By Ken Williams | Editor
The San Diego River meanders 52 miles from the Cuyamaca Mountains northwest of Julian to the Pacific Ocean, but remains hidden from public view in parts of Mission Valley. But that will change in the Fashion Valley Mall area within a few years after 200 luxury apartments are built at the Union-Tribune site along the south side of the river.
The apartment complex, which will be accessed via Camino de la Reina, will be oriented to face the San Diego River. The goal is to transform the river into an asset, rather than an afterthought.
Matt Semic, a senior associate with Latitude 33 Planning & Engineering, has been closely associated with the U-T project since development applications were submitted. The City Council gave final approval to the project on Sept. 15.
Latitude 33 worked with the city of San Diego, the Mission Valley Planning Group, community groups, the design team and property owner Doug Manchester (who has since sold the land) to make sure the project complied with city planning policy and attained environmental approvals.
Semic said the project is expected to bring new energy to an ongoing civic effort to reclaim the river.
“We will have a direct connection to the river and encourage activity and gathering along the river throughout our entire project,” he said.
“Most importantly, we will be the first project implementing the river trail and bicycle pathway directly along the river. This will have public art, benches, lighting and ‘look-out points.’ We will be putting in a 0.82-acre park directly along the river, numerous outdoor seating areas with public access, townhomes with direct access to the river trail, and public restrooms.”
The project’s planned amenities pleased the Mission Valley Planning Group, which is committed to transforming the riverfront. Rob Hutsel, a member of the planning group, is also the executive director of the San Diego River Park Foundation. Hutsel told Mission Valley News that his foundation worked with the project managers and is supportive of their goals. He said the U-T project will provide an important link on the river trail and bicycle pathway, and get rid of the existing “jungle” to create a visually appealing public space.
“All of the brush and weeds would be omitted along the frontage, but an effort would be made to actually keep the mature trees along the river,” Semic said. “That was also a goal along Camino de la Reina to preserve the tranquility.”
After the luxury apartments are built and the Town and Country Resort & Convention Center makeover is completed, Hutsel said, the river will become an oasis for walkers, hikers and bicyclists from Avenida del Rio — the Fashion Valley Mall entrance off Camino de la Reina — to Fashion Valley Road.
“Contributing to the activation of the river” made him proud, Semic said. “We are lucky enough to have an amazing natural resource going through the center of Mission Valley. We should be incorporating development within the river and turning this into a dynamic part of the community.”
Semic and Hutzel both said they are pleased that the project also embraced being a transit-oriented development (TOD), giving its prime location across the river from the Fashion Valley Transit Center where a number of bus lines connect with San Diego Trolley’s Green Line (Santee to Downtown).
“This project could not be a better example of TOD,” Semic said. “We have significant existing office space [the Union-Tribune building] directly adjacent to the proposed residential. Our hope would be new businesses move into the office space and their employees opt to live in the apartments.
“In addition,” he said, “we are putting in a pathway that would connect us to the trolley, with the Fashion Valley station less than 1,000 feet away. We are also the first development to put in the San Diego River Trail to aid in pedestrian and bicycle circulation to connect residencies, offices and the major retail centers.”
Concerns about parking and traffic were raised during the approval process, and project consultant Perry Dealy, who also sits on the Planning Group, told Mission Valley News in the June edition that there would be 985 parking spots for the entire property, including the 200 luxury apartments, the U-T office building and the former printing plant building.
“There is sufficient parking,” Semic said. “We have a surplus, and we are not degrading Camino de la Reina in any way. In fact, with the transportation demand management program that is part of the design and will be maintained, we will actually have a reduction in vehicle miles travelled overall. This is part of the previously mentioned TOD and a great example of implementing SANDAG’s smart growth model.
“In addition, it should be noted that we are paying over $3 million in traffic mitigation fees and/or improvements toward offsite roadways or intersections, throughout Mission Valley. Some of these areas include other portions of Camino de la Reina as well as both Hotel Circle North and South,” he said.
Another goal of the project is to be as “green” as possible.
“We are striving for a LEED Gold project,” Semic said. “This would be accomplished through water efficiency, use of sustainable materials and resources, solar panels, indoor environmental quality management, stormwater reuse, reuse of existing building materials during demolition, and management of proposed construction waste.”
Construction could start as early as next summer and would likely be complete by the end of 2018. The Casey Brown Co. has purchased the land and begun preliminary work, Semic said.
“It is worth noting the Casey Brown Co. has already started updating exterior portions of the existing buildings,” he added.
—Ken Williams is editor of Mission Valley News and San Diego Uptown News and can be reached at email@example.com or at 619-961-1952. Follow him on Twitter at @KenSanDiego, Instagram at @KenSD or Facebook at KenWilliamsSanDiego.