White Paper

East Village South: The Torrey Pines Mesa of the 21st Century

A White Paper on the Future of East Village South

The Need for Urgency

Current events promise to forever change the quality and character of East Village South.  This is why community, business and civic leaders need to come together now to create a focused plan that best meets the needs of the neighborhood and the region.

A Local Precedent

In the early 1970’s the city of San Diego had to choose between incentivizing science and research based businesses to locate on the Torrey Pines Mesa, adjacent to a fledgling UCSD, or sell the property for residential housing development. A path forged by then Mayor Pete Wilson forever changed the trajectory of San Diego by fostering a bio-pharmaceutical/UCSD synergy that has directly created over 50,000 jobs.

At the beginning of the 21st century, we are facing our own “Torrey Pines moment” in downtown San Diego.  East Village South is the last, significant, piece of land to be redeveloped in the urban core. Yet the designated area, including the city-owned MTS bus yard, is not a blank slate. Over the past fifteen years, hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested into housing, infrastructure, transit, hotels and civic projects including schools, the new Central Library and Petco Park on the East Village footprint. 

A Foundation of Planning – East Village Today

The recent investment in East Village did not happen by accident. In 2006, the City Council adopted the Community Plan.  Led by a steering committee of 35 civic, business and neighborhood leaders over a two-year period, the effort included input gathered from more than 1,500 people in workshops and other forums.  The process also took into consideration input from the five neighborhoods that border downtown: Uptown, Midtown, Golden Hill, Sherman Heights/Logan Heights, and Barrio Logan.

The planning process not only considered who was living and working in downtown, but how further development efforts would impact the hundreds-of-thousands of residents in adjacent communities. 

Following the adoption of the Community Plan, each neighborhood was to create a more granular “Focus Plan” to help guide planning, programming and development decisions at the neighborhood level; this was modeled on the Focus Plan that continues to drive the success of Little Italy. Before East Village could accomplish this important next step, the economic downturn occurred and the effort was never completed.

In the Community Plan, East Village South is designated as a mixed-use commercial zone, in particular for large-foot-plate commercial buildings.  Since as early as 2006 there was a concern that downtown was becoming a “vertical bedroom community” to the region.  As a result, there was a lot of discussion on how to stimulate job growth in downtown. Today job growth has continued to lag and 75% of downtown residents now commute daily from downtown to suburban job centers. 

The I.D.E.A. District Vision – East Village North

While an East Village “Focus Plan” was not completed, in 2010 a series of market forces were about to converge – an improving economy, the selection of a developer for the Navarra Properties, the opening of the new Central Library and Thomas Jefferson School of Law, and a building boom at nearby San Diego City Collage. At the same time innovation districts were being realized across the country (Seattle, South Lake Union; San Francisco, South of Market and Portland, Pearl District to name a few). It was time to restart the “jobs” conversation.

That year San Diego business, civic, institutional leaders and the East Village community came together to discuss the creation of a vibrant, mixed-use district driven by Innovation + Design + Education + Arts; specifically focused on the creation of a high-tech, high-wage jobs cluster at the intersection of design and technology.  This was identified as a realistic cluster based on companies that exist in San Diego today. These companies offer clean, high paying jobs that every city is hoping to attract and, when clustered together, help retain the talented workforce essential for regional economic growth. 

Happily, the talent needed for these jobs prefer to live in walkable, diverse and urban places.

A recent Downtown Demographic Study sponsored by the Downtown San Diego Partnership and conducted by UCSD confirms this trend. Downtown residents today are younger, better educated and earn more than their surrounding communities and nearby counterparts. 

Progress by 2015 in East Village North has been inspiring with numerous initiatives underway including SILO, which hosted La Jolla Playhouse’s production of El Henry, Smarts Farm, FabLab, Urban Discovery Academy, a K-8 charter school that opened in September, the successful launch of Quartyard, and the groundbreaking for IDEA1. With multiple projects starting this year, The I.D.E.A. District is now launched with a strong spirit of collaboration, but much work remains to be done.

An Anchor Concept

We now need a major catalyst for the innovation ecosystem to fully blossom.  One potential solution lies in attracting anchor institutions and experiences that have a proven track record of growing the local economy and one that could also benefit from what East Village already has to offer.

East Village today has a rich educational cluster from San Diego City College (celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2014) to the NewSchool of Architecture + Design to the Thomas Jefferson School of Law, Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, the E3 High School on the south, San Diego High on the north and the recently opened K-8 Urban Discovery Academy in the heart of I.D.E.A. District. Consistent with community plans; educational institutions form the armature of East Village.

However, there is a glaring gap when it comes to a downtown university. Numerous case studies – Arizona State University’s growth in Phoenix and University of Washington’s contribution to South Lake Union in Seattle are two examples – and academic papers demonstrate how the presence of a downtown university can significantly enhance both the institution and the city; yet among the top 35 cities (by population) in this country, San Diego is the only city that does not have a downtown university.

The land to the east of Petco Park, including the existing parking lot and MTS bus yards, most of which is publicly owned, presents an extraordinary opportunity to establish a new kind of educational/high tech urban campus that can positively impact the fortunes of our city in much the same way as the synergy between UCSD/CONNECT and the bio-pharmaceutical industry did for the Torrey Pines Mesa 30 years ago.

We envision a significant presence for one or perhaps several of the region’s great universities in East Village South. Not an annex, but an anchor.  A new downtown model would explore and experiment with emerging topics in design, education, civic engagement, health care, technology, and the arts. The emphasis would be on research and collaborative learning across academic disciplines, and with diverse local partners including existing downtown schools and institutions, businesses, and community organizations. 

For the educational institution(s) a downtown presence provides: 1) Greater engagement with the diverse communities south of the I-8 Freeway; 2) New partnerships with government, business, and other downtown educational institutions; 3) More effective competition for grants with an urban emphasis; and 4) Myriad opportunities for student internships, mentorships, community service, and other forms of co-curricular experience.

Pairing the resources of a top-tier research institution with downtown’s emerging entrepreneurial energy would accelerate the establishment of the networks – mentorship, venture capital, professional services – that lead to job creation in the region. The “campus” should also include space for established tech firms that flourish in an academic setting, feeding off the talent and intellectual property developed by their neighbors.

Unlike past bulky sports proposals (with low wage jobs), this urban plan would be physically porous and fluid – seamlessly integrating into the existing fabric of East Village and allowing for important new connections to surrounding neighborhoods.  14th street for instance is currently envisioned as a key north/south walking street with significant pedestrian enhancements.  It can now play its rightful urban role and directly connect City College with the Barrio and Chicano Park. 

Densely concentrated, downtown residents and workers have long complained about the lack of proper parks and open space.  The parking lot and bus yards offer a final opportunity for public parks, and we imagine East Village South will contain significant open space available to all. The Downtown Community Plan envisioned a vibrant employment-based neighborhood opening to the Barrio as a welcoming gateway, not a back door.

Appreciating the importance of connectivity, and timing, a new San Diego Trolley line extension – the Mid Coast Trolley scheduled for 2021 completion – will directly connect downtown with UCSD and the border. The trolley already connects downtown with SDSU. The Mid-Coast segment could potentially coincide with the opening phase of East Village South.

What is at Stake?

This bold initiative would mirror the success of the public-private partnership that launched the Torrey Pines Mesa and has led to over 50,000 high-paying jobs. The city has limited resources, so it must carefully choose where and how to invest in order to grow our region’s prosperity.

The vision articulated above lays out a blueprint for one possible scenario that could prove to be the highest and best use for this precious land.

So, let’s start today to develop a Focus Plan with broad community input and support that strikes the ideal balance between smart economic growth and thoughtful neighborhood development.

Rob Quigley, Pete Garcia, Wayne Raffesberger, Jack Carpenter, David Malmuth, Bill Adams, Beth Callender and Mike Stepner all contributed to this White Paper.

Read the full Community Plan by downloading it from the Civic San Diego website – http://civicsd.com/planning/regulatory-documents.html.