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Monday, April 17, 2006 | I’ve got a small problem with one of the questions that was asked in a survey commissioned recently by the Downtown Residential Marketing Alliance, Centre City Development Corp. and Westfield Corp.

The survey probed the public’s view of downtown – both residents who live there and others who do not.

If you were lucky enough to get the call, this is what you heard:

I would like to read you some aspects of downtown that people have mentioned … that everything is in walking distance. Does that make downtown an extremely attractive place to live, very attractive, somewhat attractive, or does it not do much to make downtown an attractive place to live?

The vast majority of the people responding to the question (74 percent) said that “everything is in walking distance” makes downtown either a very or extremely attractive place to live.

My first problem is simple. What’s the difference between “very attractive” and “extremely attractive?” There are very few things to which I’m “extremely attracted.” I don’t know about you.

My other complaint is with the main message of the “question” being asked. After all, is everything in downtown really within walking distance?

No.

I suppose you can walk from Little Italy to, say, the ballpark. I’ve done that walk a few times. It’s a long one. It’s not nice. It’s not New Yorkish. You don’t pass interesting stores. You don’t pass newsstands and flower stands. You pass parking lots that smell like urine. And you probably don’t do it at night.

Of all the great things about downtown – and there are many – its walkability isn’t the one to highlight.

Downtown is not perfect. With the notable exception of Little Italy, downtown’s residential parts can be as cold and unfriendly to pedestrians as many local suburbs. Just because downtown builders had the vision and remarkable commitment to constructing residences in the urban core doesn’t mean they did it right.

Too many of the newest high-rise condominium projects are cold, unimpressive buildings. And their architecture and surroundings make them more suburban than it may seem at first. After all, what about a suburb is so bad? It’s that the residents get into their cars, open the garage, drive to work, drive home, close the garage and never once have to see their community or brush past anyone else. It’s a comfortable world, the suburb, but it’s cold and isolating.

Downtown had a chance to be different. But the builders focused not on building communities, but on building condos. Outside of Little Italy and, of course, the Gaslamp, very few areas of downtown make for good walking areas.

And in the high rises downtown, a resident wakes up in the morning, goes down to the garage, gets in the car, drives to work, works, drives home, walks through the garage and takes the elevator up to his or her home.

Sound familiar? The only difference between the San Diego downtown guy and his suburban counterpart is that the downtown guy might bump into a stranger while checking his mail.

And the outside of these buildings are no more conducive – if not significantly less – to walking and gathering outside than in suburbs.

I know, I know, it’s still early in the dawn of downtown’s redevelopment. But Little Italy has succeeded in that time. It has succeeded in creating a place people not only want to walk around but where they actually are supposed to. But even there, it’s limited to one main street and a few tributaries.

The Centre City Development Corp. now has a chance to open its coffers (which are well stocked by now) and spend money to improve downtown – to make the walk from Little Italy to the ballpark, somewhat pleasant for example. But the richest public agency in town still spends money on surveys like the one it released last week. The survey does little to probe residents on what can be done to improve downtown and more on what can be done to help builders send a message about how great downtown is to prospective condo buyers.

Which of the following slogans does the most to make the idea of living downtown sound appealing to you?

I’m not going to reproduce the slogans for you – they hurt to read. I’ll send them to you if you want.

Which of the following would you be most likely to use to get more information about downtown real estate?

One option might be the 27-page winter issue of “Downtown Today” magazine sent to thousands of downtown residents. It does little more than talk about real estate projects downtown. This, of course, was funded by CCDC. Why public money – paid by downtown residents – must be spent to pitch downtown residents on the real estate projects downtown isn’t quite clear to me.

CCDC, like the city, is at a crossroads. The agency can use its vast cash reserves to keep helping developers sell their condos or they can use the money to build infrastructure, fire stations and a sense of community downtown.

We’ll see how it goes.

Scott Lewis oversees voiceofsandiego.org’s commentary section. Please contact him directly at

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