San Diego faces a host of challenges when it comes to creating a dynamic metropolis. Many complain it lacks a clear-cut vision. Some point to the fact that the city faces pushback from residents of established neighborhoods, many of whom fear density and its effects. And technological change will likely transform future developments and alter current ones.
So, how should San Diego developers move forward to create a better city?
Our City San Diego invited some of the region’s most progressive architects and developers to take part in a roundtable discussion on the progression of San Diego’s built environment. There is one significant concern, and that is that we’re not progressive enough compared to other cities.
“I recently visited Portland, and I was looking around and came to the realization we’re not near the scale of big picture where we need to be,” said Russ Murfey of Murfey Construction, a principal at Veritas Urban Properties. “You look at other cities, and they’re leaps and bounds ahead of where we are.”
Most agreed this is due to a lack of vision.
“Every time we talk about vision, the dialogue goes outside of the discussion of architecture and creativity and goes directly to plans,” said Frank Wolden of Skyport Studio in East Village, where the roundtable was held. “Quite honestly, our design communities, other than the level you guys are at, are somewhat comatose in terms of this big issue of creating a vision for our city. It’s just not happening.”
Some at the table believed we are not creating enough signature projects, ones that make a city stand out.
“Pretend we’re sitting on the moon and looking at cities on our planet,” said Andrew Malick, director of Malick Infill Development. “There’s nothing unique about San Diego. We’re just another anthill.”
Now, it was not all gloom, even though the event was held in June when the marine layer can cause a serious lack of sunshine. The participants were heartened by the increase in smaller, dynamic infill projects that are changing neighborhoods, for instance.
Doug Austin of AVRP Studios joked about how when he was a 24-year-old rugby player he had qualms about going to the Marina District, given how rough it was then.
Indeed, even the Gaslamp was a scary place, he said.
This seemed a pertinent time to have the roundtable discussion, given how San Diego is going through a growth spurt. In the past year, the number of permits soared to 55,000, up 9,000 from the previous year, said Elyse W. Lowe, deputy director of the city’s Project Submittal and Management Division.
“We’re bursting at the seams,” said Lowe, who was also in attendance.
The uptick is likely the result of better economic times. During the recession, building permits dropped like a rock. Many of the people present said that they were currently involved in a number of projects and that financing had not been difficult to land.
But there was widespread agreement that large-scale projects were failing to inspire, and that regulatory hurdles could sometimes hamper creativity.
“We’ve heard this before about San Francisco, that if you get it entitled you’re golden,” said Russ Haley, vice president of CityMark Development. “That’s where we are here too.”
And because of that, developers need to move forward fast, to get their projects onto the market and recoup their investments.
“If there were some way to lift [the regulatory delays], the potential for San Diego could be unbelievable,” said David McCullough, principal of McCullough Landscape Architecture, who attended with his wife and business partner, Catherine. “Instead, we have Bosa [the Vancouver developer] building the same thing in downtown. And that’s unfortunate.”
Murfey suggested that developers be awarded “creativity incentives” to get out of the structured formula that so many builders follow.
However, David Saborio of the city’s Development Services Department noted that it would be virtually impossible, given the number of projects the city reviews. “That’s an enormous burden,” he said.
He also noted how much people’s tastes vary.
“Although everybody here values a certain design aesthetic, a lot of people don’t value a certain design aesthetic,” Saborio said.
Others wondered why developers don’t take greater advantage of San Diego’s climate and build more spaces that are open and airy.
“There’s not one roof deck in North Park. Why is that?” asked Malick.
It’s apparent that the architects who were present are pushing the envelope. Yet they question why it’s not more of a movement. Jeff Svitak of Jeff Svitak Inc. produced an 18-unit apartment project in Little Italy on a lot that was only 5,000 square feet. Inspired by his visits to European cities, it has shared courtyards and private patios.
Some participants expressed frustration with height limits. West of I-5, buildings can’t exceed 30 feet. That prohibits potential dynamic development in places such as the Sports Arena area, Austin said.
“Nobody has the political will or the guts to take that one on,” he said. “In that area, the 30-foot height limit is ridiculous. It’s insane. You’ve got great transportation; you’re close to downtown; you’re not blocking anybody’s view.”
But many residents battle density, arguing that it hurts community character. Howard Blackson of Michael Baker International noted that “community character” is a buzz phrase in San Francisco. However, in reality it usually means “no growth.”
Another concern expressed was the lack of specificity in San Diego’s community plans. “They’re too generic,” said Darrel Fullbright, a principal at Gensler. “Shouldn’t they be more like master plans so that there’s more certainty in discretionary review and less uncertainty. I think that would help with the NIMBYism.”
The best way to create change is to better educate the public, a number of the participants said.
“I think part of the reason for all of the NIMBYism is that we’re not inspiring our citizens,” Wolden said. “We’re teaching them how to oppose things by the continued emphasis on regulation as the language of development.”
Instead, they should be encouraged to embrace progressive development, because it can help better absorb growth and mitigate climate change, he said.
Mike Burnett of FoundationForForm Architecture & Development hopes his projects can educate. “I’ve been taking it upon me to make an example — one that you can look at and show versus trying to argue it with other people. I want to use my energies more efficiently and say, ‘This is what I’m talking about.’ And you can see it and walk through it.”
Héctor M. Pérez, an assistant professor at Woodbury University School of Architecture, agreed, saying builders “need to teach [citizens] that good development is not necessarily only a business.”
“The bottom line for change to occur: It will happen when we have a better-educated and knowledgeable general public,” he said.
And that education must be a continuing one, because technological advances, such as the self-driving car, could change the ball game overnight.
“Imagine a parking lot in North Park with a fleet of 600 cars from Uber, Lyft, whatever,” Saborio said. “We won’t need to provide parking anymore because you’re going to get out of your car and say, ‘Go park yourself.’ All of that proximity of parking next to your [building] will be a moot point if the autonomous cars go forward.”
Doug Austin, AVRP Studios
Howard Blackson, Michael Baker International
Mike Burnett, FoundationForForm Architecture & Development
Darrel Fullbright, principal, Gensler
Russ Haley, vice president, CityMark Development
Elyse W. Lowe, deputy director, Project Submittal and Management Division, city of San Diego’s Development Services Department
Andrew Malick, director of Malick Infill Development
Catherine McCullough, president and CEO of McCullough Landscape Architecture
David McCullough, principal of McCullough Landscape Architecture
Russ Murfey of Murfey Construction and Veritas Urban Properties
Héctor M. Pérez, assistant professor at Woodbury University School of Architecture
David Saborio, development project manager for the city of San Diego’s Development Services Department
Jeff Svitak of Jeff Svitak Inc.
Frank Wolden, Skyport Studio