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Friday, March 17, 2006 | Municipal Itinerant

Whoever said college isn’t the real world needed to be at UCSD’s Price Center Ballroom Thursday for the sixteenth annual UCSD Urban Studies and Planning Expo, where 61 UCSD seniors showed off just how much about the real “real world” they knew.

For those students, college couldn’t end until a few concrete lessons were learned. Each was asked to produce a 25-page, original scholarly research article relating to some aspect of urban studies as the culminating project of their undergraduate course of study.

Nearly all chose to study some aspect of San Diego.

So after six months, 10 written assignments, 100 hours of extracurricular internship work, 60 hours of class time, two drafts and countless hours slaving over a hot keyboard and a huge library, not only have the Urban Studies seniors introduced themselves to the complications of urban problems as they exist in the real world, but many have made important contributions to knowledge about the problems and successes of urban San Diego.

Elizabeth Monterrosa looked at the landmark Community Benefits Agreement struck last fall between Ballpark Village developers JMI, Lennar and a coalition of community groups called ACCORD. News of the agreement, which drastically changed the terms of the Ballpark Village construction project, ruffled a few feathers when it was suddenly reached, earning a rather grumpy report in The San Diego Union-Tribune that frowned on the “troubled future” of the “carefully planned” redevelopment project.

According to Monterrosa’s study, what actually came “unhinged” (as the paper so fairly put it) was a tepid plan on the part of developers to build 100 units of for-sale housing that qualified as “affordable” essentially because the median income downtown is so high. A once-in-a-lifetime confluence of circumstances – including an unusually vacant six-seat city council – allowed ACCORD (a coalition of labor, housing, environmental and faith groups) to make a deal with developers to build twice as many units of rental housing offsite. The new units would be within reach of those earning $19,000 – $32,000 per year – which is around what most of the low-wage service jobs downtown pay.

Monterrosa found that the net increase in affordable housing downtown is greater under the CBA, while the developers also agreed to put funds toward job training and paying workers a living wage. This ground-level solution was an exciting development in a city known for its friendliness to developers and Monterrosa acknowledged the circumstances allowing it were extremely rare.

“San Diego is so conservative, I wanted to know how something controversial like this could come about,” Monterrosa said. “[CBA’s] can work really well as long as the coalition is strong, but there has to be some kind of political leverage.”

A crucial aspect of the project was an off-campus internship that students were required to complete as part of their research. They helped out a diversity of organizations: planning departments and community development corporations of various cities of San Diego; community outreach groups; nonprofit policy think tanks; and local AIDS clinics and medical centers.

The internships gave students a front-line view of the subjects of their study, while helping make job contacts for the looming real world. With a required minimum of 100 hours, the senior project forced students to spend more time out in the real world than they did in class.

Not all of the projects dealt with such immediately applicable topics as downtown redevelopment. Daniel Humbarger looked into the shadowy lives of San Diego graffiti artists, whose profiles don’t fit the stereotypes you hear on the evening news. With his gorgeous full-color poster displaying local examples, Humbarger argued that graffiti artists are an emerging creative community – not merely reckless vandals.

“Of all the graffiti writers I stay in contact with, 85 percent are also college graduates,” read a quote from one of Humbarger’s interview subjects.

It’d be dishonest not to mention Municipal Itinerant’s conflict of interest with the USP Expo, which ended up numbering about 31 pages. For a snappy summary of my research into the San Diego music scene, see an edition of this column I wrote several weeks ago, “Music Is Everywhere, Yet Nowhere.”

While I set out to discover why San Diego seemed to be a cultural backwater, I discovered that the city really has a thriving local music community – you just have to know where, among our 34 neighborhoods, you can find it.

Most students, however, chose more immediately useful research topics: the details of affordable housing design, obstacles to the growth of California’s solar energy industry, problems with ocean water quality monitoring, the mini schools at San Diego’s Jefferson High, and the treatment of patients from a diversity of backgrounds at local AIDS clinics, to name a few.

Six months ago, the insulated college kids groaned when they thought about having to not only go to work in the real world, but bridge the gap between their scholastic learning and the complex problems there. But Thursday, as awards were handed out for the best projects, smiles of relief were widespread in UCSD’s ballroom. College and reality, it turns out, don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Send your own tips about San Diego’s curious public spaces to Ian Port at

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