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Editor’s Note: This is part one of a three-part series examining the intriguing past, present and future of Mission Valley. It is also the first in an occasional series evaluating the issues facing the region’s different neighborhoods.

Monday, Jan. 30, 2006 | The founders of the mission that gave San Diego’s most famous valley its name also started a tradition of exploiting its land that has continued to the present day.

The area’s first Spanish settlers arrived in Mission Valley in 1769. They planted crops unsuitable to the area’s soil and introduced high-impact animals that soon chewed away what little vegetation the valley had. These “exotic” crops and animals impacted the last so much, University of California, San Diego historian Abe Shragge said, that it has never really recovered.

Thus began what Shragge calls Mission Valley’s “horror story.”

Today, the maze of malls, hotels and looping freeway ramps looks nothing like the lazy lowlands of a half century ago.

Where cows once grazed, neon signs advertise strip malls and fast food. Where the missionaries once strolled, 100,000 cars belch fumes and jostle for position. Now, when a Point Loman needs a television, a Del Martian needs a dinner table or a La Jollan needs a lampshade, chances are they will head to Mission Valley.

But the valley wasn’t always the commercial Mecca of San Diego, and probably won’t stay that way for long.

The neighborhood that has reinvented itself several times over the last 100 years is undergoing another metamorphosis into a bustling residential area. Since 1996, nearly 2,000 condo units have been built in Mission Valley, and the influx of high-density residential development shows no sign of abating.

The population of Mission Valley increased 41.8 percent between 2000 and 2005 according to figures from the San Diego Association of Governments, and the valley is now home to almost 18,000 people.

But Mission Valley wasn’t built to be a neighborhood. Its only park land is a 166-acre stadium that is mostly concrete and whose patch of grass is only open to professional football players. The community’s scrap of open space surrounds a river that many residents don’t even know exists. It’s a neighborhood with no schools, built on a vulnerable flood plain that could flood again at any time. It just this month got its first fire station, albeit a temporary one.

It’s also a neighborhood that critics said defies all notions of planning; a grid-locked maze of dead-end streets and never-ending parking lots. Though the trolley runs through it, Mission Valley suffers from a complete lack of connectivity, with roads that seem as though they were built around the buildings almost as an afterthought.

The haphazard layout of Mission Valley isn’t surprising. The neighborhood didn’t get its first community plan until 1985.

“It’s sort of a mess,” said Jim Peugh, an environmentalist with the San Diego Audubon Society.

But not everybody thinks Mission Valley is a lost cause.

Planning officials from the city of San Diego said that as Mission Valley has attracted more and more residential development, the people who live there have started to pay attention to the need to preserve their environment. The seeds of restitution have been sown, they said, and should soon begin to bear fruit.

A look into the neighborhood’s history reveals stepping stones along the route to the valley becoming what City Councilwoman Donna Frye calls “a dense, traffic-jammed nightmare.”

Over the past 60 years, a few key dates and a few key players have held sway over the valley, developing it in a laissez-faire frenzy.

Mission Valley’s modern era started during World War II. The missionaries were long gone, but as San Diego’s factories churned out parts for the U.S. Navy and Air Force fleets, low-paid workers and journeymen flocked to Mission Valley, where they set up camp in temporary shelters and trailer parks.

This second wave of migration to the valley didn’t last long. By the end of the war, most of the workers had moved on and Mission Valley returned to being almost entirely a rural area, with dairy farms housing more cows than people.

But the settlers had made their mark, befouling the valley and establishing it as a less desirable area than the surrounding neighborhoods. As a result, Shragge said, nobody wanted to build in Mission Valley in the 1950s, and the large tracts of land on which the dairy farms stood represented little in terms of commercial value.

That all changed in 1960 with the building of the Mission Valley Center, which is now the Westfield Mission Valley.

“Once the shopping center went in, that was another one of the beginnings of the end,” said Frye.

The Mission Valley Center, which was built despite resistance from the city’s planning board, acted like a giant commerce magnet. By the mid-1960s the valley was awash in hotels, nightclubs and smaller commercial centers.

Mission Valley soon gained a reputation as a thriving commercial zone by day and the hip place to be at night. With its string of trendy hotels, bars and nightclubs, the valley all but killed off San Diego’s other commercial areas, downtown and Hillcrest. These neighborhoods went into a dismal decline over this period as the business from their shops, clubs and hotels cascaded downhill into the valley.

But it was also to prove a dismal period for the future of Mission Valley.

“We fought very hard to keep what was happening from happening,” said Diane Coombs of C3, or Citizens Coordinate for Century Three, a regional planning group.

What was happening was that developers were moving in to Mission Valley in droves. With no community plan in place, developers were building relentlessly across a vulnerable flood plain, and paying little heed to the natural land below them, or to the man-made environment rising around them. The land was cheap and the plots were large. Soon the dairy farms disappeared, with the expansion of U.S. 80 into the Interstate 8 freeway acting as a catalyst for the valley’s growth spurt.

“The planners never quite understood the consequences of growth — what would happen when San Diego became better-connected to the world,” Shragge said.

Despite the city’s pro-business government and its pro-business, cheerleading newspapers — John D. Spreckels, one of San Diego’s most powerful developers, once owned the Union and the Tribune newspapers — concerns were certainly voiced about providing a sustainable future for Mission Valley.

In the late 1960s, Coombs and others published a document called “How Green is My Valley,” which detailed the environmental impact of all the development going on. The document was circulated among politicians, developers and Mission Valley residents.

It didn’t have much effect.

Frye said the developers moving into the valley agreed with the concept that it was unwise to build so many new shops and entertainment facilities in San Diego County’s largest flood plain. But developers’ concerns vanished, Frye said, as soon as it came to putting up their own project.

“All of a sudden it’s ‘Except my project, because everyone else has done it, and now I want to do it too,’” Frye said.

In 1985, Mission Valley finally got a community plan.

The document, which is still in force while the city works on a new blueprint for the valley, has been criticized by just about everybody. What is even more controversial, however, is how the plan was enforced.

“The plan was not that bad, the follow-through was not as good,” said John Wilhoit, the city of San Diego’s senior planner for Mission Valley.

Wilhoit said many of the developers moving into the valley made promises that were never kept. Street improvements and public amenity provisions were never carried through by the developers, who Wilhoit said carried on much as before. Asked why this was allowed to happen, Wilhoit, who retired last week, was at a loss to say.

“That’s a good question,” he said. “I wasn’t here then. Things just fall through the cracks, and a lot of things fell through the cracks in Mission Valley.”

Things like parks.

The 1985 community plan does not have any requirement for parkland in Mission Valley. Qualcomm Stadium, which was completed in 1967 and was another major factor in bringing development to Mission Valley, is the only officially designated park for Mission Valley.

Instead of planners providing for public parks, developers are supposed to include small parks in their residential and commercial developments. Though some developers have built tiny parks, many haven’t. Instead, some developers have built other recreational facilities like swimming pools, which they argued met the requirements set out in the community plan.

Qualcomm Stadium and parts of the San Diego River Park are still the only areas of open space in Mission Valley. Linda Kaufman, chairwoman of the Mission Valley Unified Planning Organization, said that’s not particularly unusual considering the demographics of the valley.

“We’re not a normal community, we’re not a Serra Mesa,” Kaufman said. “We’re a destination for people who are coming to the stadium, who are coming to shop at Mission Valley and Fashion Valley. It’s not your typical community.”

But things are changing fast in Mission Valley. An area that was once only home to fast food cashiers and convenience store clerks now has a booming population of condo and single-family homeowners.

Sally Cox and her daughter Emma, who is in fifth grade, live in one of those developments — Portofino, which sits right next door to an enormous IKEA furniture store.

Cox said she has resorted to walking her two dogs around the landscaped streets of a nearby gated community because there’s simply nowhere else to go. When Emma wants to play outside, mother and daughter pile into the family car and head off somewhere where they can be outside. Letting Emma play outside their home would be impossible, her mother said.

“I would like to let her just go out and play with her friends,” she said, “but I can’t do that here. I can’t let her cross the street.”

“It bothers us,” she added.

As the residential population of Mission Valley has grown, however, the makeup of the local planning associations has also changed, said Brian Schoenfisch, who took over last week for Wilhoit as Mission Valley’s community planner.

The Mission Valley Unified Planning Committee, which one local activist described as a “who’s who of self-interested landowners and business owners,” now has a few representatives of the local residential community alongside the developers and landowners. The seeds of local representation are starting to be sown.

“I can see the seeds, they just haven’t taken root, unfortunately,’ said Frye.

Schoenfisch disagreed. He said he can see a clear movement afoot within Mission Valley for local residents to begin to take pride in their neighborhood. Schoenfisch said that movement needs encouragement in order to become a legitimate force that can shape Mission Valley’s future.

“There’s still a lot of direction that can be given to the valley,” he said. “For those people that think it’s too late, that it’s lost, I would say come and participate.”

But many Mission Valley inhabitants simply can’t see that happening.

“People just like to keep to themselves and not speak out for anything,” said Evelyn Delgado, who has lived in Mission Valley for 10 years. “None of my neighbors would go to a meeting.”

Residents put the community’s reticence down to a number of things. They argue that Mission Valley, as a young development, simply lacks the community spirit of older, better established neighborhoods. There’s no feeling of collectivism, they said, no feeling of working together.

That leaves Mission Valley in a chicken-and-egg situation. With the collective malaise that seems to have set in, there is little community to get things done. That pressure, it seems, is only likely to grow if the people of Mission Valley have somewhere to congregate, somewhere that makes them feel like a real community instead of a place where people shop. That’s not going to happen until the pressure is put on, and so the vicious circle continues.

But even the environmentalists who have watched in exasperation as the valley disappeared under the gray hues of commerce and the pastel shades of new condo blocks, still have hope.

“It’s not in the least bit too late,” Peugh said. “If people got wise and said ‘gee this is really dumb,’ we could get rid of some of these mistakes.”

“It would take 100 years to do this,” he added, “but it’s taken us 60 years to screw it up.”

Sam Hodgson contributed to this report.

Please contact Will Carless directly at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips.

Coming Tuesday: Every year, there is a chance that Mission Valley will flood catastrophically, but the community has no emergency evacuation plan, and experts admit they simply don’t know what will happen when the big rains come.

Coming Wednesday: The schoolchildren of Mission Valley can’t take a bus to school. There is no bus; there is no school. As Mission Valley’s population continues to boom, there are no plans to give the neighborhood of 18,000 residents their own school.

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