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Tactical Urbanism’ Converting Vacant Lot In Downtown San Diego Into Urban Park

Evening Edition

Aired 3/13/14 on KPBS News.

A nonprofit partnership is working to take unused spaces in downtown San Diego and give them speedy makeovers, turning them into parks or something the public can use.

A new trend called "tactical urbanism" has been popping up in downtown San Diego. The term means creating quick, cheap and sometimes temporary projects that draw foot traffic to downtown spaces.

It's being put to use by the nonprofit Downtown San Diego Partnership, which set up games and live music on downtown's C Street last October and now wants to give speedy makeovers to unused spaces like vacant lots to transform them into parks or something else that can be used by the public.

One "tactical urbanism" project is underway in San Diego's East Village, where commercial real estate company HP Investors is lending a vacant lot to the Downtown Partnership. The nonprofit, working with the design firm RAD Lab, decided to ask for the public's input on what should go in the lot. So they put up a sign in front of the lot asking people to write down ideas for what they want to see in the space.

The list filled up in less than a week. Suggestions ranged from the improbable — a new Chargers stadium — to the feasible — a dog park.

David Loewenstein, the chief operating officer of RAD Lab, said one of the most popular ideas was a children's playground and family park. He said while they are still sifting through the suggestions, it seems the lot will likely be transformed into some kind of urban park.

"We definitely want to do some sort of canopy system in here, to allow for more shade when the sun's really hot, we want to do a lot of seating, definitely some sort of art installation," he said. "Possibly have a changing art installation so that every time you come, it's different."

RAD Lab team members Phillip Auchettel and David Loewenstein talk with Sumeet Parekh, the owner of a vacant lot RAD Lab hopes to transform into an urban park. RAD Lab worked with the Downtown San Diego Partnership to collect suggestions for what should go in the space.

Loewenstein said they asked for input to get the community involved.

"An empty parking lot doesn't have to be an empty parking lot forever," he said. "It can really be transformed into something amazing. And it doesn't take that much money, it doesn't take a lot of time, it just takes people who are willing to participate and really want to make a difference."

Sumeet Parekh, HP Investors' principal and the property's owner, is loaning the space for free and will pay for all of the costs of the makeover. He said he's doing it because he owns some of the surrounding buildings and wants to add value to the neighborhood.

"Small things like this can have a really transformative effect on the neighborhood, and we want to invest back in the neighborhoods that we invest in," he said.

Downtown Partnership president Kris Michell said the park will close at night so it doesn't become a campground for homeless. She said her organization asked RAD Lab to get involved because the firm is working on transforming another vacant lot two blocks away into an urban park. Downtown Partnership also plans to keep looking for other small spaces downtown that can be transformed.

"It's this evolution of looking at what is the best way to use space in urban centers," Michell said. "You always have to look at the spaces between the buildings, what else could it be used for, and how else could we imagine this space?"

Michell said she hopes the park will be open by June.

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