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San Diego State Developing Its Own Downtown

Robert Schulz, the San Diego State architect, stands outside the construction site for South Campus Plaza on Aug. 21, 2015.
Katie Schoolov
Robert Schulz, the San Diego State architect, stands outside the construction site for South Campus Plaza on Aug. 21, 2015.
South Campus Plaza Could be New Center for San Diego State
San Diego State Developing Its Own Downtown
South Campus Plaza will be home to student housing, retail, restaurants and a Trader Joe's market. It could also signal a growing campus footprint.

There’s a construction project at the corner of College Avenue and Montezuma Road that’s hard to miss. Today, it’s a forest of steel framing and cement pillars clad in yellow sheets of wallboard.

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South Campus Plaza has been in the planning stage for half a dozen years. On one hand, it’s a place for San Diego State University students.

“Well it doesn’t hurt that it includes 600 to 800 beds of student housing. That’s what pays the bills,” said Bob Schulz, San Diego State’s chief architect and the point person on South Campus Plaza.

“But frankly, the point is to build a kind of town-gown campus community that doesn’t exist anymore … or has never existed within walking distance,” he said.

The plaza might be the biggest step yet in turning a commuter campus into a college community.

Aside from student housing on the upper floors, South Campus Plaza will have 35,000 square feet of retail space, including as many as six restaurants. There will be 300 parking spaces and – something that’s ginned up a lot of excitement around SDSU - a Trader Joe’s market. Schulz said the Trader Joe’s will serve a community that has no decent market within walking distance.

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“But the other thing is, maybe even bigger for the development in particular is, we think that particular tenant will be a traffic draw the supports all of the rest of the retail,” he said.

Schulz points out that retail businesses around universities have a way of dying in the drought of summer, when the flow of student customers goes from a flood to a trickle.

San Diego State’s transition from a car-centric commuter campus to a place where many more students walk and bike to class owes something to the creation of a trolley station and an attractive new student union where students like to hang out, along with a boom in apartment building.

Today, Schulz estimated about a third of SDSU students, around 10,000, live within a half mile of campus. Many more live in apartment complexes within a mile of campus, such as Blvd63 on El Cajon Boulevard.

Jose Reynoso, chair of the College Area Community Planning Board, said he wants the College Area to be a good place to live, but also a destination with an attractive campus-town ambience. He remembers when he lived in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“My wife and I… we lived in Piedmont and we’d drive up to Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. There were some nice restaurants. We’d have dinner, especially when my in-laws visited from San Diego, and then we’d walk on the UC Berkeley campus. There’s no reason that can’t happen here,” Reynoso said.

Reynoso spoke next to a vacant lot on College Avenue, not far from campus, that a developer hopes to turn into a 95-unit apartment complex. The community development board on which Reynoso serves voted against the project because it was too tall and dense. But Reynoso disagreed, saying apartments like it are an alternative to mini-dorms.

Mini-dorms are single-family homes that have become boarding houses in which students rent by the room. Neighbors often complain they're poorly managed and maintained. And loud parties at mini-dorms have become a constant headache for local residents.

Reynoso said the increase in apartment living is giving the College Area a better option, and the College Avenue project is one example.

“And if you do the numbers, with the number of residents, it would essentially pre-empt between 50 and 60 mini-dorms from being set up in the community. And that, I think, in the long run would make a big difference because, all of a sudden, the mini-dorms have competition with apartments going in closer to campus.”

Neighborhood leaders who opposed the development, which is called College Avenue Apartments, argue the apartments won’t pre-empt mini-dorms because mini-dorm rooms are typically cheaper. But Reynoso said the popularity of campus-area apartment buildings prove them wrong.

“Blvd63 on El Cajon Boulevard, as of July of this year, was 90 percent rented out. So there is demand for that,” he said.

Students walking on a pedestrian bridge at SDSU had a clear view of South Campus Plaza. And it seems pretty much everybody is looking forward to it.

“I think it’s good for the future students because Trader Joe’s is a grocery store and there really isn’t one near campus,” said SDSU senior Stephanie Banks.

Led Nieves, a freshman at San Diego State, said he looked forward to buying macaroons at Trader Joe’s. Another freshman, Ariel Carlson, said South Campus Plaza will give students another place to go.

“I think kids will get groups of friends and all go out to eat and stuff like that,” she said.

But the most intriguing question about the future of the San Diego State campus may not be the life of the campus, but the size the campus footprint.

Dan McSwain, a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune, stands in the Qualcomm Stadium parking lot, Aug. 21, 2015.
Katie Schoolov
Dan McSwain, a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune, stands in the Qualcomm Stadium parking lot, Aug. 21, 2015.

San Diego State is more or less confined to Montezuma Mesa on the south side of Interstate 8. But there are plans in the works to jump across the I-8 by building a housing development for university faculty and staff on the land near Abobe Falls.

Then there is the question of where the SDSU Aztec football team will play if the Chargers move to Los Angeles and leave an aging stadium. San Diego Union-Tribune business columnist Dan McSwain said the best use of the Mission Valley land would be an expansion of SDSU.

“There was a study the university commissioned that said that if they could somehow expand the campus, and expand the enrollment by 10,000 students, that would double the university’s economic impact to the community to $4.5 billion,” said McSwain.

The expansion could include a collegiate-sized football stadium, McSwain said, which may be shared with a professional soccer team right in the Qualcomm stadium location.

“The rest of the work would be ancillary development. Dormitories, office space, retail, and the great thing about this location for a university is it’s three trolley stops away from the campus,” said McSwain. “So you wouldn’t need as much parking. You could house a lot of professors, a lot of students, a lot of grad students, and do it in a cost-effective way.”

A campus expansion of that scale may be a long way from a reality. But whatever happens, architect Bob Schulz pointed out that SDSU has a lot of time to make plans.

Construction workers put together the commercial space for South Campus Plaza on Aug. 21, 2015.
Katie Schoolov
Construction workers put together the commercial space for South Campus Plaza on Aug. 21, 2015.

“We are a long-term institution. There aren’t many places that make plans for 30, 50, 100 years. Universities do,” Schulz said.

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