A Higher Calling for Downtown San Diego’s East Village

by on December 1, 2015 · 2 comments

in Culture, Economy, Environment, History, Media, Politics, San Diego

East Village Sunset

By Bill Adams / UrbDeZine

I read an op-ed in the San Diego Union-Tribune that made me want to stand on top of a downtown high-rise and scream . . . YES!!!

The opinion piece was entitled “A higher and better use for downtown,” and was written by Wayne Raffesberger and co-authored by Rob Quigley, Jack Carpenter, Pete Garcia and David Malmuth – individuals who have exceptional knowledge of downtown San Diego’s East Village neighborhood and a promising vision for its future.*

I was compelled to write a lengthy comment to the piece and perhaps I should have just stopped there (in any case, I have regurgitated some of it in writing this piece). But this topic has been an issue that has been sticking in my craw for several years.

East Village is similar to San Francisco’s SOMA circa late 1990s – at least in its unrealized strategic value to the city – the former President of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, Jim Chappell, recently observed. The property discussed for a stadium or non-contiguous convention center expansion is the largest undeveloped, most generously zoned, and most strategically located land in downtown. As such, it’s the most valuable land in the city – both in monetary value and for its value in shaping the City’s future.

Why would we consider placing a stadium on it that contributes minimally to the economy or jobs? To add further injury, a public stadium wouldn’t generate property tax from the City’s most valuable land. Even without subsidy, utilizing this property for a stadium would be an enormous waste. Just continuing to entertain the East Village stadium idea has a chilling effect on better uses of the property. Thus, its time to “not even think about dropping the neutron bomb of a stadium on East Village,” as stated in the op-ed.

Let’s also shoot higher than a non-contiguous convention center annex or hotels for this site. Such uses create mostly low-wage service jobs. Additionally, the convention market is saturated and extremely competitive. Having only a “spoke” (non-hub) airport — like San Diego — does not help the City’s convention competitiveness. In any case, those who make a living from convention business believe that expansion of the Convention Center must be contiguous with the existing facility. If the City is going raise the Transit Occupancy Tax to expand the Convention Center, perhaps it shouldn’t further handicap the effort by pursuing a sub-optimal configuration.

The East Village has great synergy for an academic use. The new Central Library, an expanded City College, the New School of Architecture, the Woodbury School of Architecture, Thomas Jefferson School of Law, the Urban Discovery Academy, e3 Civic High School (in the Library), the IDEA District,dense rental apartment projects, the city’s highest density zoning, and hundreds of acres of the most valuable land in the City laying fallow as surface parking or weedy lots add up to a unique opportunity for creating an academic and economic powerhouse – located downtown but regional in impact. Yet San Diego remains the only major metropolitan downtown without a major university presence.

Numerous studies have shown that university campuses, hospitals, and labs have among the highest economic impacts of any use. They are both high wage employers themselves and incubators of high-wage job creating businesses. This is particularly true when campuses are not isolated and self contained but integrated into urban environments – something still lacking from San Diego’s existing major universities. Yes, there may be a UCSD “co-laboratory” in the works for downtown. Again, its happening more organically than as part of a City plan or effort. It’s a very positive development.

However, if it comes to fruition, it will more likely serve as an urban pioneer – a catalyst for helping to attract a major university campus to downtown – rather than being large enough to qualify as a downtown “campus” itself. In any case, the UCSD prospect is further reason not to displace future academic or incubator land with a stadium et al.

The fact that East Village has taken on an academic character organically and without City leaders pushing that vision is not a reason for them to abstain from showing some vision and leadership in this trend. However, it is a very good reason to abstain from building something huge and antagonistic to what the district is becoming on its own.

The best investments are not those that attempt to create something from nothing or that swim against the tide. The most beneficial investments are in green shoots – something that is already happening and showing promise but is early enough that investment and support can help it fulfill its potential and for which the investor (the City) can benefit from large upside growth potential. The key is recognizing it early enough.

Our City leaders need to recognize these green shoots in East Village and not trample them. The property at issue, near Petco Park, the Central Library, and the Imperial Avenue Transfer Station could be an economic, intellectual, and cultural gold mine for the city, as well as making the East Village a very cool place.

Imagine what could be accomplished if some of the millions being suggested for subsidizing an NFL stadium were instead used to attract a satellite campus of an Ivy League or other major university to the East Village — such as recently happened in New York with Cornell’s Tech Campus project on Roosevelt Island or in San Francisco with UCSF Medical School in Mission Bay. The selling points to a University for locating in East Village would be compelling:

  1. The diversity and density of an urban environment:
  2. The increasing popularity of urban campuses coinciding with millennials’ preference for urban living and non-auto transportation alternatives;
  3. The beauty of the location – bay, bridge, and all that San Diego has to offer;
  4. The dynamic, creative, academic, and high tech green-shoots in the East Village;
  5. The educational synergy and collaboration opportunities from the numerous existing academic institutions in East Village;
  6. The new spectacular Central Library;
  7. Proximity to the trolley hub, including the direct connections to the international border, SDSU, USD, and soon to include UCSD
  8. San Diego’s prominence in bio-med research facilities and businesses;
  9. The increasing inventory of and generous zoning for dense apartment housing; and
  10. Abundant nearby entertainment options.

East Village has tremendous offerings for attracting a major university campus – few places in the country could match the existing education-friendly infrastructure and none the quality of life benefits. It’s not only doable, it should already have been done. It just requires some vision – not even a lot of vision – to see the possibilities. San Diego’s economy and culture would be richly rewarded. Even little Carlsbad has the vision. It hired a consultant to help them attract a satellite campus (the same consultant involved in locating the Cornell project). The authors of the UT op-ed have the vision. It’s time for the City’s elected leadership to adopt the vision.


*Authors of the UT op-ed:

Wayne Raffesburger – Professor of urban studies at UCSD
Rob Quigley – Architect of the Central Library
David Malmuth and Peter Garcia – the I.D.E.A. District developers
Jack Carpenter – retired architect supporting preservation and adaptive reuse of Qualcomm Stadium


Bill Adams is the founder and chief editor of UrbDeZine. He is also a partner in the San Diego law firm of Norton, Moore, & Adams, LLP. He has been involved with land use and urban renewal for nearly 25 years, both as a professional and as a personal passion. He currently sits on the Boards of San Diego Historic Streetcars, The San Diego Architectural Foundation, The Food and Beverage Association of San Diego County, andThe Gaslamp Quarter Association Land Use Planning Committee.

Lead Photo by Doug Porter

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Cholly December 1, 2015 at 3:31 pm

Wow! I am so impressed! This was in that silly San Diego Union? And if a major university’s there; it’s stands to reason that innovative businesses and people will be attracted. See what happens when marijuana is semi-legalized!


Matthew December 2, 2015 at 12:20 pm

Great piece, Bill. Downtown is one of the few urban centers in the city where anti-development/anti-growth folks seem to be abated. Institutions of higher learning have proven successful at facilitating such growth time and time again. The East Village is one of the city’s, no, region’s last hopes for successfully managing growth in a less hostile and more inclusive community. Let’s hope the Chargers leave the city so downtown can reach it’s full potential and hopefully change our neighbors minds on smart growth and infill development.


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