind agree that this is the right project, at the right place, at the right time,” Gwilliam says.
But critics are not giving up. They charge that the project is still too big and will increase traffic problems in the area.
“Everybody would like a mixed-use project on the site,” says John Ziebardth, an architect who has spoken against Kilroy’s plan. He praised the public spaces incorporated into the design of One Paseo, but he does not believe that the overall project fits the city’s new urbanism goals.
“It’s an urban village placed in a suburban area,” he says. “It’s not that the plan is wrong; it’s the implementation of this project [that’s wrong].”
One Paseo is part of an area originally known as North City West, which was developed in 1974 as one of the largest master-planning efforts of its kind in the state at the time. The plan established guidelines for developing 4,286 acres (1,734 ha) of largely agricultural land, creating homes, schools, and parks for 40,000 people. Now almost completely built out, the area is often cited as a prime example of southern California sprawl—an auto-focused neighborhood of $1 million homes.
“The North City West community plan really was a model for new urbanism, but it didn’t develop that way,” says former San Diego city architect Mike Stepner, who is on the faculty at San Diego’s NewSchool of Architecture and Design. Dozens of amendments to the plan pushed development toward wide roads and disconnected projects, setting a tone for future development in the city. “We go through these cycles over and over again,” Stepner says.
These days, no more land exists in San Diego for the large-scale developments, planners and politicians agree. But the city will need an estimated 330,000 new homes by 2050, which led to the endorsement of the villages concept in 2008’s General Plan update. But the plan provided few details on where villages should be built or what form they should take, Fulton says. And three years after approving the General Plan, the cash-strapped city eliminated the long-range planning department. “Completion of the community plans was not a high priority,” Fulton says.
Early efforts to create higher-density projects have met with stiff resistance from neighborhood groups, which typically wield tremendous influence in the city’s planning process. A proposal to build taller buildings near light-rail stations in the Bay Park area of San Diego was ultimately tabled after community complaints about views and traffic.
In a newspaper editorial published shortly after he resigned, Fulton warned that the city must embrace the villages concept or risk turning into “an unworkable jumble of halfhearted efforts to both embrace and repel a more urban future.”
Stepner opposed the original plan for One Paseo, but now works as a consultant for Kilroy, the developer. He believes the current plan creates a more walkable, interconnected plan for the area—and may lead to better projects in the future.
“The city is still feeling its way,” Stepner says. “Interconnectivity, walkable neighborhoods—they’ve become a major rallying cry. The question is, how to do it?”