There’s an in vogue term in urban planning that calls for refashioning typical suburban features like shopping malls, office parks and big box stores into spaces more closely resembling urban areas.

“Retrofitting suburbia,” as it’s been called by author, architect and professor Ellen Dunham-Jones, “provides the opportunity to transform the most automobile-dependent landscapes into more sustainable, more urban places,” she wrote in a 2009 essay published by the Urban Land Institute, a development advocacy group.

She called the process the biggest development project of the next 50 years, and if the whole thing sounds like a stereotypical subject for a TED talk, you’re on the right track. Dunham-Jones’ talk on the importance of suburban retrofitting has been viewed over 300,000 times.

The subject has come to San Diego by way of One Paseo, the 1.4 million square foot mixed-use project on 23 acres in Carmel Valley. Since the site is only zoned for 500,000 square feet of office space, approving the project will eventually require City Council to approve an amendment to the area’s community plan.

The “suburban retrofit” concept probably won’t dissuade residents who’ve opposed One Paseo on the grounds it threatens Carmel Valley’s core character. A retrofit by definition means adaptation.

Carmel Valley, located 20 miles north of downtown San Diego, was designed and built after the city commissioned a master plan in 1974. It’s unquestionably a suburban area.

Urban planner Howard Blackson said there are two ways to think about One Paseo, and what it means for Carmel Valley.

“Either One Paseo is the last piece of the 20th century conventional suburban development pattern or it is the first step in rebuilding toward a 21st century mixed-use, walkable, infill redevelopment pattern,” said Blackson, who has done limited consulting work on the project.

In the former scenario, it’s a capstone of a young community that’s almost finished being built out. In the latter, it’s the first step to beginning a second, more urban wave of development.

Michael Stepner, San Diego’s former city architect and a faculty member at the NewSchool of Architecture and Design downtown, said it’s possible it could be both. Stepner is also a hired consultant for the project.

“One is completion of what the original community plan called for,” he said. “And at the same time, you’d hope as things evolve and change, you can think about it in both terms.”

Stepner’s description of the project as the completion of the area’s original community plan vision might strike some as odd, since the 23-acre parcel was zoned for 500,000 square feet of office space in that plan.

But he said he’s speaking of the original plan’s idea of a walkable town center within Carmel Valley, something that never really came together as the community developed.

“The opportunities are still there to deal with that, if you’re willing to look at it as a broad concept,” he said.

The sort of refashioning of a suburban community he’s talking about is where the concept of a suburban retrofit comes in.

The opportunity for suburban retrofitting, Dunham-Jones has written, came in part after the recession brought traditional sprawl development to a halt.

“(It) gives us tremendous opportunities to take our lease sustainable landscapes now, and convert them into more sustainable places, and in the process what that allows us to do is redirect a lot of our growth back into existing communities that could use a boost, and have the infrastructure in place, instead of continuing to tear down trees and tear down the green space out at the edges,” she said in her TED talk.

One Paseo isn’t a perfect embodiment of Dunham-Jones’ concept. It’d be built on an empty lot, and Dunham-Jones mostly focuses on repurposing already built suburban hallmarks like shopping malls.

But Stepner said One Paseo still fits with the big-picture effort of bringing sustainable development concepts to the suburbs.

“You have a 25-acre hole in the community that’s been there forever,” he said. “It can be a catalyst for tying everything back together. You set the example, and maybe the town center across the street can do something that ties things together when it redevelops, then you can retrofit the nearby park, and so on.”

Stepner said he got involved in One Paseo after its developer, Kilroy Realty, presented the project to a public meeting for development professionals during which he sharply criticized the concept for being too isolated, and not focused enough on integrating with the rest of the community.

Working with architect Frank Walden and Blackson, Stepner said the edges of the project have been made more inviting from the outside, the streets a continuation of the rest of the neighborhood, and turned the plazas into areas useful to the whole community, not just typical outdoor mall spaces.

He said he hopes a successful One Paseo can not only catalyze change in Carmel Valley, but serve as a template for more suburban retrofits in San Diego, like in Mission Valley. Planning Director Bill Fulton has said Mission Valley represents an opportunity for the city to plan more effectively.

“Mission Valley has a lot of things going for it: It’s connected to the trolley, but it doesn’t all tie together well,” Stepner said. “How do you tie pieces together so you aren’t just driving from one shopping center to another? Maybe One Paseo is an example, even if Mission Valley requires a totally different process.”

Correction: an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the One Paseo project’s cost.

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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