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Where Smart Growth Falls Short In San Diego

Michael Stepner was the San Diego City Architect when Rio Vista West was planned as a "transit-oriented" community.
Nicholas McVicker
Michael Stepner was the San Diego City Architect when Rio Vista West was planned as a "transit-oriented" community.

How two neighborhoods were meant to be walkable, but attitudes and economics stood in the way.

Where Smart Growth Falls Short In San Diego
Where Smart Growth Falls Short In San Diego
Two San Diego developments show how goals to create walkable communities can succeed and fail.

A sculpted fountain and a green park sit at the center of Rio Vista West. Three-story buildings rise around it, and just a few dozen yards to the south, trollies stop at the Green Line’s Rio Vista station.

In San Diego, you can’t find a neighborhood more closely connected to a light rail station. Mike Stepner worked with the developer when he was San Diego’s City Architect in the 1990s. He said the transit link was one of the founding principles of Rio Vista West.

“We developed a plan that was transit oriented and tied to the trolley station that was coming,” said Stepner. “It would have a mixture of uses: residential, office, housing. And it would be a village in some way.”


In the world of development, “smart growth” means building homes and neighborhoods that are compact and walkable…that don’t sprawl. By now, San Diego has a 20-year history of building smart-growth communities. But you’ll find that after the concrete is poured and the walls go up, these places never quite live up to the high ideals.

Two examples of that in San Diego are places where construction got underway in the late 1990s. One is 4S Ranch in the northern suburbs. The other is Rio Vista West, in the center of Mission Valley.

In many ways, Rio Vista West is an urban village. In its central promenade, first floor shops serve the apartments above. Adjacent streets are cozy and well landscaped. Here the trolley gives residents a handy link to downtown, Old Town and San Diego State University.

“It turned out very well,” Stepner said. “(But) I think these kinds of projects and the kind of thinking evolve. So there are details… there are things here that we would have envisioned a little bit differently, that the plan called for a little bit differently.”

So where did the smart growth end up being not so smart?


Stepner said the development’s commercial district ended up like a suburban shopping mall, with a large exposed parking lot. The street that separates the residential from the commercial areas was supposed to be lined with homes and shops. Today it’s not. That street, Stepner added, got a lot wider than he expected. It’s a four-lane road with a traffic volume that doesn’t seem to justify its width.

Another issue for Rio Vista is its setting in Mission Valley. Multi-lane arterial roads like Qualcomm Way surround the development. And even though commercial areas like Hazard Center and a Food 4 Less grocery store are quite close, there’s no good way to get there.

“People who want to go get groceries or go to the movies have to get in their car, go over to Friars Road, get in all that traffic and take Friars Road down to the shopping center,” said Stepner. “If you had an internal street where I could walk or ride my bike or even drive to the Food 4 Less, it would be a much more connected development.”

Rio Vista West has apartments above shops at its center, though its nearby commercial area is a conventional shopping mall.
Nicholas McVicker
Rio Vista West has apartments above shops at its center, though its nearby commercial area is a conventional shopping mall.

Another community that gets mixed reviews on the smart-growth scale is 4S Ranch, across the I-15 from Rancho Bernardo.

About 15 years ago, 4S Ranch was in the planning and permitting phase. The developers were selling it as a new kind of suburb with old-fashioned sidewalks, parks and a downtown in walking distance. In short, it was supposed to be a small town in the middle of the suburbs.

That vision is seen today in much of its residential area. Driveways don’t dominate the streetscape, and landscaping invites people to use the sidewalks and the front of the house.

“It was a tremendous step up where we have the landscaping and the parking between the street and the pedestrian,” said urban planner Howard Blackson, a principal with the company Placemakers. “The houses actually front onto streets, and back onto alleys.”

The commercial downtown of 4S Ranch did also materialize. It’s located in the center of the development, and it has a healthy mix of stores, including an Ace Hardware and a Ralph’s grocery store. But while planners imagined a walkable downtown with a main street, what actually got built was a shopping mall with isolated stores and huge parking lots.

The street signs placed along parking lot access roads almost look like a parody of what was once imagined.

Mike Rust is with Newland Real Estate, which owns the company that developed 4S Ranch. He said plans for a main street-oriented downtown fell apart when they began to court retailers.

“We were trying to get mixed uses to all fit together in that center court. Unfortunately when we went to the marketplace in 2004, the retail developers… it was a program that wasn’t going to work for them,” said Rust.

The defining characteristic of smart growth is walkability. It’s giving a people a place where it’s safe and convenient to walk from home to schools, work or shopping. Walking allows people to encounter neighbors and get some exercise.

The commercial center of 4S Ranch was planned as a small-town downtown with a main street, but it ended up a suburban shopping mall with huge parking lots.
Nicholas McVicker
The commercial center of 4S Ranch was planned as a small-town downtown with a main street, but it ended up a suburban shopping mall with huge parking lots.

Rio Vista West has gained national status as a transit-oriented development and Aseem Inam, with the Parsons New School for Design in New York, has written about it. He said the key to the success of compact communities is not proximity to transit, but walkability.

“Every trip begins with a walk. And if it is too far, even by perception, people will be reluctant to take mass transit,” said Inam.

He reacts skeptically to statements, like the one made by Rust, arguing that walkable communities must compromise in the face of demands from the retail establishment. He said retailers who demand big parking lots, and municipal planners who insist on maximizing traffic speed and volume, shouldn’t stand in the way. They should be made to understand that people do want to live in walkable places.

“Any innovative development creates a new perception. It doesn’t just respond. They generate a new demand and a new buzz. And there wasn’t enough of that (in Rio Vista West),” he said.

One afternoon, I spoke with some of the residents of 4S Ranch as they emerged from their Ralphs grocery store, and most of them stood up for the place. Vicky Schlarb raised two kids in 4S Ranch. She called the community “home-towny” and said it is very walkable.

“We have an elementary school, a junior high and high school all within walking distance of most of this area,” said Schlarb.

One the other hand, new resident Bernard Mariano was not impressed by the town center.

“It’s not sidewalk friendly. (That’s) something to think about,” said Mariano. “Speed bumps? Something to think about. Visible walkways for drivers and pedestrians? Something to think about.”

Howard Blackson said the ultimate goal of smart growth, which he calls it new urbanism, is to build communities for people, not for cars.

“New urbanism is a great name because it is new. It’s not the old urbanism where there was no car. It’s the idea of the traditional city, that tradition neighborhood, with the car. And what you have to do is put the car in its place,” said Blackson.

And if new urbanism succeeds, that may mean we have to spend a little more time, and a little more shoe leather, getting around.