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Another Turning Point For Mission Valley

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

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Above: 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.”

Photo credit: 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.

Photo credit: 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 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.

“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.

Photo by 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.

Photo by 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.”

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


Rob Hutsel, president, San Diego Riverpark Foundation



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