Despite community plan policies disfavoring surface parking and encouraging the retention of fine grain development, the adaptive reuse of existing structures, and encouraging walking, biking, and public transit use, Civic San Diego staff is recommending the approval of the expansion of a surface parking lot on the block bounded by F St. and 7th and 8th Ave. Additionally, they are making this recommendation despite the fact that it will require the demolition of several viable and recently occupied commercial buildings. The sole reason offered for recommending approval of demolition for a surface parking is that there is a demand for parking – as if such parking demand was unknown when the Downtown Community Plan was adopted. This recommendation essentially casts aside the community plan goals while at the same time reciting them in the report making the recommendation.
Civic San Diego staff is interpreting the Municipal Code as limiting surface parking lots to two years if the property owner has a development permit for new buildings but as unlimited in time if property owner does not have any development plans, which appears to be the reverse of the overriding intent of the code section: that a new surface parking lot be only an “interim use.” (SDMC 156.0313(i))
The applicant, is the same property owner who previously demolished an historic building (they got City Council approval to remove the historic designation placed on it by the Historic Resources Board) to clear the site for 35,000 of surface parking without posting the public notice specified in the Municipal Code. Ironically, the applicant is MBS Studios, LLC, which appears to be connected with the heirs of downtown adaptive reuse pioneer Morris Slayen who restored and adaptively reused several downtown historic buildings in imaginative and attractive ways. Morris Slayen passed away in 2009 and his heirs seem to have none of his penchant for adaptive reuse and restoration. In the 1990s, this neighborhood was one of downtown’s nicest. Adjacent to the Gaslamp Quarter, it had jacaranda shaded sidewalks and an ideal mix building sizes and types ranging from mildly ornate late 19th century brick storefronts to early modern glass and cement storefronts from the 1950s. As a result, the neighborhood thrived as an incubator for creatives: from clothing and shoe stores, to artist studios, to hair salons. When MBS demolished the northern half of the block between F St., 7th Ave., and 8th Ave., they tore out the heart of this neighborhood and replaced it with a giant parking crater. This demo for parking was so destructive of urban fabric that a jury of the San Diego Architectural Foundation’s annual Orchids & Onions Awards bestowed it with an Onion for “a gross and egregious error by the developer and an example of another missed opportunity by the City of San Diego.” Additionally, over 300 people signed a petition asking the City to Stop Demolition for Parking Lots. Now the owners of the block want surface parking more so they can ride the coat tails of public and private investment in surrounding blocks at the same time they undermine it with blight.
Various city officials and downtown interests give lip service to the goal of attracting creatives and millennial tech startups to downtown. However, most such startups prefer what some realtors call “funky space,” not traditional office high rises. Downtown has been eliminating such space at an alarming rate. When such space is replaced by more intensive development, the trade-off may be worthwhile. When it is replaced with surface parking, it portends a sterile non-diverse downtown.
These types of demolitions essentially follow a parasitic investment strategy that undermines public and private investments in downtown’s redevelopment: Surface parking lots are a recognized form of blight that diminish surrounding property values because they make the area less attractive and walkable; Property owners tear down existing buildings and install parking lots because they involve minimal maintenance and expense; This strategy allows these property owners to wait for their property values to appreciate as the result of the investment in development by surrounding property owners and as the result of public expenditure; All the while, this conduct undermines the return on investment on private and public dollar in active development. The City should be encouraging real development, including the transfer of property from owners who do not have the wherewithall to develop their property to those who do. In fact, this was the central strategy of California redevelopment projects. These parking lot demolitions act in direct opposition to this strategy.
Forty years after the start of downtown San Diego’s redevelopment, we have replaced small buildings with a combination of large buildings and surface parking, leaving downtown feeling as incomplete and in-transition as it did when redevelopment began – maybe more so in some ways. In 2013, San Diego was among 16 finalist cities in Streetblog USA’s Worst Parking Crater in America tournament. San Diego has stayed off the list of nominees since then by replacing its harbor front parking with a water-park but apparently the message of the tournament – that surface parking is incompatible with a thriving, walkable, and liveable downtown – has fallen on deaf ears at Civic San Diego.
This surface parking lot application is coming before the Downtown Community Planning Committee on Tuesday, July 15, 2015 at 5:15 P.M. at the Civic San Diego conference room on the Fourth Floor of 401 B St., San Diego, CA 92101.