By Jeff Clemetson | Editor
Park and community center project that celebrates river just around the corner
When San Diegans think about Mission Valley, they don’t usually think about nature parks; traffic, shopping, Qualcomm Stadium and condominiums are what often often come to mind. However, San Diego River Park Foundation (SDRPF) president and CEO Rob Hutsel hopes that will change when the Discovery Center at Grant Park is finally built.
“We want to celebrate the river, create a gateway to the river where you can come down and learn about it — how it works, how it functions, where to go to enjoy it — and be a catalyst for change in Mission Valley about how we relate to nature,” he said.
The Discovery Center at Grant Park will be built on an $11 million property at the corner of Camino de la Reina and Qualcomm Way that was donated by the Grant family, who for generations have owned large parts of Mission Valley, including the land the Cevita housing project is built on. The Grants donated the land to do something special for the community of Mission Valley, Hutsel said.
“Their whole thing was to build a place where kids could get dirty, get dirt under their nails, play hide-and-seek, get out in nature; a place where you can hide behind a tree, go down to the river and play with whatever you find down there,” Hutsel said. “They, in their mind, wanted to create something like that so that everyone would get an opportunity to get that kind of experience, which is important.”
Much of the 17-acre property will be restored to its natural habitat, by removing non-native plants, and preserved as a nature park.
“We want to bring back to health the site itself and use it as a way to do outdoor education with interpretive areas, view overlooks, a nice trail through it, those kinds of things,” Hutsel said.
In addition to the nature preserve, the Discovery Center will also have two buildings with just under 10,000 square feet of space housing classrooms for education programs, meeting rooms for the community, a refreshment stand, an interpretive area, a hands-on area for kids to research river-related topics, a conservation action workshop area and office space.
Just outside the Discovery Center buildings will be green space planted with low-water-using grasses.
“Between the building and the turf area will be a 100-foot-plus river play zone, which will be an interactive area for kids to get wet and dirty and learn about the river but in an incredibly fun way,” Hutsel said.
Although the focus of the Discovery Center will be to teach visitors about the San Diego River, the park is also intended to be used for other community activities — a decision that comes from a “shared vision” of the Grant family, SDRPF, local residents and businesses who all saw a need for more community centers.
“Mission Valley is woefully under-parked,” Hutsel said. “It’s got one public park in the western part of Mission Valley and it doesn’t really serve the people in most of Mission Valley — it’s too far away.
“We came up with a vision together and the vision is simple: a combination of green space, a place to jog, a safe place to go and a place to have weddings or informal family gatherings, life celebrations, etc,” he said.
The Discovery Center is not a new project. The Grants and SDRPF conceived of the idea many years ago, Hutsel said. The original drafted plans were submitted to the city for a site development permit over two years ago.
“We never expected it to take this long,” Hutsel said. “It’s a very complex site because the river is right here and there’s environmental concerns.”
Concerns over bird habitat, the definition of wetlands, noise considerations and more have put the project through 13 rounds of revisions to the initial plan, which has prompted several changes. For example, the original plan included a viewing deck at the river’s edge but the idea was nixed by the resource agencies, concerned about it interfering with bird habitats. Also, a band shell was recently added to the design to ensure that sound would be mitigated at any event with live music, such as a wedding.
The delays and revisions are not without cost.
“Our original cost estimates are just blown out of the water trying to address those challenges and those requests that have come from the permitting agencies,” Hutsel said, adding that right now he predicts the cost to build the Discovery Center and park to be around $7 million.
Funding is expected to come mostly from private donations. So far the project has received only one public grant for $500,000 out of the nearly $2 million raised so far.
“One of the challenges of being in permitting so long is when you go to people to fundraise and you talk about the project and you want to get them inspired and they’re inspired but at some point they say ‘I want to make an investment in your project and in the community, when’s it going to open?’” Hutsel, still?
Without a clear answer to those questions, Hutsel said SDRPF stopped fundraising a few months ago until the permitting is completed, which may be soon.
“Assuming we’ve responded to everything and there’s no additional comments then pretty quickly we actually start our notice for our mitigated negative declaration,” Hutsel said. “We’ve already gone through our original checklist with the city and as far as we can tell there’s no significant issues. We’re down to construction noise during nesting season, the potential of Native American burial sites, archeology, things like that. Those are the issues.”
SDRPF has already submitted revised plans addressing those issues, so if there are no additional comments, the plan will finally get a hearing with the Planning Commission, Hutsel said, adding that the resource agencies and the city may be cautious about the plans for the park but he is certain they are supportive of the project.
“The Discovery Center also fills a need for the city’s River Park Master Plan, which calls for an interpretive center to be built along the river trail halfway between the ocean and the eastern city limit,” he said.
The Grant property happens to be perfectly located to fulfill that need; it is also perfectly located near public transportation, making it ideal to serve people from all over San Diego and from various economic backgrounds.
“Mission Valley has low-income residents here that can’t afford to go to some of the more expensive nature places that you have to pay for or become a member. We’re planning to offer all of our core programs for free,” Hutsel said. “We’re planning to serve over 25,000 kids a year with hands-on nature experiences — meaningful ones.”
—Reach Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.