A recent article by John Karras, founder of consulting firm UrbanSCALE, offered “12 Strategies That Will Transform Your City’s Downtown.” The article was a good selection of the many revitalization strategies, and addressed some important sticking points, e.g., transitioning from auto-orientation and healing the gashes created by the the last half century of urban freeway construction. One or two of the strategies are still-controversial or not widely accepted, e.g., eliminating minimum parking requirements (even imposing maximum parking restrictions), which made the article even more of a worthwhile read. Moreover, the article offered an opportunity to compare and grade cities by these 12 strategies. So with apologies to Mr. Karras for using his article as a test by which to grade cities, which was probably not his intention, below is how San Diego’s downtown fares, in my humble opinion:
(quotations are excerpts from Karras’s article)
#1 Turn one-way streets into two-way streets.
“. . . Two-way streets create a more comfortable pedestrian environment and have been shown to increase property values. . . From Wichita, KS to Charleston, SC, cities across the U.S. are realizing the benefits of two-way streets in their urban cores.”
San Diego’s downtown street grid is dominated by one way streets. Not only are most of the streets one way, but they are wide (75′) with synchronized traffic lights to speed up auto traffic. Furthermore, there are few refuges for pedestrians such as arcades, alleys, or residentially oriented streets. Downtown San Diego gets a big fail on this one.
#2 Establish a regularly occurring public event … showcasing downtown merchants, music, and food.
“. . . Bringing people from your entire city downtown on a regular basis, once a week or even just once a month, serves to make citizens aware of the unique amenities that exist in the central part of their community. . . An added benefit of these types of events is that they engage local merchants, artists, and entrepreneurs, helping to make these businesspeople champions for downtown revitalization. . .”
There are numerous Downtown events, from the annual (e.g. Mardi Gras) to the weekly (Little Italy Mercato – farmers market), to the periodic spectacle (e.g., professional baseball games). San Diego gets a passing mark on this part.
#3 Create more land for development (landfill into a body of water, remove land from a floodplain, take back land from a freeway, etc).
“. . . what about that massive freeway that runs along the edge of your downtown? You could tear it down and build a park in its place like Portland did in its downtown.
Or you could sink it and cover it with a park like Dallas did.
Or you could sink it and cover it with a park and a convention center like Seattle.”
While San Diego has quite expansive and developed landfill along its harbor and an airport built on a flood plain / river delta / salt flat, it’s been quite awhile since any new useable land was created. Moreover, San Diego lags behind many other cities in healing the gash created by its urban highway. Interstate 5 separates downtown from Balboa Park, divides the Little Italy and Barrio Logan neighborhoods, and isolates from downtown the neighborhoods of Bankers’ Hill, Hillcrest, Golden Hill, Sherman Heights, and Logan Heights. The demolition of homes and businesses, and the resultant I-5 chasm also exacerbated the mid-century decline of downtown, from which it has yet to fully recover. Putting a lid on the freeway and rejoining downtown to the Park and / or urban residential neighborhoods would be a great improvement to these areas and the city in general. While several visionary documents have made capping the freeway a goal, no firms steps toward fulfilling this goal have been taken. So San Diego does not get a passing grade on this one.
#4 Make under-utilized public land available for private sector development.
” All types of government (federal, state, and local) own real estate assets. Sometimes these “assets” are not doing any good for the government entity that owns them or for the community they sit in. . .”
The Naval Training Center conversion resulted in Liberty Station, a mixed use development, which also preserved several of the historic structures. The North Embarcadero Visionary Plan is now being implemented transforming County Administration Center parking lots into a long waterfront park. The yet-to-be implemented and controversial Navy Broadway Complex plan would convert Navy administration facilities along the waterfront into mixed use development and waterfront public improvements. San Diego gets a passing grade here.
#5 Consolidate regional economic development partner organizations into a single downtown location.
“It may seem like an inconsequential decision but the location of government offices and community-serving organizations matters. This is even more important for organizations that interact with the outside business world like chambers of commerce and economic development organizations. Of course, public decisions to place jobs downtown are beneficial, but in this case, we’re talking about the image that is portrayed to the outside world. . .”
While there is no dedicated building for these types or organizations, at least they are located downtown in fairly close proximity, e.g., the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown San Diego Partnership, both at 402 W.Broadway, Civic San Diego and the Downtown Community Planning Committee, both at 401 B St. Additionally, these groups are all a short walk from the city’s Civic Center / governmental center (202 C St.) and the city’s Development Services (1222 First Ave.) A lot of promotion of downtown is accomplished via events created and managed by the Business Improvement Districts (BIDs): the Little Italy Association and the Gaslamp Quarter Association, which are located in their respective districts in downtown. Overall, San Diego has done a good job keeping its regional government offices and community-serving organizations downtown: passing score.
#6 Create a permanent public market.
“. . . a large public market can attract thousands of downtown visitors on a daily basis. Seattle’s Pike Place Market is a great example of such a public. . .”
No passing grade for this yet. There was a recent valiant effort, with the literal title San Diego Public Market but it has been on hiatus – lack of financial support from the city may doom the effort. The Quartyard which will occupy a 30,000 square foot vacant lot as an interim use, is a quasi-marketplace green shoot. Honorable mentions: Maker’s Quarter – Silo and the Horton Plaza Park expansion, while not public markets, per se, provide some of the gathering functions and programming of a public market, thus mitigating this deficiency a bit.
#7 Open a downtown satellite campus of a local university.
“. . . The introduction of several thousand college students to a downtown can provide a major boost to the diversity of a downtown district, especially if student housing is included as part of the expansion. . .”
Downtown San Diego’s educational sector has been expanding: the relocation of Thomas Jefferson to a new custom-built building downtown, the continued growth of the New School of Architecture, the opening of the Woodbury School of Architecture, and the massive expansion of San Diego City Community College all add diversity, vitality, and creativity to downtown. Additionally, several charter high schools and language schools with international students also contribute. However, nothing matches a campus from a major university, especially for introducing a student resident population to downtown. For all the talk of building a football stadium in East Village, nothing would be a boon to downtown like a U.C.S.D., S.D.S.U., or other major university satellite campus. In contrast, San Diego’s progressive little neighbor to the north, Carlsbad is actively soliciting major Universities to open a satellite graduate school campus there. It’s hired Steven Jacobs with K. Backus and Associates, the firm that represented Cornell in securing the rights to build a $2 billion technology satellite campus on New York’s Roosevelt Island. While this strategy is not being adequately pursued for downtown, nevertheless downtown San Diego gets a passing score due the recent expansion of its educational sector.
#8 Build a streetcar line connecting your downtown to an adjacent urban neighborhood.
“. . . In the early 1900s, it was standard practice for residential real estate developers to create streetcar lines that connected their land plots to the center city so that land values and development potential would increase on their property. . . Modern day streetcar lines prove the time-tested benefits of streetcars for urban revitalization. Portland and Seattle offer good examples of streetcar lines that have more than paid for themselves in the way of new real estate development. . .”
It should be noted, like Portland and LA have demonstrated, there is a distinction between light rail and streetcars, although there benefits may overlap. Light rail generally runs on dedicated routes and is more of a regional connector. In contrast, streetcars run on tracks embedded in streets and share the road with cars. San Diego started well with one of the best and most innovative streetcar networks in the early part of the 20th century. Alas, it was dismantled in the Great American Streetcar Scandal.
Currently, the Metropolitan Transit System runs very limited service of two 1930s era Presidents’ Conference Committee (PCC) streetcars on a downtown loop on existing light rail (San Diego Trolley) track downtown as the Silver Line.
Additionally, there is a notable effort to restore historic streetcars to the city’s streets starting with 3 original 1912 John D. Spreckles Class-1 wooden and partially open-air streetcars. The effort is being spearheaded by the San Diego Historic Streetcars Organization. The streetcars had been converted into a residence that was about to be demolished when, in 1996, antiques and arts dealer Christian Chaffee saved them and made it his passion project to return them to service on the streets of the city. The Little Italy Community has shown interest in restoring such a streetcar line, with the Little Italy Association board of directors voting to support the concept of a streetcar loop running on India St. and Kettner Blvd. from approximately W. Kalmia to B St. (11 blocks / 1.7 miles). Much of the line would run on excavated historic track.
However, without a substantial existing streetcar system or firmer plans to build one, the city does not get a passing grade here.
#9 Create an awesome downtown playground to make your downtown more kid-friendly and family-friendly.
“. . . Many cities have high-quality downtown children’s museums but very few have playgrounds of equal caliber. Creating a top-notch downtown playground can be a truly transformative strategy, particularly if it’s part of a broader initiative to make your downtown more family-friendly and kid-friendly, because so few cities have an urban core that really appeals to families. One example of a really unique downtown playground is the Imagination Playground in NYC’s Financial District. . .”
Similarly San Diego has a great Childrens Museum, but only minor playgrounds or other facilities for children. The Dancing Waters fountain at the foot of Fifth Ave at the entrance to the Gaslamp Quarter was a favorite of children in the summer but recurring repair issues precipitated its removal. The new Central Library is child friendly. Downtown’s auto-oriented grid is particularly dangerous for children. Efforts to make San Diego’s downtown more child / family friendly and safe must continue. The efforts taken so far are noble but no passing score yet.
#10 Create a branded downtown entertainment district.
“Downtowns that offer a new, exciting district – even if it’s just a small area of a couple of blocks – provide residents with a reason to check out what is going on in the center of their community. A major upside of this strategy is that it can help to turn around the perceptions and reality of downtowns that have are not vibrant. . .”
Downtown San Diego delivers in spades when it comes to an entertainment district. The 16 block Gaslamp Quarter is host to a massive amount of entertainment and dining in a National Register historic district setting. Little Italy provides a more subdued, and possibly more sophisticated, dining experience and also has some entertainment options. Additionally, there are also a host of dining and entertainment options on Market St. and J St. near Petco Park baseball stadium. Passing score plus.
#11 Establish maximum parking standards for new downtown developments, or at least remove minimum parking requirements for new buildings.
“Unfortunately, the majority of U.S. cities impose parking minimums instead of parking maximums, even in their downtown districts. This means that real estate developers are forced to provide a minimum level of parking when building new downtown offices, hotels, or residential structures, ignoring the market demand for parking. While these policies are generally intended to enhance or maintain access to downtown districts, they have the unintended side effect of fostering an over-dependence on auto travel while making downtown areas less walkable and less transit-supportive. Fortunately, there is a growing movement in large cities to abolish minimum parking requirements in downtowns. . .”
On this count, perhaps more than all others, San Diego gets a big fail. Downtown San Diego seems to lag most other major cities in adopting policies to transition from an auto-oriented downtown. At least one downtown residential group sends a representative to all new project discretionary design review hearings to ensure that parking is given high priority.
While not in Karras’s 12 Strategies article, an additional parking related matter drains downtown of its vibrancy: Many previously occupied buildings were (and continue to be) demolished and replaced with surface parking lots. The ostensible purpose of the 20 plus years of redevelopment in downtown was the elimination of blight. However, this purpose was largely undermined by the scourge of demolition for parking. During redevelopment, San Diego’s downtown gained new residential, hotel, and office towers, a new baseball stadium, an expanded convention center, and more “upscale” businesses in its historic districts. However, entire blocks of buildings were demolished, historic buildings were lost, industries and creative businesses were lost, and continuity of neighborhoods / urban fabric was lost – only to be replaced by parking or vacant lots. According to a city ordinance, surface parking is only supposed to be an “interim” use. However, the city applied an overly generous interpretation of the ordinance such that demolition was allowed with no firm commitment to redevelopment of the property. Additionally, the 2008 real estate crash interrupted many projects. As a result, it may be decades before many of these lots are developed. One form of blight has been replaced with another. There is a huge inventory of parking, and downtown’s auto-orientation appears firmly entrenched. San Diego must prohibit any further such demolition, and devise a program to more quickly convert existing surface lots into uses which add to the vitality of downtown. Reduced minimum parking requirements, by making development less expensive, could also help to expedite redevelopment of parking lot blight.
#12 Set up a downtown bike share program.
“. . . Any strategy that results in more transportation choices available within a downtown is a good thing if you’re aiming for a more vibrant urban core. . . But what makes this strategy so valuable is that it also provides indirect marketing and branding service for your downtown.
Bike share programs, with their highly visible stations and riders, broadcast a continual message to casual observers that downtown is a place for recreation and entertainment. . .”
San Diego is about to embark on a bikeshare program using the DeccoBike company, albeit a couple of months delayed from the original planned start date, and well after several other cities have established bikeshare programs. It remains to be seen whether San Diego’s efforts and its environment will sustain the program. The mixed record of success of bikeshare programs have been attributed to such factors as sufficient critical mass, a city’s layout and density, as well as other factors. San Diego’s program plans 175 stations and 1,800 bikes, which is considerably more than the 75 stations planned for Portland bikeshare program (a city of similar size).
While San Diego was not one of the first to adopt a bikeshare program, it was one of the first to adopt a carshare program: Car2Go. Because of San Diego’s sprawling layout, sparse transit, and undulating landscape, this carshare program may be more suited to the city than bikeshare, but hopefully both will thrive. Additionally, San Diego’s Car2Go carshare provider is more similar to a bikeshare program than other carshare programs, which typically require round trips so that cars must be returned to the point of rental/departure. In contrast, Car2Go allows one way point A to B trips. Not only that, but Car2Go doesn’t require that their cars be returned to a designated station or lot, but can be left at any city parking space (excluding yellow, white, and green curbs). San Diego gets a passing score for transpo-share.
San Diego’s total score: 6 out of 12 for 50%. While John Karras, the author of the “12 Strategies” article, noted that these strategies were by no means the only important strategies to infuse vitality into a downtown, they offer a pretty good sampling of hardscape and soft programming strategies based on what has been learned through trial and error during the last few decades of downtown revitalization efforts. In San Diego, it’s sometimes hard to sift through the haze of new development and self-laudatory hype to get a true (or comparative) sense of the performance of those revitalization efforts. These strategies, and the comparison of other cities’ implementation of them, show that while the city has made some solid accomplishments, there is plenty of room for improvement.