High-Rise, High-Density, High-Risk – Lessons from the Pandemic

by on May 20, 2020 · 10 comments

in Ocean Beach, San Diego

By Colleen O’Connor

Who are these people?  And where do they come from?

What is it about newcomers to San Diego that get in positions of power and proceed to try and re-make the city in the image of New York?  Overcrowded, densely population and dwarfed by sunless high-rises and wind tunnels – are a recipe for disasters in the future.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic taught us nothing about such urban nightmares?

If not listening to New York’s Governor, Andrew Cuomo, repeat day after tragic day that “density” is what overwhelmed his city, then consider Dutch architect, Rem Koolhaas, the Pritzker prize–winning author and academic, with a new exhibition at the Guggenheim.

“To him, the gathering of more than 50% of the world’s population into metropoles that occupy just 2% of the world’s land mass was a problem long before anybody knew what the phrase social distancing meant.”

Or, best of all, read Jonathan F.P. Rose’s book, The Well-Tempered City. He argues, “Most of our cities have lost their original purpose.”

“The problems are wicked, the tide of megatrends is moving against our best intentions, and we are not … meeting the challenge of our times.”  A challenge that has existed for centuries.

That challenge?  Fairness, harmony with nature, intelligence, innovation and trust, a.k.a., the virtuous city.

“In the early 900s, at the height of Islam’s golden age, the scholar, Abu Nasr Muhammad al-Farabi, ranked three kinds of cities in his text, ‘The Perfect City.’

“The best was a virtuous city, a place in which people pursue knowledge, virtue and happiness with civility.

Next came the ignorant city, whose residents seek wealth, honor freedom and pleasure without aspiring to a higher state of well-being and true happiness.

Last came the wicked city, whose people delude themselves knowing that wisdom is the highest calling but justifying the pursuit of power and pleasure with arrogant, self-serving rationalizations.”

The San Diego I know was never an ignorant nor a wicked city.  Indeed, it tried to be “America’s finest City,” even, “Camelot by the Bay”, but the recent history of in-fill developments in old stock neighborhoods, multiple attempts at reversing the 30-foot coastal height limits, and dishonest promises, hypocrisy, and poor stewardship among its leaders, has bent us toward that wicked path.

The most recent examples abound; attempts by the Port of San Diego to add 1600 units on Shelter Island.

Mischaracterized as a chance to remove the “docks” or “piers” on a stretch of bay in the La Playa area of Point Loma, the real details are much uglier:

  • An increase of 1,600 new hotel rooms along Shelter Island
  • 70,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space
  • The removal of the current 30-foot height limit
  • A 20-foot wide cement promenade that will replace the dirt paths; probably eliminate the pine trees that provide the rare great blue heron nests; and alter the roads, parking spaces, and entire area from Kellogg Beach to downtown

In short, the new Port master plan included the destruction of a neighborhood and a local culture that existed before Shelter Island was even dredged.  It was defeated by heavy citizen pushback.

Another example, the rushed proposition-driven, non-competitive bidding, near-giveaway to SDSU for the Mission Valley stadium and River site.  Add the multiple “transit” corridors to justify mega-developments along the Mission Bay/Clairemont area.

And now another attempt at removing the 30-foot limit.  This time in the Midway district, led by the newest Council Member and San Diego resident for just 13 years, Jen Campbell.

She promised, repeatedly, during her council race to protect that limit.  Yet, not even two years into her term, she is pushing for more New York style development using the same developer-backed proposition route that won SDSU its land.

Has Campbell learned nothing from the COVID-19 pandemic and its ferocious spread in densely populated areas? Is the ignorance by design or blinded by ambition?

So little trust – so little faith.  So little to cheer about when moves like this take place while others are shouldering their familial and professional responsibilities.

Where is that San Diego? The well-tempered city, working in harmony towards a better, healthier, safer existence for all?  Not perfect, but certainly not wicked.

Like Campbell, some see only mega developments, and massive infrastructures as the future, while neglecting to even maintain the gems of the city; Balboa park, the bays, ocean fronts and neighborhoods.

I prefer, the wisdom of noted urban thinker, Jane Jacobs, “If you don’t build it, they will come.”

San Diego is just fine without mega-density, cinder-block ugliness that passes as “architecture.”

That is the San Diego before the newest incarnation of overdevelopment and infill of any beautiful spaces and neighborhoods still remaining in San Diego.

That is the San Diego with old-school manners and responsibilities that have led to such a remarkable and enviable response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  With just a few show-off “open up” rallies (that numbered in the dozens in a county of 3 million plus people), San Diegans have demonstrated what a model city it really is.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Charles Best May 20, 2020 at 10:02 am

Thanks Coleen for the good sense. Betcha Jane Jacobs, John Nolan, George Marston and even Prince Charles are just shaking their heads in disbelief . -clb


sealintheSelkirks May 20, 2020 at 3:11 pm

So…I’m getting the impression from this essay that the San Diego I was born in consisting of a viewpoint looking up through the Class structure pyramid above my head that had always been apparent to the lower working class families I was raised in and around, has now been replaced by a glossy shining pseudo history of San Diego with this ridiculous “it tried to be “America’s finest City,” even, “Camelot by the Bay” .” Wow. What hubris to write empty words such as those!

Kind of like the efforts to scrub the tarnish off of Nixon, eh? And what is now repeating itself (with the help of far too many so-called ‘Democrats’) over the wBush War Crimes Regime. Let’s put lipstick on the pig and call it the Prom Queen.

Crap folks, just how short are people’s freaking memories?

San Diego was landlocked aircraft carrier, a full-on military base city when I was growing up. At least half the kids I went to school with were military brats! North Island Naval Air Station, Miramar Naval Air Station, aircraft carrier row, the Marine Recruit Depot, the Navy recruit depot, Convair in the Midway District (now Gen Dynamics military contractor), General Atomics in La Jolla (maker of the Predator murder drone the CIA is using), the nuclear sub base on Pt. Loma & the SEAL Team base there also… Aw come on, this city has always been full of right-wing patriotic (remember that ‘last refuge of’ refrain) racist Republican & Democratic conservative corrupt wheeler-dealers that pretty much had full control of the city and county politics and economics. This was during the 60s when I started have signs of consciousness, social awareness, critical thinking, and developed a political conscience.

The conservative wealthy Republicrats/Democans of the 2 Public Faces-One Owner Party continues to march to the beat of the same drummer that I saw 50 years ago! As they do on the national stage, just one neoliberal conservative after another regardless of the R or D in front of their name. Same policies for the most part, but much better speech making is the real difference. Except wBush who, like Trump, couldn’t string a complete sentence together in any kind of logical structure.

Of course there were PEOPLE here and there, and groups of people, actively engaged trying to make this a better city for everybody not just the wealthy few. And even a few neighborhoods managed, for a while, to coalesce into something faintly ethical. But in general, look back at who has been elected over the last 50 years and READ UP on their policies. Camelot? Is that a joke? Or maybe not since it was ruled by wealthy kings…

So I read what’s going on in my birth town, OB, and the surrounding city. The politics, the greed, the ‘growth’ that continues to choke the life out of living there. I mean, $2000 a month for a little box to live in, and the actual hourly wage for the majority of the working population is how much?

Which brings me to the Talking Heads song ‘Same As It Ever Was’ that rebounded around in the back of my mind as I read this piece. So I went downstairs, found the cassette, and turned on the 375 watt mid-80s Technic receiver and blasted the tape through the 325 watt 3-foot double bass KLH speakers and listened to the words.

Same as it ever was from this OB native son’s view. And bluntly, Colleen O’Connor, there are only a few people in San Diego who can boast of not being a newcomer/emigrant from elsewhere and they are stuck on the ‘Rez’ a form of forever POW camp, so get off the high horse before you slip and hurt yourself.



Geoff Page May 21, 2020 at 8:44 am

Seems pretty harsh, seal. So, Ms. O’Connor is not the total pessimist that you are. Disagree, that’s fine, but telling her to get off the high horse was not necessary. Some of us, even of an advanced age, still harbor some hopes. You left, you are not here, so read and observe and comment and try to be civil even in disagreement. I thought her piece was very well written.


Shelly Schwartlander May 22, 2020 at 8:20 pm

sealintheSelkirks, your depiction of San Diego makes more sense to me than Colleen’s. I’ve only lived here since 1989 but there is so much of what exists that had to come from San Diego as you remember it. Similar type growth in Atlanta and other cities. Your’s is not such a pessimistic view either. Complaining about growth re new living spaces and transit corridors is what you hear from people whose feet hardly touch the ground, who have new cars always to drive any distance they choose to get to work or school. Real people in real cities have to ride buses, have to live as close as they can to work. I’m sure it was fairly hardcore here in the ’60’s and ’70’s. Most cities were. But I notice as close as we all are to beautiful and accessible ocean and back country, “locals” in OB and Pt. Loma were furious about an area by Nimitz and Voltaire the city wanted to develope to house about 17 low income families. San Diego employers are cheap, pay little yet the landlords stay rich off super high rents. I bought my place when I moved here from SF and saw no rent control. But I notice this city’s workers have to live down in TJ to work for their low pay. Poor to middle class are not welcome in San Diego. Much of what Colleen describes as San Diego as a “fine city” is uglier in its meanness than are your memories that at least show San Diego did allow for working class people to have homes and families here who probably lived more fully than middle class can from the ’80’s to current. Such elite version of San Diego as Colleens reserves it for only the wealthiest (who probably are here from NY or other wealth capitals, foreign places, investor class) or corporate owned places. It’s not practical for families, young workers or elderly locals who are squeezed out of their own town. San Diego might as well be mainly gated communities everywhere as put off as many are by people with any real needs. Owners love to charge renters but don’t care if they stay, replacements are just as good so long as they can pay high rent. Temporary and a border town is what San Diego is and that’s not so “fine” as Colleen sees it.


Bob Edwards May 23, 2020 at 12:34 pm

The name of this song is “Once In A Lifetime”. The name of this band is Talking Heads.


Frank Gormlie May 24, 2020 at 3:29 pm

Crazy – I just read this comment – and guess what I’m listening to on pandora? same as it ever was …


Doug Blackwood May 20, 2020 at 6:56 pm

Jen Campbell must go!


korla eaquinta May 20, 2020 at 7:47 pm

Trying to dismantle the sacrosanct 30′ heigh limit in the Midway district during this pandemic is unconscionable. There is NO opportunity for citizens to provide any meaningful input. Most are just trying to survive let alone keep up with this. They didn’t even inform the Midway Planning board about their intentions and the PCPB cannot even meet. Regardless of how long she has been here or her campaign promises, Dr. Jen should know by definition of her “title” how density affects human health. This pandemic is yet more proof! Please open your eyes and listen to the community.


sealintheSelkirks May 22, 2020 at 2:27 pm

Yeah, you are correct, Geoff. I was being testy and irritated. If we as one species out of many only lived on this planet as if we were NOT something special but part of the evolved ecosystem and treated the rest of the earthlings as parts of the whole… The advertising agencies PR magical thinking of labeling ‘exceptional, shining city on the hill’ has just gotten too stale in the face of reality for me to not gag when I read it. I did get testy and should have refrained.

Colleen O’Connor I apologize for unnecessary roughness.



Geoff Page May 22, 2020 at 4:52 pm

I’m a big fan of being direct despite the trouble it has gotten me into over the years. You are very direct and I like that and that is very effective but it’s not personal. Stick with that and you’re fine. Whenever I write something emotional, I let it sit and reread it later, I’m sure you usually do that too but sometimes we just don’t have the patience. Very gracious of you to apologize like that, I’m sure she will appreciate it.


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