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Renowned architect and urban theorist Leon Krier advocates for dense urban development but rails against the overdevelopment of skyscrapers.

Vertical sprawl is just as bad as horizontal sprawl, he argues, and it creates an unlivable urban environment where wealth is concentrated in one location at the expense of the surrounding area.

“Once every lot is full of skyscrapers, it’s nightmare on earth,” he said.

The Luxemburg-born, London-based author visited San Diego this week for a lecture on urban planning for New School of Architecture students.

He also walked me through Commercial Street in Logan Heights, where city planners are considering maintaining a bleak industrial area next to downtown, rather than re-imagining it as the type of urban village it’s trying to create in other parts of the city.

Here’s what he had to say about it.

It’s a good place for density, but not too much.

“It is very close to town. It could be very well situated. It’s not out in the suburbs, it’s not sprawl, so it would be the right way to densify, but not too much. You must create a fabric. When you do too much, the money investment becomes so important that you cannot have incremental development, and so then you go for economies of scale that give you large car parks, large management, large everything. That leads to enormous buildings, badly built. In 20 years, renovations lead to demolition and reconstruction twice as high, and the cycle of Manhattanism has started, and you can’t stop it.”

The trolley is irrelevant, and our trolley cars are way too big.

“Generally mass transport, it’s a political thing … which doesn’t solve anything for mass transport. It’s political salesmanship. To have mass transport, you need a network, not just one line. On the contrary, you could make a network with small vehicles, instead of these enormous machines that are full only in the morning.”

The street grid is great.

North of Commercial Street, there’s a pretty simple north-south street grid. South of Commercial, many of the streets are oriented on a diagonal. When those streets run into Commercial, it creates some triangular patterns that disrupt the uniform layout.

Krier was quite a fan.

“It’s an interesting occurrence on this grid. That creates unique places. I like those changes quite a lot.”

The area needs a central gathering place.

“You need a real plaza. It’s difficult to reform a whole area, but you can make a center that will become a community center, and therefore change the quality of the whole environment. You can have a very nice place, but it’s not enough to have nice housing, you need a square that has a mixed use, and is in an important location.”

Commercial Street is too wide.

“Some of these streets could be radically narrowed, or completely abandoned. Maybe you make (Commercial Street) a green, except for the (trolley tracks), like in New Orleans.”

Build small buildings on small blocks.

Krier said the area should be filled with buildings that are two to three stories, with four apartments on each floor, so that each one has a corner position that allows in maximum light and air.

And the city should negotiate with property owners to break up the existing block structures by creating public spaces between them, he said. That’d provide a better canvass for the medium density buildings he envisions.

“Once the first are built, it will spread like confetti, because it’s dense urban building but it’s very agreeable. It doesn’t feel dense. It’s a building type that was used in Rome for the middle classes for the last 60, 80, years.”

Andrew Keatts

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at

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