By Phillip J. Bona and Vicki Estrada
With the significant recent interest in the redevelopment of the 166-acre Qualcomm site, the San Diego City Council is being asked to consider and act swiftly upon development proposals from the private sector.
Some of these proposals, especially related to a deadline from Major League Soccer (MLS) to secure a San Diego franchise, are contingent upon aggressive vetting and approval timelines.
Though soccer as a business enterprise could fill some of the gap after losing the city’s NFL franchise, it represents a singular solution and cannot drive the conversation in determining the highest and best use of the site for San Diegans in the long term.
While the proposals already presented offer thoughtful and appealing features, the American Institute of Architects (AIASD) and the Environment + Design Council (E+DC) urge the mayor and City Council to follow a structured and orderly planning and disposition process and to remember that — when the public is not involved in such a process up front and in a way that builds trust and confidence — the public and their attorneys will most assuredly protest and cause untimely years in court, be subject to referendums, and generally cause controversy and chaos.
Following a structured process assures the public interest is best served, the city is better assured of doing the right thing for the land and our citizens, and it also reduces the potential for legal challenges by critics of whatever action the city takes.
Our organizations believe that the public interest is best served by a competitive selection process using a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) or Request for Proposal (RFP) that allows for weighted criteria to evaluate developer qualifications and alternative proposals.
The Qualcomm site is an extremely valuable regional asset, both economically and socially, and its redevelopment should be based upon a clear understanding and articulation of both community and regional benefits.
Before an RFQ/RFP is issued, however, we recommend that a citizen advisory commission be promptly appointed to develop a strong civic vision for the site, establish a framework plan based on that vision, identify selection criteria for the RFQ/RFP, assist the city in managing the selection process, and guide the implementation of the selected development proposal.
This citizen advisory commission should be nimble enough to act fairly quickly, like the mayor’s task force for the stadium did a couple of years ago. The process that was used to transform NTC into Liberty Station is a potential model for the Qualcomm site.
A master developer was not selected until an appointed citizen commission first crafted a framework plan and established selection criteria for the developer. That ensured that the eventual project would meet the identified needs of the larger community, rather than just being a profitable island of development.
The outcome, as we can see today, is a successful place enjoyed by many San Diegans and one that we can all be proud of.
Based upon a shared knowledge of past planning and development efforts at the Qualcomm site, we recommend the evaluation criteria include:
- Solutions that provide a mix of uses addressing both community and regional needs, such as sports and entertainment, higher education, employment, and housing affordability.
- Solutions that recognize the Qualcomm site as a significant opportunity to address the region’s housing deficit.
- Solutions that recognize the value of the existing transit infrastructure in meeting the objectives of the city’s Climate Action Plan.
- Solutions that incorporate the riverfront park identified in many earlier planning studies, consistent with the principles adopted by the San Diego River Park Foundation.
- Solutions that promote rather than restrict public access, and reverse the longstanding Mission Valley pattern of building large, isolated tracts of land.
- Solutions that distribute vehicular traffic evenly rather than continuing to load Friars Road as a single arterial roadway.
- Solutions that incorporate, rather than circumvent, appropriate environmental review procedures.
The Qualcomm site affords San Diegans an opportunity, the likes of which won’t be seen again, to begin a needed transformation of Mission Valley.
As public land, the long-term best interests of the city and overall benefits to the public must outweigh any attractive short-term economics with its promise of immediate gratification.
Our goal is to advocate for an efficient public process that sets both the criteria to evaluate proposals, and a management and implementation structure to carry it out.
Max Schmidt, a highly-respected, long-time San Diego City Planner, put it best when he said:
“Whatever we do on this site, we ought to do it as an example of the highest possible architectural and landscaping standards, so that when we come to rebuilding Mission Valley and addressing some of the older uses which are becoming obsolescent, that we have this as a model for that development.”
AIASD and the E+DC thankfully ask for support of these recommendations on behalf of all San Diegans, and respectfully offer our assistance and expertise to the city in achieving these valued goals.
—Philip J. Bona is president of the American Institute of Architects San Diego and Vicki Estrada is chair of the San Diego Environment + Design Council.