Eventually, city leaders will decide whether to approve a large urban-style development in Carmel Valley. Key to that decision could be determining whether the project even qualifies as the sort of smart-growth project the city says it wants.

San Diego’s general plan aims to accommodate future population growth by concentrating new housing in dense developments within the city’s urban core and near public transportation.

It’s meant to combat the city’s affordability issues by increasing housing supply, and to create walkable, transit-oriented communities where residents don’t rely on cars.

But it isn’t clear whether One Paseo — a 23-acre, $650 million project in Carmel Valley by Kilroy Realty — counts as a clear-cut win toward that end, even if the city’s environmental review calls the project a “unique opportunity” to achieve that goal.

It’s dense, but it isn’t at all connected to the city’s public transportation system. It’s in an established community, but that community isn’t anywhere near the city’s urban core. It’ll have bike facilities and pedestrian-friendly promenades, in addition to over 3,000 parking spaces. It’s nowhere near the downtown employment center, but it is near Sorrento Valley’s high-tech jobs cluster.

It’s essentially a pop-up downtown, located in the suburbs. Some have called it a “suburban retrofit.”

But one potentially revealing element to the question of whether the project and its 600 condos, 500,000 square feet of office space and 200,000 square feet of retail space fits within a push for a more urban San Diego is that some of the loudest advocates for urbanization aren’t lining up to support it.

Sam Ollinger, executive director of Bike SD, a group that advocates for cycling-friendly projects, told Kilroy her organization wouldn’t endorse One Paseo because the project is primarily car-centric, even if it does have a protected bike lane.

“I truly appreciate all the work and time invested toward making this project give the illusion that it makes Carmel Valley a bike-friendly community,” she wrote. “Auto-centric projects are by default bicycle unfriendly.”

One Paseo did receive the endorsement of the MOVE Alliance, a collection of groups advocating things like public transportation and smart growth, in spite of the project’s reliance on cars.

Jack Shu of the Cleveland National Forest Foundation — the organization that successfully sued the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) because its long-term transportation plan didn’t invest enough in public transportation and fell short of state carbon emission requirements — also opposes the project.

“What I think of it is, it’s a trendy development that may have the look or feel and maybe the terminology of what future development should be like, but in reality and in most ways it is still a development for a car-centric system that is unproductive to our long-term goals,” he said.

Bruce Appleyard, professor of urban planning at San Diego State University, cautioned against taking a binary view.

“I would say that this is better than the alternative of just a monolithic single-use, a 500,000 square foot office complex, that likely would do even less for the area’s suburban character,” he said. “It’s not going to be a panacea that turns everyone into walkers and bikers overnight, but it’s better than the alternative and it seems to me an honest attempt to urbanize a suburban area.”

It’d be better to build a large project like this in the existing urban core, Appleyard said, and yes, ideally you’d put it on a well-connected transportation network.

But he said it’s important to focus on One Paseo’s achievements as well: Some of those 600 condo dwellers will avoid some car trips they’d make in a traditional suburb; the developer says it’ll run shuttles to the Coaster station; it’s a good option for Car-2-Go and ride-sharing options to replace some traditional car trips; and some nearby residents will be able to bike or walk over, especially kids and teenagers.

Carmel Valley’s planning group is expected to decide Thursday whether to give the project its stamp of approval. A few months from then, the City Council will eventually need to make its decision.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the public transit advocacy group that endorsed One Paseo.

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

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