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Friday, February 24, 2006 | The 1992 Centre City Community Plan is being updated mostly for two reasons: the political will has lessened and market trends have changed.
I question if our Downtown Community Plan Update has protected itself from the same fate? The current issues of park space, infrastructure, and increased residential intensities have recently arisen during this period of public comment and review. As a practicing urban designer I have the following questions and comments about the draft downtown community plan.
Without political will to implement the City of Villages Plan, we have consequently built the region’s new housing downtown. A problem I see with the draft plan is that it is a planned attempt to accommodate the region’s new residential growth on the back of downtown’s individual neighborhood infrastructure.
It is apparent that the reason for the incredible residential increases in our draft plan is simply to accommodate regional growth that is not being allowed in a variety of other neighborhood centers, such as Clairemont Mesa, Midway, and Navajo Community Planning Areas. Unfortunately, the draft plan seems to be exchanging the region’s horizontal residential sprawl for downtown’s vertical residential sprawl and neither should be considered good planning.
More Neighborhood-Level Details
The overall vision crafted by the draft plan lacks the precise details necessary to give predictability to the shape and form of our public realm, such as parks, streets, plazas, and squares. The amorphous green blobs illustrated in the draft plan give the public no negotiating leverage with neighboring private developments, thereby leaving the discretion of our shape and form of public spaces completely to Centre City Development Corp. decision-makers.
We need to re-calibrate the draft plan’s “urban design chapter” with regional considerations rather than only at the neighborhood scale. It is important to understand that public spaces are necessary for both residential amenity and public safety purposes.
Conversely, the draft plan and related Planned District Ordinances (PDOs) outline intricate detail for the design of the private tower blocks. A community plan should identify characteristics unique to each neighborhood; however, due to the shear regional housing numbers being imposed on downtown, the draft plan slightly misses this point.
Sometimes More Equals Less
I believe the floor-area ratio, or FAR, “bonus plan” (160 blocks instantly receiving more building rights than allowed in the previous plan) will actually damage our downtown as it again over-values its hot market when land entitlements far exceed market demand. Usually the response is that owners tend to sit on property waiting for market to come up to “entitled” land value.
It seems that speculation and real value are at odds today and this plan may exacerbate this disconnect. As we have learned, when land costs are too high, the market makes it harder for developers to spend money and effort on “quality elements” such as compliance with building form regulations, better architecture and building materials, streetscape enhancements, and contributions to funding for parks or parking.
An urban design plan, detailing downtown public spaces would complete the draft plan and better link downtown’s public spaces to the port’s North and South Embarcadero Plans, Balboa Park’s plan update and neighboring community plans.
An open, public, well-managed, seven-day charrette type of public process, used successfully to compress time, would move the discussion back to the citizens and out of the stakeholder group meetings. Just this past month, Seattle created a 100-year plan for Seattle’s open spaces using the charrette process.
Seattle’s vision spanned from the city limits to the downtown core and created a comprehensive network of parks, civic spaces, streets, trails, shorelines, and urban forests to bind neighborhoods to one another. Seattle used the charrette and urban design planning to ensure a wealth of green spaces for all its citizens.
Redevelopment at Risk
Because of the residential intensities planned for downtown, redevelopment and condemnation will be required to acquire enough land to achieve build-out. This is dangerous due to the national trend of trimming redevelopment authority post-Kelo.
The draft plan must allow for incremental development during periods of slower growth and the pressures of a hot market. CCDC, a public agency, should primarily control the form and shape of our public spaces regardless of trends.
The draft plan has been negotiated for the past three years via the well-organized stakeholder committees. Since plans necessitate political will to be implemented, taking the additional month or two to finish the Draft Plan would allow the new CCDC president, two new CCDC Board members, new chief of land use and development in the mayor’s office, new planning director, new mayor, and new District 2 councilmember a stake in the plan they will champion and implement.
Don’t raise baseline FARs. Actually, reduce the rigid development requirements on private blocks and increase the regulations for creating public spaces in order to finish the Urban Design Chapter.
We must better understand what public places and spaces San Diego citizens will get while allowing more flexibility in our private blocks. I suggest considering a well-managed design charrette used to compressed time and detail our public spaces without greatly delaying the adoption of the plan. It seems to be financially responsible to pass a complete plan at one time rather than to piecemeal together a more complete plan later.
During this public comment period, I believe it is responsible to encourage our City Council to ensure that the draft plan is equipped with the proper tools and political will crucial to building a complete downtown. We cannot afford to pay for yet another expensive plan that basically sits on a shelf.
Howard M. Blackson III is president of HB3 Urban Design – Urban Planning, a San Diego-based urban designer consultancy currently working with the Louisiana Recovery Authority and Mississippi Governor’s Commission. He can be reached at