By Frank Gormlie
In mid-October I wrote about how four large residential and commercial development projects and a handful of smaller ones slated for Mission Valley will complete the destruction of San Diego’s once lush green valley. Here, I begin to focus on the individual projects.
“Civita” roughly translated is Latin for citizenship, and it’s the name of the largest, most massive Mission Valley development going in right now – with perhaps a third already completed or being currently built. Once you step back and realize it’s scope, Civita is at once a horrifying and amazing place for all its audaciousness.
Located between freeways I-163 and I-805, just north of Friar’s Road, the project consists of more than 15 residential and commercial developments – some already built and sold, but most – a sizable portion – of the massive project, have not.
The entire enterprise, termed “a sustainable, transit-oriented” and “master-planned village”, is mapped out to take 230 acres of Mission Valley; the cost is $2 billion over ten to fifteen years; and what’s planned over 5 phases are 4870 residential units and nearly a million square feet of commercial and office space (480,000-square-foot retail center, and 420,000 square feet for an office/business campus). The units include single-family homes – not built yet -, plus condos, townhomes, apartments, penthouses.
The project is one of the largest examples of “urban infill” in America, the development of vacant or underused city sites.
Touted as an “urban village” by city planners and PR hirelings alike, Civita’s designs call for a series of smaller developments to surround a 17- 19 acre terraced “park” with a stream running down the middle of it – all on the former rock quarry. About 10% of the units are supposed to be “affordable”. Yet with the prices running between $400K and $600K for new units, it’s difficult to see where they will fit in.
Everyone says Civita is the latest segment to fit into San Diego’s City of Villages puzzle. But Civita is really more like a city within a city – even if it is indeed a mini-city.
While some of the projects within the larger master scheme have people living in them already, by time the entire city within a city is built, it will house another 7500 to 10,000 new people in Mission Valley – and these are conservative figures. They ought to be higher. Imagine nearly 5,000 residential units – many with 2 and 3 bedrooms. You do the math. A population figure closer to 15,000 and even 20,000 residents seems more appropriate and fits the industry standards more closely.
A so-called “Village Walk”, a celebrated town center not even constructed yet, is supposed to spring up with lots of cute shops and a walkability touted by the brochures, websites and PR.
In the early 1900s while Mission Valley was still largely dairy farms and agriculture, Franklin and Alta Grant bought a piece of land along the San Diego River. Their first venture, oil drilling, didn’t pan out, so they turned to mining the land for sand and gravel, and kept it as a quarry for nearly 80 years. The grandchildren have since cashed in and have partnered with Sudberry Properties, a major developer in San Diego and Southern California, to gamble with their family’s legacy to and turn the quarry into a giant development project, a mini-city.
It took from 6 to 9 years of planning to develop what was at first called the Quarry Falls Community. It was approved by the San Diego City Council by a vote of 7-1 on October 21 in 2008, with then-Councilwoman Donna Frye – who represented the district the project was in, the lone dissenting vote. Her lack of support for the project was based on deep concerns whether the promised transportation improvements by the developer would actually come to fruition, despite Sudberry’s assurances. Developers had promised $50 million on off-site improvements to offset traffic from Civita – which was then estimated to generate over 52,000 daily car-trips once completed.
Other opponents questioned developers’ assertions that residents of the project would use public transit, reducing car trips in the valley, and they criticized the project’s environmental review.
Then-Councilman Tony Young gushed, “All of those things have convinced me that is the project you would want here.” Six years later, after a several year vacancy from the Council, Young – who now owns a firm Civic Link Strategies – claims Sudberry Properties as a client.
Civita developers broke ground in 2010 and the first residences were sold and occupied in 2011. The first half of 2014 reportedly witnessed 105 sales of homes.
Yet, cruising around Civita, it’s pretty quiet these days, with hardly any traffic, and no pedestrians except an occasional person with their dog; you see more construction workers than residents. But make no mistake, people are living there.
Driving into Civita from I-8 is not too difficult as Mission Center Road – the central feeder street – leads right up to its western entrance. As you come up and pass the overpass to Friar’s Road, you get a glimpse of the scale of the Civita construction.
Huge – massive – blocks of 7 and 8 story cement gray edifices surrounded by scaffolding shock the unwary visitor with their absolute horrifying ugliness. If you didn’t know better, you’d think you were in a war zone and these are the bombed out hulks that survived. No, of course, they’re simply still under construction. And their mighty extension eastward down Friars gives one a catch in the throat as the simple breadth of the project is absorbed. It is so massive that to call it an ‘urban village’ is to illustrate a reliance on a dysfunctional definition of “village”. These gigantic fabrications are much, much more than a village. A large silver “Civita” sign flashes the sun off its broad letters, while only those fluent in Latin can immediately know the sad irony.
Taking the right onto Civita Boulevard you’ll looking down a new street surrounded by 2 and 3 story apartments or condos on both sides. Those on the right – or south – side are still under construction and have fences and scaffolds themselves.
Not a block down, there’s another large, imposing Civita sign standing in the landscaped median, this one is bright red and looms over both sides of the street. It boldly mimics those community signs that welcome you to Hillcrest, North Park, now Barrio Logan and other neighborhoods around town.
The 3 story apartments and condo-looking buildings on the left side have vehicles in the carports. The visitor enticed to wander off the main drag will find nothing but narrow streets and dead-end alleys closed in by eerily silent and leering vacant multi-story apartments. You pass a leasing office and then head into a large round-about with a mid-sized fichus tree in the middle.
Green fabric fences along the way hide unfinished construction, while hearty stacks of new lumber display how much of the country’s resources are utilized in such a development. More large buildings rise to the south while smaller development projects are lodged up the slope of the quarry to the north.
A flat area of mostly brown dirt with a patch of green grass has a sign that calls it a “temporary park”. Off in the distance is another fenced brown strip – it’s the temporary dog park – a half dozen dog-owners and dogs buzz around one end of the elongated lot. A rectangle gravel parking area supplements the few amenities. There’s plenty of landscaping, plenty of signal lights – just hardly any traffic.
Yet only now with this view across the open area do you get a real sense of the scale, breadth and scope of the Civita development, as the vast field of dirt stares back. 230 acres is a lot of Southern California treasure, especially in the coastal zone and next to a river. A couple of bulldozers look like small toys off in the distance. Nearby rows of large pipe sections sit expectantly. The gaping hole that the Grant family has owned as a quarry is being filled up, with most of the developments to date on the edges and the flatter areas to the west. The plan is to fill this entire crater-like space with all types of housing, commercial establishments and office buildings.
It’s a huge chunk of Mission Valley being carved up right now within Civita, but because it’s off the beaten path and partially secluded half way up a hill, it’s very much out of sight and out of mind. Not too many San Diegans know about this place or what’s happening here. There’s no collective over-all city appreciation of just what is going down here on this site.
Lodged on different levels up the incline that leads to the top of the old quarry are several separate developments. Some are 2 story units, boxy but modern, others are 4 to 5 apartment structures that on an incline make them look more imposing than they are.
The view from the very top rim of the quarry is misleading, because your gaze is dominated by the beauty and vastness of the valley itself – and so much is going on in this vast reservoir that acts as the center of the 8th largest city in the U.S.
Yet Civita’s complexity, vastness and detriment came drawing me back. Over the course of several weeks, I made 3 visits to Civita, took dozens of photos, visited a leasing office and a sales office for one of the smaller developments. I checked out their online site and the Wikipedia page.
Experiences at sales and leasing offices
Two nearly completed projects, Circa 37 and West Park, both off Mission Center Road have a leasing office which I visited. The attractive leasing agent was polite in answering my questions, but not too knowledgeable in terms of what public amenities exist close by, as she was more focused on leasing the 300-some units available.
Departing that office and driving up the hill, I stopped off at Frame & Focus sales office – a set of about 140 two and 3 bedroom, two-story units. The saleswoman there informed me proudly that they’ve sold a 100 units already. When I asked about schools, she picked up a clipboard and flipped through a set of pages and showed me information on two local schools, one on Gramercy and the other somewhere in Mira Mesa. There are none in Mission Valley itself. She did offer that a school may be built in the commercial – campus portion of Civiata sometime in the future.
The much ballyhooed town center won’t be built until future phases also, she said. She wasn’t certain about a library, but the fire station is nearby, on the other side of Qualcomm Stadium. And the large park? It will be finished in maybe 2016, she offered. She was quick to add that the project is only in its 3rd year out of ten. She also informed me that a pedestrian bridge will be built that will drop people down into the heart of the malls.
The promise of the Civita development is in its Latin definition. “Civita” means “a body of citizens who constitute a state, especially a city-state, commonwealth, or the like,” or “citizenship, especially as imparting shared responsibility, a common purpose, and sense of community.” source
The project used to be called the “Quarry Falls Community Project” but it’s almost as if somewhere along the line somebody in high position decided that they didn’t want potential customers to be reminded so explicitly that the project rests on an old rock quarry. They wanted to avoid any nasty images or thoughts about the old site, we imagine.
Here is a typical promo on Civita:
Modern master-planned developments integrate the latest design trends while providing a low-maintenance lifestyle, luxury living, community connectivity and easy access to the sought-after amenities that make urban living desirable.
Civita, a sustainable, transit-oriented village in San Diego’s Mission Valley, has modeled enticing urban living since sales there opened in December 2011. This 230-acre development by Sudberry Properties is transforming a former sand and gravel quarry into a hub of growth, town spirit and civic pride. It offers a mix of condominiums, townhomes and single-family homes in the heart of San Diego.
Gordon Carrier, an architect and design principal with Carrier Johnson & Culture, which designed the Civita master plan, told the New York Times that the design goal for Civita is for a “real” neighborhood that “combines topography, walkability and the ability to live, work and play in the same place.”
Let’s do a little reality-checking.
Village Walk. One of the biggest attractions of Civita is its “village center” called Village Walk, where small shops will attract the villagers. But it seems like it’s barely on the drawing table. The leasing and sales people when asked about it point to a nebulous portion of the map designed for “commercial”.
Is Civita walkable? Still need a car to get around as there’s nothing there outside a temporary dog-park to go to; there are no inside amenities to speak of yet, so cars are needed to get outside, to get to the trolley, the outside markets, etc. (although Ralphs is just across Mission Center Road, and close to one Civita section); neither the internal trails that will traverse the slope of the quarry nor the pedestrian bridge to the malls have been constructed.
Public restrooms – none.
Large, central park. The Civita plan calls for 37 acres of parks and open space, complete with terraced trails, pools, and a stream. Today, there’s only a small, flat unadorned temporary park, with some green grass and a dirt dog park. Nothing currently exists that indicates a large park is coming in; there are no trails, no pools, no streambed. It may be not be until 2016 that it goes in. There’s a good amount of landscaping, especially in the medians and strips along the few roads. There have been numerous young trees and bushes planted around the developments as many of the units built or being planned have no back yards. The NYT reports that the streambed, clearly pictured on the official map, is “actually a drainage conduit that will flow only when it rains or the grass in the park is watered.”
Business center? No, not yet – to be assembled sometime over the next 7-10 years.
Work within walking distance of home – no, not now.
Near mass transit – check.
Near major shopping centers and freeways – check.
Let’s review what the status of the public infrastructure in Mission Valley is.
Public Schools – There are no public schools in all of Mission Valley. Those families who need them within Civita are referred to two nearby elementary schools up the hill in Grantville north of Mission Valley. And supposedly, one could be built in the “campus” portion of the Civita map.
Libraries – there is only 1 public library in all of Mission Valley – and there are no plans of building another.
Recreation Center – there are no public rec centers in Mission Valley, although it sports one of the best Y’s.
Fire station – there was a ground-breaking ceremony a year ago, in January 2014, for a brand, new 2-story station on the north side of Friars Road, fortunately for Civita residents. It’s expected to be completed by mid or late 2015. During the ceremony, San Diego fire Chief Javier Mainar said the construction of Mission Valley’s first permanent fire station was “exciting and long overdue,” and that he had been waiting for a station in the valley since he first became a firefighter, 30 years ago. When completed, the new station will replace a modular trailer for a single engine and crew located in the Qualcomm Stadium parking lot which has been there since 2006 and forced to serve a more than 4-square-mile area of Mission Valley.
Police – Mission Valley is split into Western Division and the Eastern Division. Western Division does have its headquarters at the mouth of Mission Valley.
Roads – If it’s one thing Civita and Mission Valley have, it’s roads. Roads are the primary infrastructure that there’s plenty of. In a recent article that complained of too many roads in Mission Valley, the Voice of San Diego has raised this question:
As Mission Valley becomes synonymous with massive residential development and people begin to call it home, it faces a crossroads: Will it become a livable neighborhood and another piece to San Diego’s City of Villages puzzle, or will it continue to be a throughway between the sprawled-out areas in San Diego?
Right now, it is firmly planted in the latter.
Despite the fact that there are indeed residents who live throughout the several smaller projects that have been built, there’s truly no current ability of Civita to claim that a community has been established. There is no where near the number of residents either clumped together or in total that can tilt the critical mass, tipping point or whatever you want to call it, into having a real urban village or real community.
To quiet claims of lack of a community, proponents point out that the project is only in its third year, with much yet to be started and completed. As there is no community or village here now, the true question is, is there a promise of one? Can the Sudberrys and Grants pull it off? Can they create a city within a city and call it a “village” with community?
Clearly, sufficient infrastructure is woefully lacking right now; there’s not enough public services and facilities for the increases in population and housing that are being constructed and planned. Not only are there insufficiencies in terms of public resources within Civita, there aren’t enough for the entire community of Mission Valley, a very extended and elongated area. There aren’t any public schools in Mission Valley, there’s only one library, one fire station under construction, no public recreation centers, and except for areas around the San Diego River and the Presidio, there’s no parks. Plus Civita has yet to have its own park, its trails, its Village Walk.
But there are a number of things that Civita already has, and I call them “community-making projects”. Civita already has its large, street-towering community sign; it already has its round-about traffic circle; it already has its utility boxes painted; it already has its dog park – albeit a temporary one; it’s already engraved “thought-provoking” or smile-provoking little sayings on structures. But these things, these projects are usually the projects that a community creates itself, and in doing so, helps create community.
Usually a neighborhood’s businesses and residents take the lead in installing a community sign, like the one in North Park and as they just did in Barrio Logan. Getting the utility boxes painted is usually something that local residents and artists or town councils organize together. Figuring out that a neighborhood needs a traffic circle is usually something that local residents and planning boards do as occurred in La Jolla. Mobilizing neighbors to create a dog park is also something that helps create the sense of community and neighborliness among villagers, as happened in Ocean Beach.
Yet Civita’s developers and the designers, architects hired have already done all this, the community-making projects for a community; utility boxes already painted; traffic circle already in, community sign already installed. These are the decisions that in a “normal” community, the town council, the merchants’ association, the planning committee, or ad hoc citizens’ group, or Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, or Kiwanis, Masons, etc. make.
By making decisions on small things, Civita robs the future community of “community-making projects”, robs it of some kind and sense of democratic local decision-making. This manner of taking little decisions out of the hands of the actual residents, property owners and merchants of a community and making them for them is symptomatic of one of the dominant trends in modern establishment urban planning.
When all the decision over “public” facilities, objects, street art or urban furniture, otherwise known as “community-making projects” are made for the community by elites, then the actual community, the making of the real community is stymied, prohibited, or slowed down.
The Civita master plan was drawn up by highly paid and elite professionals, paid for by highly profitable developers. It’s an award-winning example of yet more top-down planning – but here on a huge massive scale. In its essence, this type of total top-down design and planning is ultimately very authoritarian, and not very democratic.
Isn’t all development and planning “top down”?
Much of it is, yes. From drainage areas, street placement and names, to where the residential areas are, developers, their people and planning bureaucrats have over the last century made and continue to make many decisions that directly affect our lives and immediate environment in our current urban landscape.
And it’s the big-time developers who have the capital, the money to fund and finance these developments. And it’s the large landowners who have the resources to combine with capital to produce mini-cities. This by its very nature is top-down and autocratic.
This trend has produced gated communities, overly restricted condos, alienating office structures, schools that look like prisons, and federal court buildings that dwarf the individual.
Yet since the mid-1970s in San Diego at least, there’s been other trends in the urban planning arena. The more populist one being the push for community planning groups, the movement for more democracy on the neighborhood development level – even if only in advisory capacities -. Within the City of San Diego, there are more than 50 planning committees or boards in recognized neighborhoods, democratically elected by local residents, property owners and businesses.
Planning committees are a hindrance block to unbridled construction and try to enforce community standards and restrictions on development. The democratic election of planning committee members by the community ensures that there is a semblance of democracy on the neighborhood level.
But didn’t the Mission Valley planning committee okay this project?
The geographical expanse of Civita pushed it into two different planning areas, and it was taken before both local planning groups for approval. Yet, the very vastness of the massive project rockets it beyond their jurisdiction and capacities, if not their comprehension. We’re talking about the construction of a city of up to 15,000 or even 20,000 residents. Getting these groups to okay a project that may double the population of their entire community of Mission Valley is insufficient and inadequate.
Who speaks for the thousands of residents who will move here? Who is there to ensure that sufficient infrastructure will be available to the new thousands? And yes, it is true that our elected officials, the San Diego City Council, passed the project. But the councilperson who represented the district opposed it. Vetting Civita by two planning groups does not make Civita a village or even a community.
Civita does continue one tradition, the tradition of having old, moneyed-families who own large amounts of property and developers run everything in Mission Valley. Since the 1950s, San Diego elites have battled over the future and direction of the Valley, and it is still going on – but with higher stakes now that there are diminishing returns.
Civita proves that the very nature and process of large-scale making of community has been commoditized and commercialized and has become a profit-making endeavor by private players. Planning out the details of a community by elite professionals has a price tag – and is no longer the purview of neighborhood volunteers. Urban planning is a commodity now and those with the capital have commercialized it. By time the units have filled up with owners and residents, all the “community-making” projects and decisions will have been made, and made by designers with no emotional or historical connection to the community they design.
By building its mortar and stucco residences in Civita first without putting into place public facilities such as parks at least simultaneously, Sudberry developers and friends display their disingenuous attitude toward their promises. It seems parks are always the last pledge of a developer to be completed. Why isn’t the City of San Diego enforcing the promises made now? Who will ensure that the $50 million in off-site traffic improvements by Sudberry actually becomes a reality?
This is not a theoretical problem. During the first week of January 2015, the LA Times ran a series of articles about how community groups were frustrated with how developers in LA historically get away with not fulfilling their development promises, given to local communities in order to have their projects approved. And there was no one within the LA city bureaucracy that was responsible to ensure the pledges meet reality. Now our northern neighbor has set up institutional staff to track and hold developers responsible.
Exacerbating the problem of insufficient infrastructure in all Mission Valley, once the infrastructure within Civita is built, it for all intents and purposes will be privatized for local residents only. Outsiders will not be welcomed to the trails, terraced parks and occasional stream.
The larger picture, however, is even worse. The Civita project – by fragmenting it into smaller balkanized projects – allows the smaller developers to get out of doing more in terms of infrastructure. They’re all ostensibly too small to be responsible. In the end, by getting away without putting in any aboveground infrastructure (schools, libraries, fire stations) but yet fabricating enough residential units for a small city, the Civita developers as an entity are getting away with acts that verge on being criminal. It is totally irresponsible for wealthy developers to be able to make millions off land broad and wide enough to be a metropolitan entity but allowed to escape installing the very public and social means by which a city exists.
Of course, this is a very common trend in Southern California, and especially for San Diego – which is notorious for not having adequate infrastructure while it promotes its paradisiacal attributes.
So, in the end, isn’t Civita just what is commonly done by developers but on a larger scale? Or not even on such a large scale, isn’t this what’s passing for residential and commercial development today?
It is true that large-scale developments do harbor similar elements as Civita. And it is true that there are similar-looking development projects within sight of its bare brown dirt fields.
But the Civita master plan is unique is its scale and scope; it’s not just about residential developments – it’s blueprints include nearly a million square feet of commercial space, and the alleged “center” of all the communities is supposed to be a commercial district home to small shops and larger business establishments. And again, this project is one of the largest “urban infill” developments in America.
The scale of Civita as an over-all project – its 230 acres – dwarfs these other nearby areas of condos and apartments. Certainly it’s a huge and massive project relative to Mission Valley standards. Its plans call for nearly 5000 new residential units – which will allow up to 15,000 or more new residents. It is the scale of Civita for Mission Valley that is staggering and significant; it is its scale that sets it off from current existing developments.
As the residents move in, the streets and roads are there, but right now, nothing else is. The promises of public amenities have been pushed into the future – but without an enforcement mechanism or city staff to monitor its progress, how will the community of Civita and Mission Valley be assured that they will be kept. And if they are not kept, what are the sanctions against the developers?
With a potential near-doubling or even tripling of its population with the completion of Civita – and the other projects in the developers’ pipeline – , Mission Valley will definitely witness like increases in traffic and congestion, completing it burial as a decent community and city center
In the final analysis, Civita is not an “urban village” – not even close. It is a city being built within our larger city of San Diego. It is a city being built without the necessary additional amenities that make it a public metro, that make it a city. The developers have plopped down their 7 and 8 story behemoths, their penthouses and “comfortable” living spaces without having being forced to actually install the very social mechanisms that make an urban environment a city, a community, a village.
And San Diegans have hardly noticed what’s going down in front of their noses. Many just want to get through Mission Valley as they view it as the hell of traffic nightmares. But lo, San Diegans, you will be paying for all the infrastructure that your political leaders allowed the Civita developers not to build.
Not only will unquestioning San Diegans be forced to pay for all the infrastructure that Civita necessitates, they will be joining in the continued destruction of our Mission Valley. Possibly, the saddest thing about all of this, is that no one seems to care. But there are plenty of good-hearted people and environmentalists and historians who will be taking note of this development onslaught and who have the capacity with their questions and political savvy to put a hesitation into the jackboots of the developers marching across our Mission Valley.
In the end, developers have created the opposite of what “civita” means, the opposite of citizenship and citizens exercising their responsibilities.
There is no community here.