Bigger, Better, Smarter

San Diego, 'First Great City of the 21st Century,' Strives to Grow Smart

The San Diego Trolley light rail system circles rather than bisects the heart of town.
The San Diego Trolley light rail system circles rather than bisects the heart of town.

San Diego has one of America's finest harbors. It's the largest U.S. city that touches the Mexican border. And it's home to the largest military complex on either shore of the Pacific Ocean. All quite unlike Austin. So why look to San Diego for ways to reweave our urban fabric? Because if you can do it there, you can do it anywhere. Thirty years ago, the beach, the border, and the bases were all you needed to know about San Diego -- a sleepy city in the hills if ever one was, with little money or stroke, in a region ruled by laissez-faire Republicans who cared not for public-sector "initiatives." Under a dynamic, if often autocratic, mayor destined for higher office -- Pete Wilson -- the Harbor City began a parade of bravura deals, policy shifts, and big-ticket public works to transform itself, from the urban core outward, into a cutting-edge high-tech center, a tourism and entertainment powerhouse, and a model of "livable" and "sustainable" policies, with a city center where people line up to live in mixed-use splendor. Sound like any place you know? Kirk Watson's desired legacy is San Diego's status quo.

So it's small wonder that more and more Austin leaders slyly covet the implements in San Diego's civic toolbox. They've got light rail, downtown housing, a streamlined development process, growth-management plans to promote infill and combat sprawl, and institutional vehicles for public/private redevelopment. San Diego likewise shares many of Austin's problems -- a booming population, traffic snarls, a looming affordable-housing shortage, concerns about social equity. But although San Diego is twice the size of Austin, its growth-spawned ills are not twice as bad as our own. So this suggests that the San Diego tools work.

However, though Austin and San Diego, formerly quite different, are now becoming more and more alike, that common endpoint represents for each city a different endgame. San Diego's quest to become "The First Great City of the 21st Century" started when the town had little to lose; changing the city's character was an implicit goal, not an unfortunate consequence. Austin's quest to become "The Most Livable City in America," by contrast, is a natural progression from -- or, in some citizens' eyes, away from -- the paradise we already are. So San Diego's tools may, to our tastes, work too well.


Blueprint for Success

San Diego is America's sixth-largest city and the second-largest in California, although the one-county metropolitan area pales next to the two megalopoli further north in the Golden State. San Diego County is large and geographically complex; the city and its suburbs have filled in the level ground between the hills, mesas, canyons, deserts, and coasts. (The TV weather reports take forever, forecasting conditions in all the different "microclimates.") This gives even the cookie-cutter suburbs a certain sense of place; they could be anywhere, but they aren't nowhere.

The city/suburban split is about 50-50, much like Austin's, abetted there as here by a history of unabashed annexation. Over the years, San Diego absorbed not just the generica on its fringe, but actual neighboring towns, some formerly incorporated. The city is thus diverse, ranging from the beachfront estates and art galleries of La Jolla to the border-hugging colonias of San Ysidro -- basically a suburb of Tijuana -- which is politically connected to the rest of San Diego by a narrow strip of ocean floor running under the bay.

So San Diego has from the outset been a collection of small towns-cum-neighborhoods, which is how Austin civic cognoscenti define their vision of a SmartGrown city. This made community-based planning a no-brainer, and of all the major cities of California, San Diego has been the most assiduous and systematic about planning at street level. And it's not without evidence, though perhaps without humility, that Mayor Susan Golding calls her city "the birthplace of growth management."

Now, whenever you talk in Texas about planning in other states, you have to acknowledge a litany of caveats. In Texas, cities are required to have comprehensive plans, but the contents of those plans are left up to the God of Local Control. In California, the level of detail in state-mandated municipal plans makes our plan, Austin Tomorrow, look like a children's book. And these plans are adopted by both cities and counties -- the latter having zoning authority -- making it impossible to flout Smart Growth by moving beyond the civic pale. In San Diego County, a regional growth management strategy was mandated by voter initiative in 1988, after a failed earlier ballot measure to simply put caps on new development.

So San Diego does a lot of planning, at all levels from the neighborhood to the region, and those plans promote all the right things -- open space and habitat preservation, compact infill development, fair-share housing, and transit orientation around the city's long-lived and long-running San Diego Trolley light rail line, which goes all the way from El Cajon to downtown to San Ysidro. Yet the people responsible for those plans feel they've been only partially successful.

"The postwar model has never really changed here," says Paul Fiske, long-range planner for the city of San Diego. "and now we have people commuting from Riverside [about 80 miles to the northeast] to work in San Diego, and it's just an extension of what happened 25 years ago. There is more emphasis and interest in the urban areas by families, but -- the more desirable places have appreciated a lot, and the less desirable not at all. The hourglass economy has definitely happened here."

As in Austin, though the cost of real estate has gone wacky across the board, neighborhoods like La Jolla (West Lake Hills) have gotten dearer, districts like San Ysidro (Montopolis) have remained stagnant, and places in the middle such as El Cajon (Round Rock) have started to erode. This is despite significant effort -- not as much as San Diego planners would like, but as much as we could contemplate here -- to revive and level the landscape with diverse housing types and income levels, infill development, and commercial corridors. These are all the same remedies suggested for our social inequity and suburban blight. So what's missing?

In a word, money: money for the infrastructure that will support higher densities and diversities in the urban core. The more foresighted of Central Austin's neighborhood leaders, who look at Smart Growth with fear and trembling, point to just this lack of sufficient services, and San Diego planners think they're right to worry.

Now, California has much bigger fiscal problems than we do -- the famed Proposition 13, passed in 1978, limits residential property tax liability to 1% of a home's appraised value when it was bought, and timeworn ballot restrictions require bond measures to pass with two-thirds of the vote to become law. Five years after Prop. 13 went into effect, the San Diego neighborhood of Normal Heights was devastated by a fire that the city didn't have the water pressure to fight, which led to a short-term rationing of building permits and a rash of downzonings of what had been multi-family infill sites.

But there, but for the grace of God, goes Austin. The billion-dollar bond package of 1998 gave our city just enough money to vaguely meet current infrastructure needs (luckily, better-than-vaguely where water pressure is concerned), and by the time we can sell more bonds, the city will have added another 100,000 or so people. (And that's just city of Austin infrastructure. The schools and suburbs are doing no better.)

So San Diego's experience is pertinent. "Many of the citizens in our more urban communities [we would say "neighborhoods'], within five to seven miles of downtown, will consider additional infill," says Fiske. "But they need hard and fast assurance that they'll get the necessary facilities before, or in conjunction with, additional population growth. And we have not been able to deliver that." Nonetheless, San Diego's growth has been managed and made at least a little Smart. Just as Houston exists to scare Austin into doing the right thing, San Diego has for decades been driven to be Not Los Angeles, so far with success. The city and region are studded with not only one-off projects but entire neighborhoods where developers have made money building sensibly, sustainably, and "livably" (ugh), in rich areas and poor, on fields brown and green. There's still ample Dumb Growth to be seen, as neighborhood activists are happy to point out, but alternatives exist on the ground for citizens to see and touch and support.

Horton Plaza's namesake park was once a thriving drug market and wino hangout.
Horton Plaza's namesake park was once a thriving drug market and wino hangout.

That's no thanks to the city of San Diego, developers say; as in Austin, stories of bureaucratic obtuseness and hoop-jumping are legion. So the city has done what Austin has so far, despite great display, failed to do: streamline its development process. Though they dislike using the S-word. "We tried to never say 'streamlining' or 'eliminating' unnecessary steps," says San Diego development process manager Kelly Broughton, "because that meant, 'You're streamlining the community right out of the process.' So the goals became to improve predictability, accountability, clarity."

This involved centralizing the different planners, permit reviewers, engineers, and inspectors involved in a project -- the traffic people, the drainage people, the plumbing people -- into one San Diego city department, which would seem commonsensical if Austin had not, under City Manager Jesus Garza, done exactly the opposite. When developers deal with that one San Diego department, their "single point of contact" is one of a squad of development project managers (DPMs), whose job is to "ensure that project reviews proceed in a timely and predictable fashion -- to a decision-point." Here, the only person who can really "ensure" such a thing is Assistant City Manager Toby Futrell, and "predictability" is beyond even her ken.

This reverses the chain of accountability; in Austin, a project's problems often have to be kicked upstairs, while in San Diego DPMs are judged on how well they keep issues from rising to the next level. "A lot of what we've done is structural change to the organization, and the rest is process change," says Broughton. "Many developments had to be approved by many departments, and they would raise issues that conflicted with other departments, and to have to resolve those conflicts at the [department] director level was inefficient."

Bringing problem-solving to the street level allowed San Diego to focus on "figuring out what the customer's goals are, figuring out what was needed to accomplish that goal, and assigning someone [the DPM] to manage and facilitate that process, from submitting an application to issuing permits," says Broughton. The DPMs are assigned to any project that requires a public hearing, which not every new project does, and they take hold of scheduling its reviews and approvals with all and sundry. The changes that made this possible have cut project turnaround times in half. Some of those changes -- like Austin, San Diego just rewrote and "simplified" its Land Development Code -- took issues that used to have to go to a public hearing and made them resolvable by staff.

"We've gotten staffers to think of the overall process and their part in it," says Broughton. "We've become more customer-service-focused and realized that our customer is the person applying for the permit. The community is a stakeholder, and we need to make sure that regulations are followed to preserve that stakeholder interest; but the customer is the one paying the bills."

Even though what passes for leftist excess in Texas is center-right ideology in California, San Diego has enough GOP genes in its civic DNA to make "Government is a business and developers are our customers" a less-than-inflammatory sentiment. In Austin, this is not how people think, regardless of their political stripes; the desire for predictability and efficiency runs head-long into the demand for accountability to all the citizens, all the time. Every arcane or antiquated twist in our codes and processes exists because someone wants it there. And so our streamlining efforts have stalled.

Not that streamlining, or whatever you want to call it, went through without protest in the Harbor City, and the San Diego City Council did in fact moderate its efforts after community opposition. "Part of what we need to do now is strengthen the consistency in how we deal with the community as part of the process," says Broughton. "We need to build trust. We have an agreement that the community's input can be incorporated into the development process. Now that we've showed we actually do that, we have a lot more trust."


Pieces in the Puzzle

The closer you get to downtown Austin, the more piercing are the complaints about our city's baroque and inappropriate codes and tail-chasing development processes. But in San Diego, the closer you get to the center, the less relevant such matters seem, because no amount of red tape -- indeed, nothing short of seismic Armageddon -- seems strong enough to stop the flood of downtown redevelopment. The latest tally shows 92 current projects in the pipeline; the downtown booster literature describes the ensuing construction and traffic tie-ups as "Paradise in Progress." It is within its central city that San Diego has made the biggest strides toward its vision of 21st-century success.

It helps to set the scene. San Diego is our great country's largest base town and its largest border town. Think of all the base towns and border towns you've been in, combine their salient features, and you have old downtown San Diego. Though it had residential districts of varying vitality -- including Cortez Hill and Little Italy, now being gentri-vitalized in spectacular fashion -- a hub of live-work sustainability it was not. When asked what used to be where now stands Horton Plaza, the shopping complex at the heart of the new downtown, one local succinctly replied, "Whores and bars." (There were also some flophouses that a local developer bought, moved, hooked together, and turned into a boutique hotel, the Horton Grand.)

The plaza's namesake park -- a small garden commemorating tycoon and booster Alonzo Horton with a towering Beaux Arts fountain -- was a thriving drug market and wino hangout, right across from the U.S. Grant, San Diego's top-of-the-line downtown hotel. Today, the fountain and the hotel are themselves towered over by the Plaza's Planet Hollywood sign, six stories up. One of Southern California's most profitable malls and one of San Diego's busiest tourist attractions, Horton Plaza is a riotous and theatrical, and to many tastes impossibly chaotic, urban space -- lots of different colors, split levels, and open-air spaces -- but it sure as hell ain't a typical mall.

More important, Horton Plaza was the catalyst that every American downtown courts and chases. South to the waterfront, the avenues are lined with one loft and live/work building after another. These new inhabitants, and the rest of downtown San Diego's estimated 25,000 residents (new living units are going up so fast that no one is quite sure), are served by a 24-hour full-sized Ralphs (the HEB of Southern California) supermarket with underground parking, designed to look like a converted old warehouse, right next to the plaza. This is the model that Peter Calthorpe touted in his re-planning of the benighted Randalls in our beloved Triangle Square.

On the other side of Horton Plaza is the Gaslamp Quarter -- really two long, parallel streets, Fourth and Fifth Avenues -- which is like our Sixth Street and Warehouse District mashed together and put into overdrive. The meticulous Victorian restorations and the inevitable new Victorian re-creations house a collection of restaurants and nightspots and boutiques comparable to New York's Upper East Side, along with interlopers like a T.G.I. Fridays and a 10-screen multiplex. (Federal Realty, the Maryland-based front-runner to manage the retail component of Austin's CSC/City Hall complex, owns the multiplex and a big chunk of the Gaslamp.)

But even in the totally gentrified Gaslamp you can see lingering vestiges of what downtown San Diego used to be. Pawn shops sit cheek to jowl with trendy trattorias, old transient hotels are being laboriously converted to higher and better use, and a triple-X arcade occupies a restored building with a landmark designation.

Up till now, the New Downtown ended at the Gaslamp, which itself ends at the San Diego Convention Center, which like ours was built too small, proved unexpectedly popular, and is now being enlarged at great expense. East of Gaslamp, in a rambling multi-neighborhood area called the East Village, downtown San Diego might as well have been downtown Taylor -- even Central East Austin is in better shape -- before voters rolled over for the Padres during their recent freak success and approved a brand-new downtown ballpark. (The current one, Qualcomm Stadium, is in Mission Valley on the north side of town and was designed for football; it will remain the happy hunting ground of the Chargers.)

In typical San Diego fashion, the Ballpark District will include not just the stadium but dozens of surrounding blocks of housing and commerce, and the last link of a greenway between the water and Balboa Park (a project first pitched 100 years ago), replacing what are now mostly ramshackle industrial low-rises. By putting all these uses into one master plan -- drawn up by Roma Design Group, of Mueller Airport fame -- downtown boosters aim to both hatch the chicken and lay the egg, instead of quibbling -- retail or residential? destination or neighborhood? -- over which should come first.

New redevelopment projects keep cropping up
in the gentrified Gaslamp Quarter.
New redevelopment projects keep cropping up in the gentrified Gaslamp Quarter.

"The idea is to build those catalysts and address all issues simultaneously," says Laurie Black, president of the Downtown San Diego Partnership (the equivalent of our Downtown Austin Alliance) and a longtime player in and observer of San Diego politics. "The Ballpark is a great example of what we need to do all over downtown -- it's 26 blocks of housing, retail, and a ballpark to support that part of the neighborhood. It's all parallel."

Perhaps the biggest -- well, at least the most expensive and extensive -- catalyst has been the tomato-red San Diego Trolley, which unlike many urban light-rail lines circles rather than bisects the heart of town, making all parts of the city center accessible all the way from Tijuana and El Cajon. Whether the Trolley, one of America's oldest light-rail systems, has really made a difference in traffic congestion depends on your expectations: San Diego has plenty of gridlocked freeways and controversial freeways-to-be, just like we do (although traffic downtown is notably sane).

But if you're looking for a system that promotes reinvestment in its urban core destinations -- the new-and-improved justification for light rail as an essential tool of Smart Growth -- the Trolley will not disappoint. Just a few examples: More loft things are springing up along the Trolley's C Street corridor (one block north of Broadway, San Diego's Congress Avenue), filling up buildings that emptied out years ago, and one of the big Trolley transfer stations also houses the city's Museum of Contemporary Art. "The Trolley has been a very, very, very good thing," says Black. "People really do ride it. We need more of it."


Urban Renewal, Renewed

Still, despite the signs of successful renewal, Black describes downtown San Diego as being "stuck in adolescence. We're trying to decide what kind of neighborhood it will be; there are plans, there's a vision, but there's never been a process committee that says, 'This is what we want it to look like. This is where you put the library, the civic center, the 50,000 people who live here.' We've just thrown things at the wall and seen if they stick." The Downtown Partnership is currently finishing up a strategic plan to address these issues -- "housing, affordability, urban design, lifestyle, education, the relationship to the waterfront," says Black. "We're trying to be proactive."

But San Diego has already been proactive; its urban core did not become a hot market by magic. The wizard behind the curtain is the Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC), founded in 1975 to use public money and power to leverage private investment in the central business district. Having now done so successfully for 20 years, CCDC has become a touchstone for every city wanting to jump-start urban investment, including us. Both the Mueller redevelopment plan and the yet-to-be-released report of the Downtown Development Advisory Group specifically recommend that we create something like CCDC, described by its marketing director Donna Alm as "a public corporation that's really a city agency that operates like a private business on behalf of the city and its citizens' interests."

The CCDC is actually the de facto urban renewal agency of the city of San Diego for the downtown area, which was declared blighted -- with ample justification -- back in the 1970s. This makes it equivalent to our own Austin Revitalization Authority, except that its board is appointed directly by the San Diego City Council. (Would that were the case with the ARA.) Under state law, its efforts are also overseen by project area committees (PACs) elected by residents and property owners in the affected areas, which in the CCDC's case number eight. (Would that were also the case with the ARA.)

The initial goals of the CCDC, Alm says, "have mostly been realized -- creating strong retail, developing family-friendly residential neighborhoods, creating job-based opportunities, building and now expanding the Convention Center, and having effective public transportation to and through downtown." Over time, the CCDC's turf -- originally just the blocks around what became Horton Plaza -- grew to include all of downtown and brought these principles to bear in each of what were formerly ill-connected districts.

As an agent of the city, CCDC has access to the power of eminent domain, which it has not been afraid to use to clear out the bad stuff. But it also has a steady source of income, because in California, all designated redevelopment areas (and only those areas) automatically become tax-increment financing (TIF) districts. That means that any increased tax revenue generated by property value appreciation gets plowed straight back into redevelopment, and in this case goes back to CCDC. (A TIF illustration: You own a building on which you pay $6,000 in taxes. The building gets put in a TIF. If your appraisal goes up, thus raising your tax bill to $7,000, the extra $1,000 goes into the TIF and can only be spent on projects and improvements within the district boundaries.)

It's the TIF money that has made CCDC not your same old urban-renewal board. The corporation can buy parcels of the most expensive land in San Diego, and then market those properties to developers who will agree to build exactly what the community wants built -- more housing in the right places, 'Net-ready office space, a broad spectrum of retail, pedestrian-friendly streetscapes and public spaces, even schools and libraries to serve the growing residential base. "We marry development teams with land-use availability," Alm says. A project "will have a plan and design guidelines in place -- prescribing bay views, street trees, sidewalk width, and so on. Only then do we go find developers." (The awarding of contracts for CCDC-midwifed projects is done by the San Diego City Council.)

The kinds of developments that the CCDC has created are what Austin wishes were its new-project norms. But wishing does not make these things so, and throwing incentives at developers -- the strategy so far most employed in Austin -- is costly, inefficient, and unpopular. By controlling the land and market itself -- that is, by being part of the real-estate industry, instead of a foil to it -- CCDC and downtown San Diego can afford to wait for the right projects to come to them. "Our job has been to see what will be possible on a certain site, not what's there today," Alm says. "We work with the community to create what we want."


Selling the Central City

This does not mean we should just run out and create TIF districts, which have a checkered legal and political history in Texas. By limiting TIFs to places that are actually slums -- unlike, say, the TIF in North Texas that helped fund a booming outlet mall on a suburban greenfield -- California has defused the political liability of giving money that would otherwise go to meet the needs of all citizens. (This is easier in California, where the state collects taxes and then allocates them back to municipalities. Efforts to create TIFs in Texas have to run the gauntlet of cities, counties, school districts, water districts, and sundry agencies.) But even at that, Alm concedes that "I'm not sure that in today's climate the state would adopt the same redevelopment system."

But on the other hand, if a TIF district is an actual slum, then there will be no money in the TIF as long as the place remains a slum. Such has happened in other, less shiny TIF districts in San Diego, whose redevelopment authorities limp along on minuscule and sporadic income from marginal increases in property values. In San Diego, the early 1990s were a time of recession, and even the CCDC had almost no income. "If it hadn't been for the older, successful projects like Horton Plaza," Alm says, "we wouldn't have had any money."

To make a TIF strategy work, the district has to have nowhere to go but up -- having bottomed out to the point, in Alm's words, "where individual private developers couldn't do anything on their own." But it has to have the potential to go way, way, up. Downtown San Diego was such a place. Downtown Austin may not be -- though if we have another real estate crash, it may set the stage for a workable TIF. But the CCDC approach would work in Austin even without a TIF, as long as sufficient funds were made available to the corporation, and by extension the city, to actually intervene in, rather than just interfere with, the real estate market.

That's assuming Austin could swallow the concept of an independent agency using public funds to do without public display what, heretofore, the City Council has done itself in fits of political haymaking, or then undone for the same reasons. Our current leaders have thrown their weight behind, and sometimes on top of, downtown renewal, agreeing with San Diego that the health of the core is vital to that of the city and region. That calculus may change an election or two from now. The point of having a CCDC is to institutionalize the redevelopment that drives Smart Growth, and still give life to public interests like housing affordability and open space which the market would not deliver on its own, without having to worry about what the mayor had for breakfast.

But it will take a mayor who eats his or her Wheaties to sell Austinites outside the city center on the notion that investments in downtown reap rewards for everyone. We have a mayor like that now. San Diego had one from 1974 to 1982 in Pete Wilson, who before rising to greater success as senator, governor, and presidential candidate, put himself on the short list of America's most effective mayors. (His record made him famous enough throughout the state, at a time when San Diego was nowhere in California politics, to beat then-Governor Jerry Brown for an open U.S. Senate seat. Brown is, of course, now himself the mayor of a large and famously blighted California city, Oakland.) And a Republican to boot.

"Wilson figured out how to invest money into downtown, and why it was a great investment," says Laurie Black. "We got six dollars back for every dollar spent in Horton Plaza, and will do the same with the ballpark. And he could explain that to the neighborhoods -- that more money downtown means more money to fix your potholes in La Jolla. And there hasn't been any leader since then who could explain that. But because he put his legacy in place with the CCDC, redevelopment has continued. He left us the pieces of the puzzle to put together." Those pieces also include the Trolley and the city's ongoing growth-management strategies, also fairly included among Wilson's achievements.

Where Wilson went, Watson aims to follow. But San Diego's successes are best seen in relief -- the tools they have were the right tools for their job, but perhaps they are not the right tools for ours, especially given that we have a long way to travel before reaching general agreement on what kind of city we want to be, let alone how we should get there. "No matter how good an idea is," says CCDC's Alm, "it won't happen until it's time for it to happen. You have to have interest and consent from all sides." end story

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