Jeremy Ogul | Editor
What if Mission Valley had a “main street” — a pedestrian-oriented esplanade with wide sidewalks, bike paths and a streetcar down the middle?
What if parking lots were filled in with multi-story, mixed-use urban villages?
What if the vast asphalt expanse currently known as the Qualcomm Stadium parking lot were reimagined as a broad riverfront park and entertainment complex?
These were some of the ideas nearly 40 students at the NewSchool of Architecture and Design explored over the past year under the guidance of professor Mike Stepner and Skyport Studio Founding Partner Frank Wolden.
Stepner and Wolden presented the students’ ideas and findings to the Mission Valley Planning Group on Nov. 5 in an effort to encourage the group’s members to think creatively about future land use configurations in the valley.
At the same meeting, City of San Diego Senior Planner Brian Schoenfisch announced the timeline of a long-awaited update to the Mission Valley Community Plan, a document that will set the parameters of future development in the area.
For the past 30 years, all development and new construction in Mission Valley has followed the outlines drawn up in the 1985 Mission Valley Community Plan. The location and size of the shopping centers, housing, roads and recreational facilities built since then were essentially determined in the 1980s.
Times have changed, however, and some things worked out differently than anticipated. The result has been traffic-choked streets, sidewalks that end abruptly, a dearth of parks, inadequate bike lanes and a host of other problems.
Wolden, who worked on many of the projects that transformed Downtown from a gritty biohazard to one of San Diego’s hottest ‘hoods, said Mission Valley could learn a thing or two from Downtown’s renaissance.
“The reason people buy condos in Downtown San Diego is because you can walk five minutes to go to a restaurant,” he said. “You can’t do that in Mission Valley. It’s mostly one-story boxes and huge parking lots.”
Stepner argued that Mission Valley’s traffic and walkability problems are caused not by too many people, but by bad planning. A focus on cars to the detriment of other modes of transportation has created an unpleasant experience for everyone, he said.
“I’ve walked lots in the valley,” Stepner said. “It’s dangerous as hell. I’ve taken my class out walking many times. I will not go anywhere near the intersection of Frazee and Friars Road anymore.”
The city acknowledged the need for a new community plan several years ago, but only this year did the mayor and City Council make adequate funding available for the project. The Planning Department recently hired several additional staffers who will spend much of their time focusing on the update to the Mission Valley Community Plan, and the department is now prepared to charge ahead with a thorough update, Schoenfisch said.
The entire process — including gathering community input, developing alternatives, drafting an environmental impact report and seeking approvals from governing bodies — will take three to four years, according to Schoenfisch. The goal is to have the City Council approve the new plan by the end of 2018.
The actual feasibility of a streetcar on Camino de la Reina,a gondola under the Interstate 805 bridge or a mixed-use residential village in the IKEA parking lot was not a primary focus of the NewSchool students. Instead, their task was to imagine the possibilities and analyze the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in Mission Valley’s future.
Several themes emerged.
One was that most of the Mission Valley of 2014 lacks a sense of place and identity. One way to address that is to turn toward the San Diego River, and instead of shunning it, make it a centerpiece of the community.
Another: Find ways to overcome the freeways and arterial roads that create barriers to free movement around the valley. Make it easier to cross the river, to access transit stations and to explore the valley.
Another idea: Encourage future developments to create an outward facing “public realm” rather than gated communities that can only be accessed by those with a key. The idea is to draw residents “out of their private enclaves” and “into active and vibrant streets and public places.”
What are your hopes and dreams for a future Mission Valley? We encourage you to send your thoughts to the editor (email@example.com) for publication on this newspaper’s opinion page. We also encourage you to get involved by attending monthly meetings of the Mission Valley Planning Group, the first Wednesday of every month at noon in the Mission Valley Library’s community room.