Monday, Sept. 17, 2007 | The volume button often sticks on LOUD whenever the city of San Diego announces innovations or new campaigns, especially when those ideas garner awards and pats on the back for the city.

And one of the loudest shouted in recent years: the concept of San Diego as the City of Villages.

Several years ago, the city announced this new understanding of urban renewal. The framework promised to inspire older neighborhoods to revitalize their community main streets, welcome more residential density closer to mass transportation, and unite residents and business owners within the smaller communities in San Diego. The city accepted proposals and designated five communities as pilot villages, the symbols of 21st century development, the catalysts for smart growth.

In addition to the “honor and prestige of being selected” as a pilot village, according to the city’s website, each of the designated neighborhoods would be eligible for certain incentives to speed up the facelift process. Needed infrastructure upgrades and replacements would be given priority. Some fees would be deferred. Businesses seeking to improve their facilities or surrounding spaces would be eligible for expedited permits. And the city would help the planners understand and work through policies on affordable housing and undergrounding utility lines.

All of that would build a network of unique, modern and smart developments throughout San Diego.

But five years after the city adopted the framework, and three-and-a-half years after the pilot villages were designated, the once-touted City of Villages campaign has lost some of its luster. With just a fraction of the support that was promised for needs like sidewalks and sewers actually coming in, some community planners wonder if the framework was ever rooted in reality.

Turnover among city staff has nearly bankrupted the program of institutional memory, contributing to an unfocused implementation of the proposals. And many of the resources the City of Villages planners promised the pilot villages originally have now come under the scrutiny applied to all budgets in light of the city’s financial woes.

“There’s just not a heck of a lot the city’s doing, as far as I can tell,” said Bob Forsythe, a former county planner who’s helped plan the pilot village in the Mid-City area.

Mike Stepner, a former planner with the city of San Diego and professor at the New School of Architecture, said the concept has met mixed success.

“They wanted to be able to provide all sorts of money and resources to those neighborhoods, but the city doesn’t have any money,” Stepner said. “I think it’s moving maybe much more slowly than we thought it would be.”

And there’s no special avenue established to accept development proposals from the pilot villages, said Janice Weinrich, deputy executive director with the city’s Redevelopment Agency.

“It’s the standard way we would process a redevelopment project,” she said.

That’s exactly the problem, Forsythe said.

“In some of the city departments, they want to do business as usual,” he said. “But they shouldn’t be doing business as usual on this.”

‘The Funds Are Spread So Thin’

Even Mayor Jerry Sanders has acknowledged a disconnect between the City of Villages concept and its implementation in the region. When he was running for mayor in 2005, Sanders reasoned in a campaign interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune, a local newspaper, that the concept’s sluggish start was due to his predecessor’s refusal to raise taxes to pay for the required infrastructure improvements.

“(Former mayor) Dick Murphy walked into the first meeting and said there will be no new taxes for this. There will be no money for this, for the infrastructure,” Sanders said in an interview published on July 17, 2005. “That effectively stopped the City of Villages in my mind. Because the message that went out to the neighborhoods was that you expect us to take more density and you don’t expect to improve infrastructure.”

The city was in worse straits than Sanders realized then, his spokesman said. But when Sanders came into office, he carried on the aversion to raising taxes.

“There is no mistaking that Jerry inherited problems that we did not anticipate being as complex as many of them have become,” said Sanders’ spokesman, Fred Sainz. “But our plan for infrastructure is based on our current revenue streams. There are things that have to come first (before raising taxes). The city government has to prove its worth, its effectiveness, its efficiency, before we can politely ask for increased revenue streams.”

Sainz said the mayor has planned to spend $600 million to improve infrastructure citywide, not specifically in the pilot villages.

Though Sanders identified in that 2005 interview some particular federal dollars as a way to give communities those necessary infrastructure improvements without raising taxes, city staff now say even those funds aren’t restricted for the symbolic developments.

“The funds are spread so thin,” Weinrich said.

But Sanders isn’t the only notoriously tax-averse San Diegan.

“It’s extremely unfortunate that we are such a cheap city and we won’t pay for the services and the things we need,” Stepner said. “We’re really not doing justice to things like this.”

‘All of a Sudden, It Just Kind of Disappeared’

The community members on the ground in many of the villages feel the funding pinch.

In February 2004, the City Council voted to designate five pilot villages in San Ysidro, North Park, the Mid-City area, the College Area and southeast San Diego. The city’s Planning Department projected it would take three to five years to build every village except North Park, which was expected to take five to 10 years. A pledge for a sort of fast-track system through the permitting process was promised, as was a pledge of prioritizing infrastructure improvements in the pilot villages.

The idea was to spark a catalyst within a catalyst; as individual projects in each village started to inspire renovations and other development on the same street, so too would the neighborhoods’ renaissance inspire other San Diego neighborhoods to create the kind of walkable town centers the plan hoped to effect.

Conceptually, in one of these villages, a hipster would leave her second-story condo and walk down to the tree-lined street for a cup of coffee and some shopping. Her workplace may be down the street, or she may walk to the trolley or bus rapid transit stop to join her neighbors for a collective commute. Condo dwellers and established homeowners would mingle on the neighborhood’s main street.

One of the project areas, the Paseo development planned for the neighborhood around San Diego State University, appears indefinitely stalled after arguments broke out between the city, the university and the university’s foundation over the plan’s physical and economic structure in 2005 and 2006.

“We learn from both the successes and the failures in the projects,” Sainz said. “The Paseo brings up the great [example] of community disharmony — and not only community disharmony, but the intransigence of another organization (SDSU) to communally cooperate.”

But many planners in the other pilot villages say, three-and-a-half years later, that they’ve heard a lot of promises but not much delivery from the city.

“We always approached this as a partnership with the city of San Diego,” said David Flores, director of development for Casa Familiar, a nonprofit agency and housing developer in San Ysidro that is one of the sponsoring agencies for that community’s pilot village designation. “We’re not fully surprised, but we’re definitely a little let down by the lack of funding and focus. All of a sudden, it just kind of disappeared.”

The San Ysidro proposal, called Mi Pueblo, included a few hundred market-rate housing units, several dozen affordable housing units and a revitalization of San Ysidro Boulevard as a Main Street. The market-rate developer has fallen out of the project, the business association has scaled down its plans to one-eighth of the proposal and Casa Familiar has developed a couple of projects but needs more funding to complete the rest, Flores said.

Flores thought the city would act as an investor in the project, or help to organize property owners along the boulevard. Some projects he’s proposed haven’t made it through the city’s Planning Department, which he said has slowed the process.

But city officials say they prefer to let the individual communities work out the kinks themselves — an apparent departure from the widely touted encouragement for pilot villages when the plan was adopted.

“We stay at the sidelines; we kind of facilitate,” said Bill Anderson, planning director for the city.

One encouraging find for Flores was an old building on the boulevard that was designed by Lewis Gill, a famous architect. The building had been converted for use as a smog-testing shop, but Casa Familiar purchased it and is currently renovating it. Its design is nearly completely true to the original drawings, down to the 14-foot by 18-foot solid redwood beams and other elements that only exist in buildings constructed generations ago.

When completed, the building would be the first historically designated building in San Ysidro.

“Before, people here would have knocked it down just because it’s old,” Flores said. “But now, we’re thinking, if it’s worth keeping, we’ll keep it.”

That, he said, is one of the reasons San Ysidro so needs catalytic development like this.

“If we don’t figure this out, this street will continue to hold nothing but money exchange shops, pawn shops,” Flores said. “I just got tired of people saying, ‘We can’t do that in San Ysidro.’ But we should be able to do something in San Ysidro. How is the city going to work with us?”

But Anderson said the San Ysidro project is still in its “evolutionary phase.”

“You know, it takes a long time,” he said. “The San Ysidro one — if that model works, it will be a model that is looked at nationally.”

‘More or Less a Coincidence’

For the pilot village called the Boulevard Marketplace, or the Mid-City Transit Interchange Project, no part of the original project is on the ground yet, said Gary Weber, the land use consultant for the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association.

A once-vacant lot that Weber urged the city to buy for the pilot village has been purchased by another developer who has submitted plans to build a four- or five-story Holiday Inn Express on the site, Weber said. He said it’s an example of the lack of clear direction from the city.

“That could very well be something that pilot village could be built around,” he said. “But if that’s the case, it’ll be more or less a coincidence.”

And city planners have scaled the village plans back from two full blocks on El Cajon Boulevard to about half as much, Weber said. A cornerstone of the plan is bus rapid transit near the development sites to be implemented by Sandag, the progression of which has hardly moved since the pilot village was adopted in February 2004, Weber said.

“We, as the original applicant, have been quite frustrated,” he said. “Frankly, we’re more or less just spectators. We want to say to the city, ‘Let the market tell you what it is; don’t sit downtown and arbitrarily decide the project is too big.’ This is the typical confusion that comes out of the city on a lot of things these days.”

In North Park, some planners say their relationship with the city has been frustrating as city staff contacts for their project have changed several times since 2004.

“The issue that strikes us is that the whole idea behind the City of Villages was, we’re going to take these pilot villages, at least get the idea out there, so we can point to something and say, ‘This is our vision, and we want to see it out there,’” said Roger Lewis, a community member and planner in North Park.

But the North Park village, with the renovation of the North Park Theatre and its adjacent parking structure, along with the development of a D.R. Horton mixed-use condo development called La Boheme, has begun the revitalization process in the neighborhood, said Liz Studebaker, executive director of the North Park Main Street, a business improvement district. North Park is the one village that has already received some subsidies from the Redevelopment Agency, Weinrich said, for the theatre renovation and for including affordable housing in the La Boheme project.

But in a symbol of the obstacles faced by developers and planners in the current housing market, the developer of that project has struggled to sell its remaining units. D.R. Horton will send at least 30 of the brand-new unsold units at that La Boheme development to a public auction set for Sept. 29, with bids starting at $149,000 for the units that once were valued at $300,000 to more than $500,000. Reluctance to build until standing inventory goes away has sapped some of the energy from the private sector’s involvement in the villages.

The southeast San Diego project, the Village Center at Euclid and Market, has implemented a shopping mall and an outdoor amphitheater as two pieces of its development, which is planned to stretch for 45 acres. The nonprofit Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation has overseen development so far.

‘A Softening of Priorities’

Anderson said the individual pilot villages don’t symbolize the success or failure of the City of Villages framework.

“There’s been some misunderstanding,” Anderson said. “The pilot villages are not the City of Villages. … They were examples of trying to test — how does this strategic framework apply to neighborhoods?”

Anderson said the pilot villages and their initial proposals were examples of dreams for a community based on the maximum possible development in the neighborhood, not necessarily guaranteed blueprints for how the areas would look. He said the city didn’t completely evaluate the proposals for their economic feasibility when deciding what villages would be chosen.

“We’re looking at these as lessons to learn, kind of like laboratories so we can know what to do differently,” he said. “My initial first thought from the communities that applied is that they hadn’t gone through their own due diligence.”

But Anderson said the city has not dropped its end of the bargain.

“There might have been a couple of years — because of all of the things going on here — maybe a softening of priorities, but we’ve brought it back up in the last year,” he said.

Sainz excused the lethargy of the program under Sanders’ watch since coming into power in 2005, despite the pilot villages’ designation in February 2004.

“I don’t know if two years is a fair barometer,” he said. “Communities are not built overnight.”

Stepner, the architecture professor, said he wonders if the pilot villages and the urgency of adopting the framework in the first few years of the decade inspired more fear among San Diegans than excitement.

“All of the heat that was generated about how they were going to put a lot of people in these neighborhoods — people were leery and rightly so,” he said. “It sounded like it was all going to happen the next day on their street corner. But it happens gradually. Had we left it to market forces, maybe all of this was going to happen anyway.”

(Correction: The original version of this story identified one of the pilot village projects as being located in City Heights. In fact, the Mid-City area project referenced in the story falls under the Normal Heights planning area, on the north side of El Cajon Boulevard, which serves as the dividing line between that community and City Heights. We regret the error.)

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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