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Another Turning Point For Mission Valley

The Civita housing development in San Diego, June 30, 2017.
Nicholas McVicker
The Civita housing development in San Diego, June 30, 2017.

There was a time, and it wasn’t long ago, when Mission Valley was farmland. Black and white photos from the 1960s show rows of turnip plants and herds of grazing dairy cows owned by farmers.

“I remember the stories of how they would take the cows under the freeway after they built Interstate 8, or 80 back in those days,” said Rob Hutsel, a fourth-generation San Diegan. “The deal with the landowner was he still had to get his cows to the river. And so they left a tunnel under it so they could take their cows down to the river to get their water... I always wonder whatever happened to the tunnel.”

Dairy cows graze in Mission Valley when it was farmland in this undated photo.
San Diego History Center/Balboa Park
Dairy cows graze in Mission Valley when it was farmland in this undated photo.

The completion of the I-8 freeway around 1960 was the beginning of the end of an era in valley. The Mission Valley mall was built, and the valley became a suburban shopping destination. Now, another shape shift is on the horizon.

Hutsel is president of the San Diego River Park Foundation and a member of the city’s Mission Valley Planning Group. He sees opportunity in Mission Valley.

“It kind of has gone through this transformation in one century from farmland to a regional center that’s now transitioning to a community,” he said as he walked along the banks of the San Diego River where it flows out to the Pacific Ocean.

“We’re seeing a change from the big-box retail and those sort of places. Now you’re seeing 20,000 people living in the community and the expectation to double that population in the next few decades. Where are all those people going to go?” Hutsel asked.

Historic photograph shows Mission Valley Mall and Interstate 8, 1964.
San Diego History Center/Balboa Park
Historic photograph shows Mission Valley Mall and Interstate 8, 1964.

San Diego city officials are hoping to see the answer to that question in a community plan update that’s expected to be done by the end of next year. There are a lot of question marks on the landscape; the biggest one may be the future of the Qualcomm Stadium site. But planners and observers seem to agree the valley is bound to become a place to live and one answer to San Diego’s housing crisis.

Plans already reflect this. The 200-acre Riverwalk Golf Club is planned to become a mixed-use development with more than 4,000 housing units. The soon-to-be-redeveloped Town and Country will lose some hotel and convention space and become home to 840 housing units. In fact, there’s one major housing development that’s well underway. It’s called Civita.

Civita

Civita is just north of Friars Road on a property that used to be a rock quarry. There’s a 14-acre park in the middle of it with a splash pad that’s filled with little kids.

Marco Sessa is the point man on the development. He’s a senior vice president for Sudbury Properties and he points out that Civita is far from complete. The plan calls for a retail center, public elementary school and a population of 9,000. It already has a recreation center, dog parks and basketball courts. And it has an array of townhouses, condos and detached homes that range in price from $400,000 to $1.2 million.

Another Turning Point For Mission Valley

“I think it brings a well-balanced community and it brings in residential,” said Sessa. “But along with it, it brings in neighborhood services that will be an amenity to those residents. It brings the first true park to Mission Valley.”

One man who has lived in Civita for about a year called Mission Valley a hub that’s convenient for getting just about anywhere.

“Anywhere you want to be in San Diego you can get there in 5 to 15 minutes,” said Timothy Green. His buddy, Doug Parsons, agreed.

“Great location. You’re right off the freeway. You’ve got all of the shopping centers to both sides of the complex. Obviously this is beautiful,” Parsons added, indicating the park.

Like Hutsel, Sessa serves on Mission Valley Planning Group. He believes the drivers of the valley’s future development will be the trolley and the San Diego River, and he draws lines on a map showing the proximity of Civita to the trolley’s nearest Green Line station. He said eventually Civita will build a pedestrian bridge across Friars Road, leading to the Rio Vista trolley stop.

But until then, Civita is an island, cut off by the barrier of Friars Road, which is notoriously difficult to cross. That situation, temporary though it may be, is one example of a very common dilemma.

You can’t get there from here

Developments created in virtual isolation may be the fundamental problem with what Mission Valley has become. Consider the Target store on Mission Center Road. Another big-box store, Best Buy, is only about 200 yards away. But there is no straight shot if you want to get from one to the other.

This is seen all over Mission Valley. Often the only connecting road between places is the fast-moving, highly trafficked Friars Road, itself a huge obstacle for pedestrians and for development connections.

Traffic on Friars Road in Mission Valley, Aug. 17, 2017.
Matthew Bowler
Traffic on Friars Road in Mission Valley, Aug. 17, 2017.

Mike Stepner is a faculty member at San Diego’s NewSchool of Architecture and Design, and he has consulted on development projects around the region. He calls Friars Road a “disaster” that doesn't solve congestion but promotes it. He says a fundamental problem is that Mission Valley was developed as a series of islands.

“We looked at everything on a project-by-project basis. We’re building this shopping center, but we didn’t think about how it connected to the housing next door or the stuff across the street,” said Stepner.

Connectivity from north to south is a big problem for the valley and it prevents bikes and pedestrians from easily navigating the place. A proposed connecting road across the river from Fenton Parkway to Camino del Rio South has been on the books for a long time, but the cost and the controversy that comes with building anything have stalled the project.

Stepner agrees that the future of the valley will be driven by the trolley but he thinks more trolley stops are needed. He and other planners say it also has to be easier for people to find trolley stops, which are often well hidden with no obvious paths leading to them.

Stepner said he’s optimistic because the market is making it very clear that reliance on cars and an oversupply of (often empty) parking lots is not a good way to make money. Stepner said the answer seems to be in-fill housing and a better way to get around the valley.

“It has the potential for all that,” said Stepner. “And if the market begins to recognize that, maybe the push will be to make those improvements that we know are needed, but we just haven’t done yet.”

Changes ahead

Today, the market is already telling us that retail, that decades-long transformative force in Mission Valley, is overbuilt. The rise of online shopping is hurting department stores and big-box stores around the country, and the closure of the Macy’s store at the Mission Valley Mall is just one example.

Nancy Graham is project manager for the city's Mission Valley Community Plan Update. She said nobody is going to tell you that retail is going away.

San Diego city planner Nancy Graham speaks to reporter on the veranda of the Mission Valley Library, June 30, 2017.
Nicholas McVicker
San Diego city planner Nancy Graham speaks to reporter on the veranda of the Mission Valley Library, June 30, 2017.

“We definitely want to keep retail as a thriving use in Mission Valley but we want to right-size it,” she said. “As you downsize those stores to fit what the market is, it leaves this available space. So then the question is, what do we want to fill that in with?”

Another thing that is driving the overall process is San Diego’s Climate Action Plan. The Green Line trolley makes nearly all of Mission Valley a “transit corridor.” Under the Climate Action Plan, that means the valley needs to create a development plan aimed at reducing vehicle miles traveled.

Graham said you do this by making it easier to walk, bike and take mass transit. You do it by reducing the volume of parking by converting parking lots to different uses. You can also create incentives for not having a car by “unbundling” parking from tenants’ leases.

“And the idea is that when you go to lease your apartment, you would have one lease for your apartment and one lease for your parking space,” she said. “And if you choose not to own a car, you would not have that parking space lease. So you also have a rent reduction of not taking a parking space.”

And how do you get from Target to Best Buy? Graham said there needs to be some network of pedestrian paths to connect those big-box lots.

Nancy Graham spoke on the back veranda of the Mission Valley library. It has a view of the trolley in the foreground with the river in the background. Graham hopes, in the end, Mission Valley will become as special a place as the library.

“This building we’re in, the library, is actually one of the most beautiful buildings in Mission Valley. It’s a real treasure,” said Graham. “And the community wants to see more of that. They want to see development investing in creating a special place, whether that is through architecture, whether that is through creating more park space along the river.”

The San Diego River Park Foundation's Rob Hutsel said his goal is to see the development of 60 acres of river park in Mission Valley, whether it is on the old Qualcomm Stadium lot or elsewhere.

When asked how the plan for Mission Valley was going, he responded, “It’s sausage, you know? It’s all of these pieces coming together and they look terrible. But hopefully what the city will do is guide you through a process and by the end it’ll make a lot of sense. But quite frankly, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me right now.”

Another Turning Point For Mission Valley
Part 1 - San Diego’s community plan update for Mission Valley wants to change the valley from a series of shopping malls to a place to live.
Another Turning Point For Mission Valley
Another Turning Point For Mission Valley GUEST:Rob Hutsel, president, San Diego Riverpark Foundation

Mission Valley has reached a turning point. Land construction of more housing has expected to turn it into a community -- a place to live. Traffic congestion and a shortage of good public spaces and schools and parks make a lot of people wonder why he would want to live there. In the second of a two-part series, Tom fudge looks at what is missing -- missing in mission Valley. Target and Best Buy are 200 yards apart. It is surprisingly hard to get from one to the other by foot, bike, or car when they are separated by fences and a road. This isolation of big block stores -- big box stores is seen all over -- often the connecting road between the places is the high-traffic road which is hard to cross. Mike is a faculty member at San Diego school of architecture and says mission Valley was developed as a series of islands. We looked at everything on a project by project basis. This is an island -- you are building a shopping center. We didn't think about how it connected to the housing next door the stuff across the street. He calls Friars Road disaster that doesn't solve congestion, but promotes a. He thinks the greenline probably needs more stops and he says it also has to be easier to find the trolley stops which are often hidden with no obvious path. The lack of roads connecting North and South in the Valley exit hard to navigate on a bike or on foot. Step is optimistic because the market is making it clear that reliance on cars and an oversupply of empty parking lots is unprofitable. He said the answer seems to be housing either but it -- a better way to get around the Valley. It has the potential for this. If the market recognizes that, maybe the push will be to make improvements that we know are needed. We just haven't done this yet. Today the market tells us that retail -- the decades long force in mission Valley is over Bill. The rise of online shopping is hurting department stores and big box stores around the country. The closure of Macy's at the mission Valley Mall is an example. Nancy Graham is the project manager for the mission Valley community plan update. She said nobody will tell you that retail is going away. We want to keep retail is a thriving use but we want to right size it. As you downsize the stores to fit the market, it leaves this available space. The question is, what should we fill that in with? Another thing driving this process the city I'm at action plan. Nearly all of mission Valley is defined as a transit corridor. This means they need to create developments that reduce vehicle miles traveled. Graham said you do this by making it easier to walk by taking mass transit. You do this by reducing the amount of parking by converting parking lots two different uses. How do you get to Best Buy? Needs to be a network of pedestrian paths to connect the lots. Graham spoke on the back veranda of the library. The view shows the trolley in the foreground the river in the background. I am hopes in the end that mission Valley will becomes a special place as the library. It's one of the most beautiful buildings in mission Valley and at the Trevor -- I treasure. The community wants to see development investing in creating a special place whether it be through architecture or whether it is creating new Park space along the River. Really creating a place that you want to be as opposed to a place you drive through. Reporter: The head of the Riverpark foundation said his goal is to see the development of 60 acres of Riverpark land in the mission Valley whether it is on the old QUALCOMM State a lot or elsewhere. Is a member of the planning group and when asked how the plan was going he said -- It's sausage. All these pieces come together. They look terrible. But, hopefully, the city will guide you through a process and by the end it makes a lot of sense. Bike, it doesn't make a lot of sense now. Tom fudge, KPBS. Joining me is the head of the Riverpark foundation and a member of the planning group. Welcome. Thank you. Can you expand on your sausage comment? Fact that what is being proposed doesn't make sense now. What is it that doesn't make sense about the plans as they stand now? I lock sausage. -- I like sausage. It's an interesting process. Everyone has an idea. Everybody wants to see them committed right away and is not the way it works. You talk and talk and to listen to other people. It doesn't make sense in the direction. But the city staff is supposed to listen and take it all in and at some point come up with a logical plan. The process is a little unnerving in the sense that you don't know what the outcome will be until you start to take bows. We have never taken a vote on anything although we have been in the process for some time now. Is one of the impediments to the plan -- what is going to happen to the Qualcomm site ? Yes. With has been put on hold until the proposal was decided not to be taken to the special election. When that happened the green light was to talk about it. This is interesting as I would've thought we would've talked about it two years ago to get ahead of the discussion and shape the discussion. We were reactive. Reporter: You support the plans for Riverwalk? Support is a strong word. We worked with them a lot. Accepted our adopted position about what should happen. We have embraced that. We will work with any partner who proposes anything to work toward the goal. They said publicly they would endorse that. The vision we have. Reporter: If the soccer city proposal goes away for one reason or another, do you see another way that a large Riverpark could be developed and funded in mission Valley? May be not. The investor set a high bar. They have offered a lot beyond what traditional developers would offer. For example, they offered up to $52.5 million for public parks beyond what they were expected to do. That is a lot of money. Another developer would necessarily have to do that. They offered to manage the lands as long as they were there. That is a big financial commitment. In a time when the city is always worrying about their resources it was a wonderful thing to see. Reporter: You've gotten permits to build an educational facility that you hope will be a hub for Riverpark. Tell us about that. We are closed -- it has been in permitting for 3 1/2 years for an education facility. It's right on the river. It's a 10,000 square foot building on a 17 acre lot donated by a wonderful family. We see it as the hub of the center of mission Valley where the neighborhood will come together and start to think about the river and celebrate it and see it as what it is -- really, our birthplace. Where our entire community was born. It's an important thing. As we talk about this, it is in the back of a parking lot or behind a fence. Reporter: Does the Riverpark foundation have an overall scenario of what a Riverpark should be and what it should look like? Absolutely. We work closely with San Diego and the County and the forest service on different sections of the river. It is 52 miles long. In the city of San Diego we were card and they adopted a few years ago the master plan which set the vision. It talks about guidelines more than specific plans of what the park should look like. Reporter: Supportive are you of the goal of a higher density residential buildout in mission Valley? I am to appoint. Mission Valley is transitioning from what it was 50 years ago -- it was still calls and farms and those sorts of things. It has transitioned from a regional center for hotels and the regional shopping centers progressing to the next phase. The next phase is going to be a community of people. It will have to provide services. If we don't have schools like a lot of communities -- I am supportive of this. How much density? They are talking 50,000 just 10,000-20,000 more. The impact of where you put them and how you provide the transportation they will need, that is a concern to me, sure, but also an exciting opportunity to really have the vision we talked about for 16 years. For others maybe longer. Reporter: You do see a conflict between the aim of this region with the goal of a Riverpark wax Yes, a potential. There is a way to fund this. If you look at the golf course it's a great example. Talking with the owners of that, they are proposing up to 80 acres of parkland. So, think about that. If they care for it and care for the river in that process, all of a sudden we are celebrating the river. And we will have more people to care about it and more people that will take better care of it. That's what the mission is -- to engage people with the river. We are excited about this. The opportunities have dark side. If we don't do it well it will be worse Reporter: The river makes itself known -- one problem with the river -- the mission Valley -- big storms, and the area flood. There has been work to mitigate that but is that a natural part of living near the river? Yes. The reality is, we can plan for it. Riverwalk is a great example -- I'm passionate about this issue of whether we want to build an area that is narrow in a control channel which leads to other issues such as bridges across the river, or should be captured the expensive flood plane that exists at Riverwalk and save it as parkland? By doing this we can do a better job for the river and for the community. I was speaking with the head of the San Diego Riverpark foundation. Thank you. My pleasure.